Friday, 10 October 2014

The Amazing Race 25, Episode 3

Oxford, England (U.K.) - Aberdeen, Scotland (U.K.) - Shetland Islands, Scotland (U.K.)

[National Cycle Network Route 1, Northumberland coast, England, U.K.]

The first clue given to the teams in this leg of The Amazing Race 25 sent them north on an all-day train ride from Oxford, England, to Aberdeen, Scotland, and then on an overnight ferry to Lerwick on the main island ("the Mainland") of the Shetlands.

Nothing was said about Aberdeen on the reality-TV show, and the racers spent only a few hours in Aberdeen before catching the ferry to the Shetland Islands. Aberdeen is actually a disproportionately important little city as the center of one of Scotland's most important industries: It's the jumping off point for helicopters and ships servicing and carrying workers to and from the offshore oil drilling rigs and platforms in the North Sea.

Even tourists who might be interested in spending more time in Aberdeen tend not to linger. There's a shortage of hotels in and around Aberdeen, and nondiscretionary demand for hotel rooms by oil workers and other business travellers has driven hotel prices in Aberdeen even higher than those in most of the rest of Scotland. Hotel room rates throughout Scotland are typically higher than those in most of England, at least in the summer tourist season. With the U.K. pound high relative to the Euro, hotel prices in Scotland were among the highest we encountered last summer anywhere we travelled in Europe except in Switzerland).

Lerwick is itself a secondary service port for the offshore oil industry, which is the second-largest component of the Shetland Islands economy after commercial fishing and ahead of agriculture (including the ubiquitous sheep pasturing that was featured in the racers' tasks) and tourism.

Tourists tend to think of Scotland in terms of castles and kilts, glens and green hills, and grazing sheep. But like New England, which is mostly wooded but where much of the land is steep and rocky and agriculture and forestry are mostly secondary to the economy, Scotland has had a predominately knowledge-based economy driven by leadership in technology and education since the Industrial Revolution. The most characteristic Scottish perspective on the world, like that of the New Englander of "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court", may be that of an engineer.

In the background of every conversation in Scotland this summer, when The Amazing Race 25 was being filmed in June and when we were there in July, was the impending September 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. Perhaps the producers of The Amazing Race wanted to avoid being perceived as taking sides in a political campaign, but I'm amazed that they managed to edit out any on-screen appearance of blue-and-white "Yes" yard or window signs. (The "No" campaign, although it prevailed in the vote, was much less visible.)

Two things were especially interesting to me about travelling in Scotland during the run-up to the independence referendum.

The first was that questions I always want to ask when I travel, but that local people sometimes haven't thought about or are taken aback by, were already at the center of both public and private conversation in pubs and at breakfast tables, in the newspapers, on radio and television, in best-selling books, and on city and village streets.

How do people here see yourselves as a people, a community, a country? What is your national identity, and what defines it? How is this place different from all others? What is your relationship to the rest of the world, and what do you want to be? What are your values? What is your vision? What future do you want for yourselves? How will you get there?

It couldn't have been more exciting for me to than to get to listen in on such a national self-exploration -- and better still, one conducted in English.

Second, I found a fascinating case study and comparison, in both the referendum process and the arguments being used in the referendum campaign, for the possibility of an eventual referendum on the status of Kashmir. The talk I gave earlier this month at Cornell University on "Kashmir, self-determination, and human rights" brings out some of the lessons I see for Kashmir in the Scottish example, in addition to other aspects of the underappreciated and generally misunderstood Kashmir issue.

The Shetland Islands are administratively and politically an integral part of Scotland and of the U.K. The majority in the Shetlands, like the majority in Scotland as a whole, voted "No" to Scottish independence. There had been some speculation, however, that if Scotland became independent, the Shetlands might seek some sort of quasi-autonomous status, like the U.K.-affiliated Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, in order to be able to become an offshore but Scottish-affiliated banking, insurance, incorporation, and/or tax haven.

We didn't get as far north as the Shetland Islands or even Aberdeen, but we spent less time in England and more time in Scotland this summer -- in Glascow, in Edinburgh, in the highlands along the Great Glen as far as Inverness, and in eastern Scotland and the (English-Scottish) border country -- then we had planned.

[Loch Lomond, Scotland, U.K.]

A major reason for our choice (although not the only one) was that we were travelling by bicycle, and Scotland proved to be much more bicycle-friendly than England.

That's not what you would conclude if you used the criteria that are typically used to assess the "bicycle-friendliness" of communities and regions in the USA, the U.K., and many other countries.

"Friendliness" is an attitudinal and behavioral attribute, and the "friendliness" that matters most to bicycle travellers is that of motorists: Are drivers of motor vehicles "friendly" to bicyclists they encounter on streets and roads, and respectful of bicyclists' rights and safety? Or do motorists treat bicyclists as childish, as a nuisance, as an impediment to motorized traffic, or as fair game for motorized vehicular assault?

When I first heard of ratings and awards for "bicycle-friendly" communities, I assumed that they were based on surveys of bicyclists about whether local motorists were friendly to them. But I was wrong. Motorists' attitudes aren't even considered in "bicycle-friendly" designations, which instead are based entirely on the existence of bicycle-specific infrastructure and policies.

Travelling by bicycle in Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and the U.K. for two months this summer, we saw wide variations in national and regional cycling cultures and styles, the nature and extent of bicycle-specific infrastructure, and motorists' attitudes toward cyclists. Overall, there was little correlation between the amount of bicycle-specific infrastructure and the quality or safety of the experience of bicycle travel in different places, and much greater correlation with how motorists think about and interact with bicycles and bicyclists on the roads.

England has an extensive National Cycle Network of routes designated by the nonprofit sustainable travel and transport organization Sustrans. But Sustrans is mainly focused on recreational walking and hiking routes, rather than on bicycling or on routes that are actually efficient for transportation. Once Sustrans designates a route, it gets shown on every sort of map as "the route that cyclists are supposed to follow", regardless of its suitability for bicycle travel. No further effort to provide for bicycles is thought to be necessary. And English motorists, like those in Germany and some other countries I've visited, expect that where there is a designated bicycle route, bicycles should be on it -- no matter how inferior or unsuitable it is -- and not trying to share the roads that are used by motor vehicles.

Even in the USA, where many "bike paths" are poorly surfaced, signed, or maintained, I've seen few designated bike routes that are as bad as many sections of the U.K.'s National Cycle Route Network. The design criteria are "scenic", "fun", and "avoiding any road shared with motorized traffic. "Efficient", "direct", and "easy" are not among those criteria.

Sustrans designates routes that go miles out of the way, high up insanely steep hills, and along "paths" that are barely passable on a mountain bike much less a loaded touring bike with wide panniers, for the sake of a scenic detour (without bothering to designate any alternate route for through travellers or commuters) or to avoid even the shortest stretch of road shared with motorized traffic.

On various parts of U.K. National Cycle Network Route 1, we found ourselves directed off motor vehicle roads onto muddy singletrack through sheep pasture with gates we had to stop and dismount to open and close after ourselves every mile or less, and paths too narrow for bicycles in opposite directions to pass each other, where our legs were brushing against thickly overgrown hedges of stinging nettles on both sides at once. Rather than being the best or easiest through routes for inexperienced bicycle travellers, many of the cycling routes designated by Sustrans are suitable only for skilled, well-prepared cyclists who are looking for a seriously difficult challenge.

By contrast to England, there are far fewer designated long-distance cycle routes in Scotland. Scottish roads are as narrow as English roads, and outside of towns typically lack any shoulder, sidewalk, or side path.

In the USA, even what we think of as "narrow" roads typically have at least some pavement width beyond the edge of the vehicle traffic lane. But many roads in the U.K. have absolutely no shoulders at all, and many of them have hedgerows -- eight-foot-high vertical walls of dense shrubbery spiked with the ends of trimmed-off branches -- extending all the way to the edge of the traffic lane.

We encountered some inconsiderate and reckless motorists in Scotland, as one does everywhere. Once when we had to go a few miles on an "A" road (a narrow two-lane road with heavy traffic and few pull-outs or places to pass safely), a tour bus driver, possibly not from Scotland, ran us off into a narrow ditch alongside a rock wall.

But despite this, and despite the near-complete lack of bicycle-specific infrastructure or alternatives to sharing the roads with motorized traffic, I found Scotland much more genuinely bicycle-friendly than England. In general, Scottish drivers didn't seem surprised to encounter bicycles sharing the roads, even where there were side paths, and didn't seem to begrudge us our place on the roads any more than they would wide, slow, agricultural implements.

The defining experience for me of bicycle-friendly Scotland came when we were going up a long steep grade in the Highlands at about three miles an hour. A series of loaded tandem logging trucks overtaking us slowed down to match our speed a safe distance behind us, and waited -- not honking, not revving their engines, not tailgating us -- for us to crawl as far up the hill as necessary, sometimes half a mile or more, until we got to gaps in the hedgerow where we could pull over to let them pass.

That's nothing about bicycle-friendly infrastructure, and everything about attitude.

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 10 October 2014, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)

More about "bicycle-friendliness" and bicycle-specific infrastructure, from the next episode of "The Amazing Race 25":

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 25 October 2014, 15:53 ( 3:53 PM)
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