Published as: Batterbury, S.P.J. 2003. Environmental activism and social networks: campaigning for bicycles and alternative transport in West London. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 590: 150-169. (final paper differed slightly).


Environmental Activism and Social Networks: Campaigning for Bicycles and Alternative Transport in West London




Simon Batterbury


Simon Batterbury is Assistant Professor, Department of Geography & Regional Development, University of Arizona, and Visiting Research Fellow, London School of Economics, United Kingdom.



Bicycle planning; London: Ealing; social networks; environmental citizenship; transport.



A key element of sustainable development in cities is the implementation of more effective, equitable, and sustainable forms of transportation. This paper examines the institutional dimensions necessary to promote sustainable transportation, by examining the political and activist coalitions that have attempted to address significant transportation problems in one of the densest transportation networks in the world – West London, UK. The paper looks at how citizens have found ways to cooperate and work with progressive elements in mainstream planning and policy making. This has broken down citizen-expert divides, and coincided with some significant new policy shifts at national, city-wide, and local scales. Using the case of the promotion of cycling as a transport alternative by a small membership organization, the Ealing Cycling Campaign, the paper sets out key lessons for forging and maintaining an environmentally based social network. These lessons include: building and maintaining an activist core, working with the politically possible, gaining credibility through demonstrating competence in research and practical initiatives, sacrificing time and energy to gain trust, seeing through local Agenda 21 projects and using this process creatively, developing symbolic high - impact projects, challenging empty statements and poorly thought out policies, and effective publicity. These strategies are of wider relevance to urban environmental movements and to those committed to local environmental citizenship, but controversial since they require active cooperation with the local government rather than radical opposition to it.  Environmental citizenship needs to be founded on social realities, and conduced in mainstream political systems if it is to be effective in complex urban environments.




“Sustainable development requires significant changes in our transportation system to increase economic efficiency, equity, and environmental security. This cannot be achieved simply by changing vehicle designs or improving traffic flow. It requires changing the way transportation professionals approach problems, and how individuals behave as citizens and consumers.” Litman (1999)


“I wouldn't call it a reducing of the standard of living, but a simplifying of our way of living. And I think it would be good for us ... be good for us to do more walking, or to ride bicycles to school instead of driving a car.” Edward Abbey (1982) 


Urban sustainability and transport

This paper offers some evidence of how urban environmental movements based on a sense of environmental “citizenship” have responded to injustices and deficiencies in urban transport networks and infrastructure. As a contribution to this special issue on current themes in sustainable development (Fernando, 2003) I focus specifically on the opportunities opened up by active cooperation between different citizen groups, and the state – particularly the local government - in a period when new forms of metropolitan governance and political decentralization are widespread. In certain cases this opens up new possibilities for citizen involvement in formal planning and, more generally, in the policy process. The empirical material for the paper is drawn from the global city of London, United Kingdom, where a transportation ‘crisis’ has existed for many years.


A sustainable transportation system is integral to almost all aspects of city life:  work, leisure, emergency planning, and to the ways in which the city is “nested” within the region and the national political economy. Sustainable urban environments require sustainable forms of transportation, and overcoming automobile dominance and congestion. Unsustainable transport systems have tended to persist from many reasons.  Previous rounds of infrastructure investment, conceived and built when attitudes to energy use and design in the transport sector were different, have a lasting imprint in cities.[1] In North America, the most frequent response to rising vehicle ownership and roadway congestion in the 20th century was simply to expand the road network, thus generating more road use. Robert Moses’ (1888-1981) decision to carve up New York’s neighborhoods with massive freeway construction in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s transformed the urban landscape of New York City and was considered a dark moment by many urban planning and community activists (Merrifield 2002).  Major public investments in alternative transportation modes including light rail and efficient buses and trains, have been confined to just a few cities, for example to Portland and Seattle.  The overarching problem in the United States, and elsewhere, is that the growth in private vehicle numbers in cities and high levels of consumption and hyper-mobility have appeared as consequences of modernity. While public transportation, especially for commuting to work, has in some cases offered realistic alternatives to the car, it requires an extremely strong planning system to function well, combined with an adequate capital investment programme and willing customers. It is extremely difficult for public transport to keep pace with a growing population and workforce and (as all readers of this journal will be aware), it is often difficult to pry urban residents from their private vehicles, even for simple urban journeys for which alternatives exist.

My focus will be on the conditions under which small and sustainable changes to transportation systems can be produced. Lasting change to the urban streetscape and transport modes will involve major commitments by urban and transportation managers, rather than the piecemeal implementation of stop-gap measures like road widening schemes, or new restrictions on car parking. But certain of these commitments, for example investment in light rail networks, or the imposition of some form of eco-taxation to deemphasize private vehicle use, have always been a political battleground. Roads and railways are public space; and the design and use of public space is a political battleground in the modern city (Staeheli and Thompson, 1997, Mitchell 2000). Transport policy divides political parties, social classes, and neighborhoods and any attacks on the ease of vehicle use tend to antagonize voters. The lessons from some of the best transportation systems in western cities, for example Copenhagen in Denmark (where 34% cycle to work and bike lanes have been carved out of the major roads, car ownership is low, and public transport has received huge investment) is that political conflicts over funding and maintaining the transport system are almost inevitable.


Partnerships and coalitions between the state and movements can occur, alongside and parallel to, acts of resistance.


London is an interesting case not only because its transport system is currently overloaded and car use is so high, but also because of its strong planning system and the wide range of actors involved in decision-making, from planners to private developers and lobbyists (from local residents though car commuters to conservationists and green anarchists). Urban social moments can, and frequently do, arise around urban transportation issues. In The city and the grassroots, Manuel Castells argued that inequalities in access to collective consumption facilities (e.g. leisure, shopping and health facilities) help to create the frustrations and sense of injustice that actually create the major targets of some new types of urban social movements (Castells 1983 319). An active engagement in politics (which involves struggling for local democracy and for decentralization of territorial control) - seem to mark out those movements, along with the formation of new cultural identities (Dryzek et al 2003). For Castells, new social movements are largely oppositional in nature. Yet if we shift the gaze to non-profits and movements fighting for more sustained urban transportation, a rather different picture emerges:  loose coalitions and small groups that move between opposition to local and city government and active collusion with it.  We see multiple actors struggling to control and influence ‘transportation discourses’. Partnerships and coalitions between the state and movements can occur, alongside and parallel to, acts of resistance. Urban transportation infrastructure, and transportation behavior in London result from a constellation of competing actors that struggle over technological choices, financing, the planning process, and public space. Urban transportation therefore has a distinctive environmental politics, the playing out of which is etched into the landscape.


Lessons from Britain and London


London is Britain’s capital city, and one of a handful of global cities linked into truly international networks of finance, capital, and movement. The administrative unit called Greater London had 7.1 million people in 2001, although its hinterland is much larger than this. The city’s transport authority, Transport for London, estimates that 27.3 million journeys are made in Greater London every day, with 8.5 million on public transport (4.5 million by bus; 3 million by subway; and 1 million by rail). Some 11 million journeys are made by car or motorcycle, 7 million on foot, and only 0.3 million by bicycle. The volume of flights from London’s five passenger airports is also high. London experiences the most intense and widespread road congestion in the country; vehicles in inner London averaged less than 10 mph in the years 1998-2000 and only 3mph in the central business district, the slowest average in the postwar period. It is generally believed – by central government officials as well as local planners – that much of the road network is stretched to capacity, particularly during the working week. Air quality monitoring shows frequent breaches of national pollution guidelines for nitrogen dioxide and other compounds (even carcinogens like benzene), caused predominantly by fossil fuel emissions. In addition, the railroads and the subway (The Tube) are expensive, and consistently overcrowded during peak periods, exacerbated by even a minor accident, breakdown or adverse weather.   2 These networks have suffered a lack of investment over many decades resulting in frequent service interruptions and delays. These and other frustrations have become a part of everyday life for all Londoners, and while some of them have endured for decades, it has been in the 1990s that public concerns saw a marked increase (Collins and Pharoah 1974). These concerns were driven in part by a series of rail accidents caused by poor track maintenance and errors made during a period of rail privatization. [see footnote 3]A cascade of high level resignations; acrimony between the government, private rail companies and the aggrieved public; and a massive overhaul of the rail network followed these incidents.

Transport policy rose to the top of the national political agenda in the late 1990s when Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott took over the government’s transport portfolio, and called for massive investment in a new British transportation system, with government backing (Tempest 2002). He pronounced boldly in 1998 that “Labour's aim is simple and indeed ambitious. It is to transform our transport's infrastructure over the next ten years, and to make Britain's transport the rival of any in Europe” (Panorama 2003). But other factions within the Labour government felt Prescott’s sweeping transport proposals, which included eco-taxation and a national congestion reduction target of 6% over a relatively short period (Department for Transport, 1998) would be interpreted by the voting public as anti-car in their sentiment and detail. Five years later Prescott’s vision does indeed seem unrealistic - road use is rising rather than falling, partly in response to continuing safety fears about rail transport. Train delays have increased. As a result of political jockeying, the binding legislation that followed the 1998 report, The Transport Act (Department for Transport, 2000) was a watered-down strategic document, a sop to the “middle England car owning traveling public” (Panorama 2003) that promotes buses and cycling but effectively ‘passed the buck’ for any moderately anti-car measures back down to local governments. Local governments were not provided with substantial funding for major new initiatives, and still have little control over the mass transportation systems that serve their areas. They were permitted to close roads temporarily if pollution reached danger levels, and to be more innovative in tackling congestion and road safety. In December 2002 the new Transport Secretary unveiled a £5.5bn package [convert to dollars??? Aren’t billions different in Europe to USA? 1000 million or 100 million?) of transport improvements nationally, of which over £3bn is to be spent on road building and road expansion (Department for Transport, 2002). In sum, nation policy has seen a "u-turn" on Prescott’s desire to promote low-fossil fuel emission transport, and a return to ‘business as usual’ on road-building.

While the national picture has given environmentalists much cause for concern in recent years, London has developed its own transport debate. A rise in traffic volume can be traced back to the 1840s, and was the subject of a Royal Commission enquiry at that time. Suburban rail and Underground (Tube) routes expanded in the late 1800s, permitting the gradual extension of the metropolis around these major transport networks. The real escalation in London car ownership occurred from the early 1950s when post-war fuel restrictions were lifted, but policies on vehicle use and parking in London at that time were laissez-faire (Collins and Pharoah, 1974:24). It took some time for the growth in motor vehicle use and problems in public transport management to be addressed by the planning system. Some quite innovative ideas, such as a short-lived major reduction in Tube fares to increase demand, were introduced by the Greater London Council (GLC), but this body was disbanded in 1986 by the Thatcher government amid a storm of political controversy. During the period 1986-2000, there was, effectively, no London government, so policy and funding delivered from central government was amended and administered and though the elected local government system, which comprises the 33 London Borough Councils. These institutions date back to the year 1000, and are elected bodies[4]. However, the new Labour government of 1997 committed to reinstating a democratically elected metropolitan government, which was restored in 2000 and named the Greater London Authority (GLA). Strategic planning functions are today split between the 33 Boroughs (themselves with restructured governance mechanisms as set out under two Local Government Acts, 1999 and 2000), the GLA, which has an $8 billion budget, and central government. Central government has been reluctant to devolve all its powers to the GLA, making it an unusual institution with piecemeal powers (Travers 2002). The GLA makes strategic decisions on transport but does not control private transport firms; it provides funds to local government for road improvements and other transport schemes.


It is hard to escape the conclusion that governance in London has been a political football, and that successive administrations have moved the goalposts.  Three levels - national, metropolitan and local (Borough) now operate, but for fourteen years, there was no metropolitan government. The GLA is now headed by the populist “true Londoner,” Ken Livingstone, as Mayor. The irony of Mayor Livingstone’s appointment has not been lost on the British public; he was also the person who headed the GLC in the 1980s when it attracted Thatcher’s ire. His reappointment was seen in some quarters as a posthumous dagger in the side of Thatcherite Conservatism but he is highly unpopular with New Labour too. Livingstone won the election as an independent after being expelled from the Labour party for standing against its official candidate.


In 2000 Livingstone said that “The single biggest problem for London and Londoners is the gridlock of our transport system. Remedying this will be my first priority.”[5] Indeed, some major policy shifts have occurred in the city since 2000, and these mark this administration out from central government which as I have shown, is retreating to a pro-motorist stance. Livingstone has, as of February 2003, instituted an $8 ‘congestion charge’ for almost all motorized vehicles wishing to enter inner London during the daytime in midweek. No other western city of this size has ever tried this form of eco-taxation (there are some schemes in Norway and in Singapore), and Londoners are split as to its desirability since it requires a huge surveillance apparatus, and is perceived as a tax on car use and legitimate small business activity. The London bus service has been significantly enhanced across the capital, with changes to ticketing and the installation of more and more dedicated bus lanes (which have, of course, reduced the width of the carriageway for other vehicles). The management of the London Underground has been a serious battle over which the government and the Mayor have serious disagreements, most of them caused by the government’s enthusiasm for ‘public private partnerships.’ A watered-down partnership for the Tube has finally been pushed through, against strenuous GLA (and public) opposition. 


If we now look at local government, we find an equally numerous set of policy changes. In the London Boroughs, local transportation issues are handled in slightly different ways by each Borough. For example, The Borough of Ealing (Figure 1) is an outer west London borough that contains a mix of residential areas, industrial districts, urban parkland, and several major commercial centers including Ealing town center, and Southall, a suburb dominated by people of South Asian descent. Although once christened “Queen of the Suburbs” for its affluent, well manicured housing tracts, there is also significant urban deprivation.  Ten of the Borough’s 25 wards (administrative sub-units) rank among the most deprived in the country. The U.K. national census in 2001 reveals that 41.3% of Ealing residents are from an ethnic minority, (9.1% nationally, and 28.8% across London as a whole). Some 38.9% travel to work by car compared to 33.5% across London,  23.4% of 16 to 74 year olds in the Borough travel to work by Tube (above the London average of 18.9%), and 10.7% use a bus. Although it is germane to the discussion below, the use of bikes for commuting is low at 2.2% (about 3,150 people daily).


In Ealing, transport matters were for many years handled by a team of career planners and engineers, employed by the Borough, with specialist knowledge in this area. There was only limited public consultation on transport schemes like pedestrianization of shopping areas or traffic calming, since very little was required.  Nonetheless some of the major proposals had to be taken for approval to a Borough Transport committee consisting of elected local Councilors, to be debated and voted through. Planners received money for transport works from central government by submitting a ‘grant proposal’ called the Transport Policies and Proposals (TPP) document. When the money was received, Council workers would labor to repair roadways, improve sidewalks, and so-on before the next funding deadline. Under a now-defunct Thatcherite experiment called Compulsory Competitive Tendering, these latter services were forced by law to be subcontracted out to the lowest-bidding private contracting firms (Theobald and Patterson 1996). This resulted in an extra layer of complication and frequent arguments between the Council and the contractors. In an effort to save costs, the contractor firm could, and often did, engage lowly paid and frequently poorly trained staff.[6] Since 2000 when the Local Government Act came into force, Ealing Council has received greater autonomy over the budget for transport planning and has reorganized its structure of committees and decision-making mechanisms. It now receives its budget from the GLA, bidding for money to support Local Transport Plans (the process is similar in many respects to the TPP).


Ealing has, like several other London Boroughs, developed a coherent policy towards environmental issues. Aside from making some effort to ‘green’ its own activities as a major employer generating environmental impacts, its various departments are involved in anything from pollution monitoring to the management of parks and open space, and it employs a full-time Sustainability Coordinator, who has worked hard to bring community and local authority elements together.  His team organizes research on environmental issues, has been involved in creating a Green Travel Plan for Council employees, hosts annual environmental events, and liaises with local organizations and groups. In addition, under the banner of Local Agenda 21 (a worldwide planning and policy framework widely adopted following its launch at the UN Environment Conference in 1992), a small group of citizens, planners and businesspersons meet regularly to discuss key areas of local sustainability and Council policy. Ealing’s Local Agenda 21 (see works in an advisory and voluntary role only, so whether these ideas become policy and get implemented is primarily dependent on the availability of Council funding and the political process. Several high-profile Councilors have embraced environmental causes, and Ealing is regarded as one of the more progressive London Boroughs in this regard.


Environmental social networks and citizenship

There are many citizens and nonprofit groups in London who clearly believe that better urban transportation systems are a pressing concern, and achievable. Citizens’ involvement takes several forms. Frustration and complaints are fueled daily by delays and gridlock, evidence of incompetence, safety breaches, frequent strikes by unionized Tube, rail and bus workers, and even by high fuel prices (peaking in September 2000 when fuel depots were actually blockaded by the public, almost paralyzing public services for a week). Such sentiments can also drive specific interest groups and movements to form around issues like neighborhood safety, commuting, and organizations to promote walking, cycling, rail use, driving, cycling, and other transport modes. Some community members who are concerned about green issues or the lack or attention to urban sustainability policies more generally, also participate in networks of groups concerned with urban transportation.


In Britain, environmental groups have gathered sufficient momentum to be able to influence formal politics. In the middle 1990s examples included the actions of  radical ‘green warriors' who had some success at halting some new road building schemes through direct action (road building is an issue that has always exercised environmental activists much more than in the United States). The highly controversial This Land is Ours campaign occupied a vacant commercial development site in central London and turned it into an urban eco-village for several weeks as a protest against land speculation and housing shortages. Reclaim the Streets staged several street parties that blocked freeways and major roads through the 1990s. At the national level, environmental organizations frequently berate the government for selling out it on its pre election promises, and failing to prioritize sustainability and environmental reform. As Dryzek et al (2003) show, Britain‘s major environmental organizations (like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace) have consistently adapted to a changing regulatory and political environment through ‘professionalizing’ their activities away from gung-ho radicalism, and membership of environmental organizations is believed to be higher than membership of political parties (Pepper 1996). Some, like Friends of the Earth (and the London Cycle Campaign, discussed below), operate efficiently through local ‘cells’ that work on issue relevant to each London Borough.


Environmental groups, I believe, often function as ‘social networks’. While members of such networks may exercise their citizenship rights by voicing opinions about governance and participating in the democratic process, they also operate with shared values and form networks of trust (Staeheli & Thompson, 1997, Pepper 1996). This sense of shared values is important since it distinguishes such groups from labor unions or neighborhood based organizations, where the ties between members are very different. Evans (1994) suggested that with increasing mobility, affluence and ethnic and class diversity in suburbs like those of West London, social networks of like-minded individuals come together for specific goals and projects. There are parallels here with Castells’ ‘new social movements’, but the tasks they perform are rather different and perhaps more mundane. Participants often use email, listserves, newsletters, websites and telephone more often than face-to-face meetings, but they also operate with some level of consensus on the values that guide their participation and any activities that the network performs. They agree to share tasks and responsibilities, like lobbying and community service (Campfens 1997). Values guiding the social network, if they are formalized at all, might coalesce around a form of  ‘environmental citizenship’, but individuals within the network may have differing visions of what this means, and different reasons for participating. 


The presence of such networks in West London is made easier by the high population density, relatively high incomes, and the wider range of issues around which people of different social classes and ethnic backgrounds have chosen to organize and agitate. These networks include organic gardening clubs, local economic trading groups using alternative currencies, and ‘time banks’ for volunteers, cycling organizations, and the local cells of national and international non-profits. Their presence has coincided with a greater degree of public participation in planning matters and local government policymaking since the 1990s. In the case of transport campaigning in West London, active social networks have coincided with greater transparency in the local planning process, and more inventive solutions to congestion and road pollution such as ‘Safe Routes to School’ for children, an ambitions plan to create a London Cycle Network of relatively safe and well-connected cycle tracks designed for both commuting and leisure use (now over 500 miles long across London), and traffic calming measures. Community consultation, rather than hasty and secretive Council spending, is now the norm (Elster 2000). Even Mayor Livingstone’s new interest in cycling (which may itself be the effect of several years of tireless lobbying by cyclists!) has provided new opportunities across London – the GLA funded a series of free publications available at Tube stations and information points, together with 19 detailed cycle maps covering London (Andrews et al 2003). The GLA is now funding a Cycling Centre of Excellence (under the leadership of a tireless advocate, Rose Ades), and ‘bike stations’ at some major commuter nodes are planned.


All of these initiatives have received impetus from non- profit groups and local organizations of various types. I will demonstrate how the experience on one particular ‘new social network’, a local branch of the London Cycling Campaign, forged alliances and had a productive involvement in the formal planning of urban sustainability.


Campaigning locally on transport issues


Campaigning by social networks, or individuals, does not always require a political position that is wholly ‘outside’ the existing bureaucracy of city governance – some groups tend to work best when they engage actively with formal state institutions, since these are the gatekeepers of the metropolitan streetscape. In doing so, they risk “cooption” (Dryzek et al 2003) of their key agenda, as well as being “used” by state institutions that may operate with much more bureaucratic constraint, and fewer fresh ideas.  There are, therefore, dangers to partnerships and cooperation.


To tempt Londoners onto a bike requires ‘sticks’ (e.g. eco-taxes and other market-based instruments, and a much less car-friendly streetscape) and ‘carrots’ (integrating of public transport and bikes/pedestrians, secure bike parking and cycle routes, employer incentive schemes, and employer mileage allowances for bike use).


The promotion of urban bicycle use is a case in point. Collins and Pharaoh, writing in the 1970s, devote only half a page to bicycles in their 700 page assessment on London’s transport needs, noting vaguely that there was “even less information about cyclists than pedestrians, even though it is known that cycle traffic has declined sharply over the post-war period” (1974: 516). Bicycle use was clearly out of synch with the modernism, new technologies, and higher speeds of Londoners in the fashionable 1960s and early 1970s. Yet as I have noted, cycling rose again in public consciousness in the 1990s despite its much diminished contribution to urban transportation. The reasons were numerous but linked to personal ‘mode choice’ -  road congestion and pollution in the city, and the rising costs of car use, propelling at least 300,000 Londoners to keep cycling daily by the end of the decade, despite the same indifferent weather and poor road conditions as before.[7] Cycling five miles to work is not uncommon; many travel much longer distances[8]. Some commuters combine biking with public transport, or use bikes as a matter of necessity to cut through stationary traffic and heavy road congestion. Cycling is a missing link in London’s transport infrastructure. It delivers exercise and therefore health (Hillman 1992); it uses no fossil fuels; it is quiet: it takes up little road or parking space - in other words, it is sustainable and inexpensive (Andrews et al 2003).[9] It cannot, of course, be the mode of choice for those with very long urban journeys unless many more bikes may be carried on public transport; it is not an option for people in all types of occupations by any means; or for those with physical disabilities or for the very young or very old. It is better for distributing people efficiently, rather than heavy goods. But raising the proportion of cycling journeys in London made by millions of adult commuters would have immeasurable benefits for Londoners, and for the quality of streetscapes and air quality – even if the very high percentages of cycling journeys attained in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and other European and Asian cities are unlikely. To tempt skeptical Londoners onto a bike requires ‘sticks’ (e.g. eco-taxes and other market-based instruments, a much less car-friendly streetscape) and ‘carrots’ (integrating of public transport and bikes/pedestrians, secure bike parking and cycle routes, employer incentive schemes, and employer mileage allowances for bike use) (McClintock, 2002).


The Ealing Cycling Campaign is a branch of the London Cycling Campaign (LCC) (see The LCC is a city-wide non-profit organization operating from a small central office, that campaigns for cyclists’ rights in the capital city, and thereby for improvements to health and safety through cleaner air, better bike facilities, and lower accident rates on London’s roads ( It is a member organization founded in 1978.[10] An early LCC success was the lobbying of the Greater London Council to build a bike-friendly scheme at Albert Gate in Central London. Membership services, publicity and campaigns, a bi-monthly magazine, and a ‘name and shame’ campaign to highlight poor road maintenance (the “buckled wheel of the year award”, given to the worst London Borough) soon developed their own momentum. Close links were established with the GLC by the 1980s but following the GLC’s demise, the LCC was particularly successful at spawning local ‘cells’ of members in most London Boroughs, who concerned themselves exclusively with the promotion of cycling and campaigning in that local area.  Today, most London Boroughs have local LCC groups and these are heavily engaged in public outreach and organized leisure rides, lobbying, planning matters, and other campaigns that could broadly be identified with ‘pro-cycling’ concerns. The Borough groups, linked to head office via email listserves, have no official ‘anti-car’ stance, although this can be the politics of many active members.


Ealings’ group, the ECC, dates to the 1990s, and became particularly active after 1995 when it was re-constituted by five individuals, most of whom had no prior experience at group organizing but a strong commitment to bicycle travel.  An agreement to hold monthly meetings was made, that has continued to this day.  The group has been run with a core team of five to twelve activists at any one time, who represent around 300 members in Ealing who subscribe to the LCC publications and hold a membership card. While the social makeup of the membership is diverse and varies over time, there is a preponderance of male members (66% male, in a small sample survey – ECC 2002) although a variety of professions are represented. Motivations for participation in the group range from anger (e.g. ‘let us do something’!) to safeguarding a leisure activity (e.g. ‘I like cycling with the kids at weekends, and want to reserve that right’). What keeps the group going is a mutual, altruistic effort by the core group to pitch in and assist at certain events or with certain tasks, according to time, ability and skills; there is no hierarchy or exhortations to participate, and the budget is below $500 annually.  Members may remain dormant for months, to become re-activated when pressures of outside work subside, or when an issue seizes them. 


An early realization of the group was that local Councils – including Ealing – have to act on sustainable transport issues; a changing national planning system gave them no choice. The TPP submission to central government had to contain up-to-date road planning and environmental proposals, as does the new system of GLA-funded Local Transport Plans that has replaced it. Faced with this, some persistence from 1995-6 resulted in the small team of Ealing Council transport planners being prepared to draw ECC members into consultations and, finally, into planning some proposed road projects like new bike lanes and cycle parking schemes. For ECC, this required the establishment of personal contacts with key Council officials, and exploiting political opportunities within the local government bureaucracy. Aggressive complaining against new road schemes that ignored cyclists, was combined with blatant flattery when such schemes were successfully revised. Letters addressed to junior Council staff were copied to senior managers, in order to force a reply. Yet progress was sometimes slow. Transport planners, all with professional qualifications and socialization into their own expert culture, were sometimes hesitant to draw in members of ECC who were perceived as part-time non-professionals. In order to overcome this, ECC had to demonstrate its own competence as amateur planners and report-writers, producing several widely-read documents and conducting street surveys (Batterbury 1997, Batterbury et al 1996, EFoE and ECC 1999).  It also counted at least two professional engineers among its membership, and by 2003, at least four activists had held jobs in the Council, one working with the Sustainability Coordinator himself, and another running cycling training programs and serving as Cycling Officer. ECC also aligned strongly with other pro-environmentalist camps within the Council, to gain support for its campaigns.


. . . .  where the local government is steering a course more accommodating to social justice and sustainability, and retains a modicum of honesty and efficiency in its actions despite its bureaucratic procedures, a strategy of cooperation can open up significant and lasting political spaces, as well as contribute something to friendlier urban streetscapes.


One way in which ECC could demonstrate its ‘competence' was by applying for and winning external funding. Working with the Local Agenda 21 Transport Group and Thames Valley University, a research proposal was submitted late in 1995 to a government funding pool set up by Sir George Young, the Conservative Secretary of State for Transport.  The successful application was one of only eight funded in London.[11] The project attracted incredulity when it was first suggested, but it was then heartily supported by the Council. This project tried to improve environmental and transport awareness at a key Ealing employer. Thames Valley University is based from an urban campus in central Ealing and employs several thousand people in addition to a large student population, many drawn from Ealing’s less advantaged wards. It had no well developed environmental strategy and almost no provision for bicycles.  The project funded $20,000 of new cycle racks on campus as well as workshop sessions on attitudes to cycling, classroom activities, a competition to win 15 free bikes, training workshops for nervous staff, and ‘fix it’ sessions to get rusty old bikes out of the garage, repaired, and back on the road. ECC refined these initiatives through initial user surveys that revealed generally positive attitudes towards cycling and cyclists, and specific suggestions for improvements including better bike security and more education about transport issues (Batterbury 1997).

The project concluded with a large meeting hosted by TVU, at which local residents, students and staff heard talks by several key individuals and held a debate. The project, although not wholly successful, raised important issues and provided a small legacy of local improvements to cycle access and bike use. Projects like these are hard to get off the ground, and tend to run against a prevailing indifference unless significant benefits can be realized. In this case, mutual benefit for the University, the Council, and cyclists were consistently juggled to maintain momentum.


In order to gain trust from the community, from other community groups, and from the Council, the ECC core group also participated in a number of local public 'events'. The key aim of these meetings is to connect official politics (those who hold power) with local residents, and they attract a wide range of participants, as well as significant publicity opportunities and press coverage (Dobson 1995). These have included participation in several national events such as the “Don't Choke Britain Campaign” (with local programs in Ealing annually since 1996), National Bike Week (annually since 1996), and several town meetings on local transport issues. National Bike Week activities have included leading a leisure bike ride for families (often with key local politicians participating), a day of free bicycle maintenance called Doctor Bike where passers-by could receive basic repairs and information, and in 1997 a larger event in a local park, co-hosted with an organization that showcased adapted bikes for the disabled. Again, this event was attended by a local Member of Parliament who posed for the press, thus reinforcing the link to formal politics.  In 1996, the group co-organized a meeting called Taming Local Traffic with Friends of the Earth, and the Council for the Protection of Rural England. At the meeting a local Council official framed the problem nicely when he said that “the wheels of local government often grind too slowly for impatient activists.” But the Council (and the local MP) explained their policies and responded to criticisms from the public, and the audience at least pinned them down to verbal commitments to improving local transport.


Although participation in these public events and meetings may seem to be a logical extension of the activities of a small lobbying network like ECC, preparing for them takes up considerable time, and all group members work on a voluntary basis in their spare hours. It was noticeable that ECC was asked to participate by the same Council staff that had for several weeks been studiously ignoring their submissions on road design or other community issues.  Thus, while it was expedient for the Council to demonstrate that 'community groups' were working with them (and, indeed, putting many hours of service), there was a great difference between this rather mild form of citizen “participation” and the much stronger form - real inclusion in formal planning - that ECC was seeking. The payoff in terms of public exposure and debate, however, was very valuable from all of these activities.


A further avenue to inclusion, however, was provided by the local Agenda 21 process (LA21). LA21 groups are far less common in the United States than in Britain, where they would never have been permitted by the grey bureaucratic structures of previous decades of local government. Their guiding philosophy is that everybody with a stake in a locale or region may assert their right to participate in semi-structured forums for debating and planning the future of that area. 'Citizens' and local Councils can benefit from lively and informed discussion in committees and working groups. In Ealing, a ‘network’ of individuals, in which cyclist campaigners became involved, formed the Local Agenda 21 Transport Group in 1995 and have produced a number of papers looking at the future design of Ealing's transport systems. These included a detailed and comprehensive document outlining the need for innovative traffic engineering measures and high profile traffic management projects (Batterbury et al 1996).  Other LA21 groups have looked at air pollution, waste management, biodiversity and design of urban spaces, and by the late 1990s, Ealing's Agenda 21 process had produced several ideas that became incorporated in the Council’s own Master plans and policies. This demonstrated a clear link between formal and citizen planning. The LA21 Transport Group supported reductions in car use and the promotion of sustainable forms of moving about West London, and the Council gave us a space to hold meetings and a totally free rein to come up with new ideas. Although the work of LA21 has arguable peaked in the late 1990s when its main documents were completed, it has been sustained ever since, despite occasionally dissolving into partisan discussions of relatively minor issues. 


In the pursuit of a safe and pollution free road network, the ECC and the LA21 group proposed the notion of investing time to develop a few 'high impact' schemes that send a message about sustainable transport.  David Pepper calls such symbolic actions ’prefiguring’ the future (Pepper 1996) – creating enduring small examples of good practice. The ECC assisted in drawing up a proposal for a centrally located, but rather risky and difficult to engineer, scheme to supply the main railway station in Ealing with a direct, dedicated cycle lane that ran counter to the traffic direction on a one-way street.  The idea behind this plan was to send a clear message to motorists about road priorities, reclaiming some road space from cars and linking this to better bike parking facilities outside the station.  Although the bid was rejected for funding by the Department of Transport in 1996, it has remained on the agenda of certain Council officials and has appeared in several planning documents, suggesting it may receive future funding. Being a controversial scheme, it reached the front pages of the local newspaper and provoked a mixture of angry and supportive responses from local residents. Its significance is that it was initially proposed by a local ECC member, and only later taken up and supported by the Council’s transport contractor. It is extraordinary that the scheme proceeded as far as it did, if one considers the generally low level of public involvement in transport planning in the UK at that time.


Small social networks can only provide ‘carrots’ – only regulatory bodies and the state itself can provide the ‘sticks.


As one of Britain’s premier environmental intellects, George Monbiot, has noted, effective and honest publicity is vital for environmental campaigners of all hues (  ECC contacts its own local membership through exploiting the LCCs own mail shots and sending them a regular Ealing Newsletter. As the internet has grown in significance, the group transferred its archive to a frequently updated and public web site that is now linked to other sites, including the Council’s own.  It has also reported its activities in the local newspapers, and got the Council to pay for handbills and posters for National Bike Week and other events.  It has successfully participated in staged commuter 'races' between bikes and motorists and public transport users - always a hit with the local media since the bike invariably wins.  From 1997 until 2001, an LA21 member who is decidedly pro-car, claimed to represent the 'voice of the people' in Ealing.  By exposing the anti-car policies of the LA21 group to the local newspaper and prompting an editorial, a debate was set up that echoed through the letters page for weeks, and led to good coverage of other transport-related events. This public debate has been continued over the last three years in relation to the Borough’s major east-west thoroughfare, the Uxbridge Road. Long targeted by ECC for major upgrades and a dedicated cycle lane (EFoE and ECC 1999), safe and speedy travel on this strategic road had proven impossible. TFL now plan to run a new urban tramway along a significant stretch of this road, which has added a new angle to the debate; in brief, trams and bikes can mix, but should cars be diverted to surrounding streets to make room for the tramway?  It had not been built as of 2003, but public protest for and against the scheme suggests this bold initiative is forming opinion on alternative solutions to local transport congestion.




The activities described above required a good understanding of the politically possible, and a combination of skills. What are their limitations of such a strategy of cooperation and partnership by a small social network? Perhaps the greatest is that the activities of ECC and similar groups do not make significant challenges to other aspects of human behavior in cities. They are concentrated around single-issues, constrained spatially, and, by their very nature, will be exclusive to certain individuals and groups. They appeal to a constituency of citizens who are already cyclists, or who are close to seriously considering cycling and alternative transport modes due to delays, accidents or even ill-heath. As Andrews et al (2003:8) say, “when you cycle in London you become part of a community, a diverse kinship of couriers, racers, tourers, commuters, students and professionals who all get the same buzz and benefits from travel on two wheels, as well as a mutual awareness of London’s unique cycling environment.” Andrews et al are really referring to a minority network rather than a community. Groups like ECC are not about developing social capital or Castells’ new identity politics – they are trying to reach out more widely to people, and planners. But such groups clearly form part of the ‘alternative’ approach to transport that is supported by the Greater London Authority and by certain elements in the national government. Yet the latter’s hands are tied by questions of electability and anti-car accusations from voters, and we should recognize that for the majority of Britons trapped in patterns of over-consumption, or who have real need for vehicular travel (the disabled, the elderly, small businesses owners), the actions of these and similar lobbying groups are no more than an irrelevance. The key point here is that lobbying by social networks cannot enforce sustainable patterns of travel behavior among urban citizens. It can only probe, suggest, and help provide modifications to the road network and urban streetscape. To actually promote a move away from fossil fuel powered vehicles in London, comprehensive urban planning must be combined with more radical actions that promote, legislate, and enforce sustainable systems. This is why influencing policymakers in local government is absolutely essential.


The ultimate aim is to generate sufficient groundswell opinion to overcome the major financial, bureaucratic, and behavioral barriers that constrain the adoption of a real  new transport agenda – something that has so far eluded planners and politicians since the 1970s.  Such an agenda must go much further than the half-hearted measures currently being considered; it would have streets and public transportation that have space for us all, key employers and public institutions that are responsible for the journeys made by their workforce, and children that can walk and cycle in safety as they grow up in a pluralistic, multi-mode transport culture that de-emphasizes car reliance; all enforced by a variety of legal and economic instruments. Small social networks like ECC can only provide ‘carrots’ – only regulatory bodies and the state itself can provide the ‘sticks.’ The effort of ECC to nudge urban planners towards doing this in Ealing are an early, partially successful example of partnership.


Planning is too important to be left to planners – especially those that don’t ride a bike.  The micro-geography of the urban streetscape is best managed, and made more friendly and sustainable, by a coalition of citizens and professionals.


The argument in this paper has been that today’s urban realities call for a different form of organizing and lobbying, namely social networks of concerned citizens, and, in West London, partnerships with the local authorities that are entrusted with the bulk of transport and environmental planning. Planning is too important to be left to planners – especially those that don’t ride a bike. The micro-geography of the urban streetscape is best managed, and made more friendly and sustainable, by a coalition of citizens and professionals. This does not necessarily require social movements that are largely oppositional and free of influence from the state, as Escobar and Esteva have famously supported in the context of rural third world development (Escobar 1995; Esteva 1992). But it does require that the new breed of social networks like the ECC invest considerable energies in fostering, and maintaining, a working relationship with elements of the local government while retaining their own political space for action and debate. ECC has gone beyond agitation and uniquely aggressive lobbying. They, and similar groups, are not trying to drive the juggernaut of public policy, but attempting to steer it in new directions. While our understanding of new social movements and the politics of resistance highlights the necessity of strong opposition and resistance (Agyeman et al 2003, Peet and Watts 1996, Dryzek et al 2003) it is important to remember that the actions of such movements always try to fit the social and political context in which they arose and in which they were sustained. For Escobar and Esteva, a corrupt, duplicitous and westernized state in Latin America lacks credibility and was invariably hostile to community autonomy.  The evasive and anti-environmental actions of some governments and corporations certainly require an aggressive posture and strong social movements. Yet where the local government is steering a course more accommodating to social justice and sustainability, and retains a modicum of honesty and efficiency in its actions despite its bureaucratic procedures, a strategy of cooperation can open up significant and lasting political spaces, as well as contribute something to friendlier urban streetscapes. Although some activists will disagree, London is now in a position to benefit from such efforts.


Edward Abbey, the curmudgeonly American writer and environmentalist who provided my opening quotation, died in Arizona in 1989, before too many of his neighbors took to walking or riding the bus to work, or before he would have seen too many children cycling safely to school in his small town of Oracle (Abbey 1982). Yet such things are everyday sights in many European cities. In London prior to the 1960s, they were relatively common too. They may well be so in future, but only if multi-level politics, the planning process, and citizens’ groups work together to make it so.



The ideas presented in the paper have emerged from my own participation in action and research in Ealing from 1994-2000. I would like to thank my friends in the Ealing Cycling Campaign for their solidarity, several Ealing Council employees, Louise Every for research assistance, and former colleagues at Brunel University who permitted me to combine the duties of academia with activism on and off a bicycle. Funding for the TVU study came from the UK Department of Transport’s Cycle Challenge fund (1996-7). 





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Figure 1 The London Borough of Ealing, London UK


[1] In the newly emerging urban centers of the global South, airborne particulates and NOx levels frequently rise as developing cities adopt more fossil fuel powered vehicles and are slow to pave roadways. Transport safety frequently worsens as passenger growth occurs before adequate safety measures are installed.

[2] Cycle trips in London stood at 3.76 million in 1952, and fell to 0.61 million in 1968 (Collins and Pharoah 1974: 516).

[3] A crash at Southall, West London killed 7 and injured 150 in September 1997. In October 1999, a second head-on crash killed 31 and injured 400 commuters just outside Paddington in Central London. A further incident at Hatfield outside London killed 4 and injured 35 due to a broken rail, and again in May 2002 7 people died and over 70 were injured after a derailment, close by at Potters Bar. In January 2003 a Tube train derailed in a central London tunnel in after a motor came loose, injuring 32 people and closing the Central Line for safety upgrades for months.

[4] The City of London is not actually a Borough; it comprises the original business district and has a very small number of voting residents.


[6] Since 1999, Labour has instituted a much more rational system called Best Value, under which Councils are able to choose how best to deliver services through their own employees or through specialist contactors as long as there is “continuous improvement of local authority functions, have regard to a combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness”. These arrangements are closely monitored by central government, although in 2003 there are plans to allow some well-performing councils much more autonomy in how they conduct their affairs.

[7] Protest has accompanied this rising profile. Most notably, Critical Mass – massed, slow cycling in the peak evening commuter hours in central London by up to 2,500 cyclists traveling together, is a leaderless and spontaneous protest against car cultures and pollution. Critical Mass is a worldwide phenomenon, and originated in California.

[8] The average weekly distance cycled by 64 Ealing Cycle Campaign members in 2002 was 47 miles (ECC 2002)

[9] Nor is it patriarchal, although as the theorist Ann Oakley notes, aggressive male car drivers are a primary road hazard in London (Oakley 2002).

[10] The LCC was preceded by a small number of local affinity groups, and also by a national campaign to promote cycling that was first initiated by the large non-profit, Friends of the Earth.


[11]Green Commuting: Promoting Bicycle Use at the Urban University”. Awarded as part of the Cycle Challenge Initiative, Department of Transport. Funded under a governmental initiative to promote cycling as a sustainable transport option: April 1996-April 1997