Despite being only a small grassroots Scottish cycling campaign, we’ve found ourselves on the global stage this month as the world came to Scotland’s largest city to talk about the planet’s biggest issue. As we look back at a hectic week – indeed a hectic few months – we wanted to reflect on the fact that even when we feel at our most powerless, it’s possible to make a difference.
It started this spring when we coined our slogan: This machine fights climate change. Shamelessly copied from Woody Guthrie (who in turn copied it from some anonymous machine workers), we felt it summed up the overlooked role of the humble cycle in combating the climate emergency. The pandemic meant we couldn’t Pedal on Parliament, but we could project a message onto it that, we hoped, would resonate with candidates for Holyrood:
Fast-forward several months, and Cycling UK asked if they could use our slogan a part of a projection of their own, in the run-up to COP26. This time, the eyes of the world were on Glasgow, and it seems our slogan caught the imagination of people across the planet.
— Pedal On Parliament #PedalOnCop26 (@POPScotland) October 25, 2021
And so, too, did our plans to Pedal on COP – both in Scotland and across the world. As soon as we knew that the UN Climate Conference was coming to Glasgow, we knew that we wanted to make sure bikes weren’t left out of the conversation – something that came perilously close to happening. Running the cycling and sustainable travel bloc at the Global Day of Action march, as well as coordinating over 20 feeder rides from every corner of Scotland, was a massive effort and months in the planning.
Crucially, we didn’t do it alone. Cycling UK provided some important logistical support (such as insurance for feeder rides) and aligned its messaging for COP with ours. Dozens of smaller cycling groups (and individuals) threw themselves into the organisational effort – so many, it took an entire day to write our “Thank You” notes:
STAND BY! We're going in with another massive twitter thread, this time thanks to everyone involved in putting #PedalOnCOP26 together.
— Pedal On Parliament #PedalOnCop26 (@POPScotland) November 9, 2021
The march itself was massive, uplifting, and very very wet (and if it did nothing else, with over 300 cyclists setting off to ride from Edinburgh to Glasgow into a headwind and driving November rain, it will have put the lie to the claim that people won’t cycle in Scotland because of the weather). But it went beyond Glasgow – we were beyond excited to see #PedalOnCOP26 events popping up spontaneously right across the globe, with events in Canada, Malaysia and Uganda.
— Critical Mass Kampala #BeautifulUG (@CriticalMassKla) November 6, 2021
But before we had even finished drying off our socks, we knew we’d have to turn out again. Wednesday was Transport day at COP and, as we had feared, cycling, walking and even public transport was nowhere on the agenda – it was all about electric cars, perhaps not surprising with commercial partners like Jaguar Land Rover all over the shop.
Faced with the financial muscle of the motoring lobby, the idea of an all-powerful cycling lobby seems laughable, but in fact, spearheaded by the European Cycling Foundation, we presented a united front. We have joined over 300 organisations in signing the COP26 letter urging governments to harness the power of cycling to combat climate change. And as Transport Day dawned, hundreds of cyclists once more turned out, organised by Go Bike, to greet the delegates as they assembled at the conference, garnering widespread media coverage. As we marshalled our troops online to back them (it turns out that asking cyclists to post pictures of their bikes on social media is pushing on an open door) we saw our hashtag #ThisMachineFightsClimateChange trending.
It's transport day at #COP26 and this is my nursery/school run SUV! I can fit two kids and their bags quite comfortably and I don't even break a sweat on the very hilly 6 mile round-trip journey! #ThisMachineFightsClimateChange pic.twitter.com/StYP8v3rw6
— Denise Marshall ? (they/them) (@dnwood) November 10, 2021
Against all odds, our combined efforts paid off. The final paragraph of the Transport Declaration – after 8 paragraphs about electric cars and vans – now reads
“We recognise that alongside the shift to zero emission vehicles, a sustainable future for road transport will require wider system transformation, including support for active travel, public and shared transport, as well as addressing the full-value chain impacts from vehicle production, use and disposal.”
It’s a tiny victory, and it shouldn’t have taken that amount of effort to get it included at all – the IPCC had already highlighted the role of cycling in cutting transport emissions. But crucially, it showed that we are not powerless, and that the fat wallets of the motor manufacturers can be overcome by a loose coalition of grassroots organisations and the sheer people power of the nation’s cyclists.
Indeed, if there’s any consensus at all about COP26 – and it’s fair to say that the reviews so far have been mixed – it’s that public opinion is now streaking out ahead of government policies when it comes to tackling climate change. The public understand that we need to see emissions falling now, and we need to use every means possible to achieve that.
So, what now? Well, at the risk of bathos, we would like to invite you to attend our (online) AGM on Friday. No wait, come back. This will be when we kick off our planning for next year’s Pedal on Parliament, with hopefully a return to a mass ride (or rides) to coincide with the local government elections. Because UN Conferences may hold the world’s attention for a week or so, but on the whole, it’s councils that build the cycle paths and create the conditions that we need to truly combat climate change. Or, to borrow another slogan that’s long since escaped from its original creator, it’s time to think globally – and act locally.
If you’ve been as energised and excited – and as angered and infuriated – by the last few weeks as we have, then join us to take that energy forward. We may no longer have the eyes of the world on us, but we can continue to battle to make Scotland a cycle friendly country.