Considerate Cycling 25: A Practical Campaigner

What follows is an edited version of the transcript of an interview I did with Mick Mack at The Watershed in Bristol in mid-January 2013. I prefer not to spoil interviews by asking questions. My prompts are indicated in italics. I asked Mick if he would do an interview, having met him a couple times at cycle places around Bristol. He seems to me to be a very strong kind of cycling campaigner, someone who really does want to get on with doing practical, useful work, on a bike.

What’s the story?

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My name’s Mick Mack. I was born in Liverpool. We moved away from Liverpool in 1970 when I was 8, down to Sussex. We kind of moved around a bit, my father looking for work. And we ended up in East Anglia, in Cambridgeshire on the edge of the Fens.

I spent ten years of carnival, building floats and making costumes and performing music and dance with Brazilians and Trinidadians, only within this country. I haven’t gone abroad to do any of this, just bumped into a lot of people. But I’ve moved around the country doing it in Birmingham and London and here in Bristol. So I did that for ten years which was brilliant experience. I loved it. It wasn’t much of a career but I had a good time.

Then what…?

Then I spent ten years and more gardening, purely by accident. I moved over to Cork in Ireland. I saw this job for a gardener and I thought “well in the meanwhile … I don’t know anything about gardening but I’m game.” And it was fortunate that this old couple were so desperate and their old gardener had just left and it was May and they had all this stuff that had been seeded into pots in the greenhouse and it needed to go out, both ornamentals and food crops. And so I said “well if you show me what I need to do I’m happy to do it if you don’t mind the fact that I know nothing” and they said “Yeah, OK.” And so that was the beginning of that and within a couple of months I thought “Yes! this is what I should have been dong years ago, gardening, hands in the soil, getting dirty outside, brilliant.”

So I did that in various places both self-employed and working for companies. And then ended up working on a biodynamic farm up in Thornbury, working with pigs and cows and sheep and goats … chickens, which was quite an experience. I’m not sure I’m much of a farmer. I’m more of a gardener, but I’m glad I did it. And then with the recession and everything I was finding it difficult to find another job other than going back up to London.

I decided to try this cycle logistics idea because I had had it before but had done nothing about it, here in Bristol. This was about May 2011. The first thing to do was find some money to get things going. So I put several emails out to companies that I thought would like the idea, people like Triodos and Sustrans and The Environment Agency, you know, big organisations with money who might like the idea. I said in the email I sent them “I have got this idea, I think it’s a great idea, I hope you think it’s a great idea, I haven’t got any money do you think you could offer me some business and by the way can you sponsor the idea by supporting us with £300 quid” And I thought that if I could get half a dozen of these and it goes well that would be enough to get a decent bike and start.

What actually happened was Sustrans’ Chief Executive (because I sent it straight the Chief Executive, being cheeky) Malcolm Shepherd and his Marketing Director Melissa Henry, asked me to come in. So I went and had a chat with them for 20 minutes and within 20 minutes told them the whole story, what I was doing, why I thought it was a good idea and they agreed with me. Then at the end Malcolm said “I suppose you want some money?” and I said “Well that would be very helpful” and he said “well, I’ll tell you what we’ll do, we’ll buy you your first bike. And so they bought me a Bullitt,

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And then it was just a question of trying to find custom, which is proving an ongoing problem. I pitched for work for loads of different companies: retail outlets, institutions like the University. the NHS, Post Office. I’m still in negotiations with Bristol City Council to try and get work. Everyone I speak to, no matter what kind of level, they all think it’s a great idea but they’re not moved to make a decision to use it or at least to try it to find out.

So essentially that’s where I am. I’m still doing it. I’m a year down the line. And I’ve learned a lot about what’s possible in terms of what people are open to since then but still I don’t have enough ongoing contractual work to make it viable really. It feels like I’m living on borrowed time with this but I’ll keep going for as long as I can. In the meantime a lot things have happened which are, are as I say to people, “the bigger picture”.

In July of last year in Cambridge a group of like-minded people from all around Europe set up the European Cycle Logistics Federation whose central remit is to find ways of developing the market for moving goods that are currently being moved by motorised transport around urban environments onto bicycles of various sorts. And we have hooked up with the Chartered Institute for Logistics and Transport to say we would like you to help us to make this happen, basically acting as a broker.

We’re not asking for money. They don’t have to splash out to promote us or anything , just to kind of introduce us because some of their members are some of the biggest logistics companies in the world, people like DHL, UPS, TNT, DPD, FedEx… those kinds of people who are moving millions of items around the world every day. And at some point all of those items get to within a couple of miles of their destination and they get vans going to a distribution centre filling up and then running around the city delivering these goods.

And we in the Cycle Logistics Federation believe there are lots of reasons why this is not a good idea. There is congestion, there is pollution, there is access there is potential for accidents. And I have spoken to a lot of the drivers of these vehicles and they find it very frustrating doing their work, not only the amount of goods they have to shift within a given time frame but also the traffic and getting access down small lanes where they are delivering one parcel … When, if they were to do away with that system and start using bicycles instead all those sorts of problems that at this point they are able to get around would disappear.

There wouldn’t be any need … even if it’s in the companies themselves, it’s not about companies like me getting that work necessarily. Because if the UPSs, and your FedExs decide to go with bicycles and use their own livery and their own riders then that’s good for everyone because, number one it shows it can be done, and two they would only be doing it because it makes sense economically. So it encourages other people out there to see the positives, the benefits and hopefully start to do it for themselves. Whether it’s for freight movement, which is what I do, whether it’s postal deliveries, which some other companies around the country are focussing on, or it’s people getting pedlars’ certificates.

“Why bikes? Where do bikes come in your story?”

Well, Basically I never learned to drive a motor vehicle or get a driver’s licence so I have always got around by public transport, on foot or by bike, ever since I was a kid. To me it makes a lot sense particularly in an urban environment. And over the years as I have become more aware of the transport issues I feel even more committed to the bike.

One of the arguments that I put to Malcolm and Melissa at Sustrans when I spoke them, was that in terms of bikes in sport there’s a lot of uptake of bikes in sport now. It’ s big, there is a lot of money going into it, it’s got a good image, it’s really strong in various ways, whether it’s off-roading, or track or road or whatever people are into. I don’t have a problem with what people are into, that’s good. And then there’s the leisure or commuting types of cycling, people getting to and from work, going touring, or families riding during the summer, going on day trips, hiring bicycles. All those aspects are going really well. And people like Sustrans who put in a lot of time and energy into creating cycle networks, encouraging people – brilliant! That’s all going good.

But for me the bike is essentially a tool. It’s for doing stuff, whether it’s carrying you from A to B or it’s moving goods around. You only have to look back sixty or seventy years, it’s not a new idea. Before the motor car became the dominant mode of transport bicycles were moving stuff around, whether it was the local butcher of baker or greengrocer. And it’s essentially capturing that same spirit. Bicycles could make city centres a lot more people friendly taking as much as, …well the European Cyclist Federation believe that we could potentially lose between 25 and 50 percent of all commercial traffic in the cities over time and with good planning and everything. And ideally the planners and the politicians and big business would come together and see the logic and rationale of it and start to make things happen themselves.

But unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be the case. Part of the motivation for getting the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport on board was because I had seen two reports that they had put out within an eighteen month period that were envisioning the future for logistics and transport – trains, planes, shipping, roads and it didn’t include the bicycle at all. It had no mention of bicycles at all. So it wasn’t even on their radar.

So I sent an email off to the Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute and said “What’s going on, are you and your people not looking around you and seeing the potential of bicycles?” And to be fair they saw what we were saying and since then have started to work with The European Cycle Logistics Federation to try to see how we can help move this forward. We are hoping this Spring to have a big roundtable meeting with all the major transport logistics companies –  DHL, Fed Ex and the like just so they can at least hear the story and how we could potentially work with and help them even if, as I say, they do it themselves. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a bigger point than any one individual company getting work. Even if  I stop doing this six months down the road, as long as someone is carrying that notion forward and pushing it and trying to make it happen, then that’s good enough for me.

To be fair, there is guy called Richard Armitage who came along, he is a transport consultant, He’s a member of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport and he has been around the whole transport question for many years and he came to our inaugural meeting in Cambridge in July. When he stood up and gave his ten minutes worth, he made it clear to us. He said “Look. All the costs for these large companies are only going one way. They are only going up and the potential for what you guys are doing is enormous. But you have to be in there and putting your oar in to make these people understand where it needs to go.”

There is an upsurge in interest, in all things bike at the moment; partly because of The Times and the whole safety issue. But even the bureaucrats are realising that they can’t continue in allowing companies and individual citizens to continue buying more and more cars and snarling up the cities, It just doesn’t make any sense, not to anybody.

A lot of it is to do with breaking down these barriers of fear and safety and who goes first, and all the rest of it. So we’re just playing our part and we just happen to be interested in making the commercial or as I put it, the economic argument for bikes and for the contribution to making the urban environment a much more pleasant place to be.

Any examples of your own cycle jobs?

For me it’s fairly straightforward and mundane day-to-day stuff. I’m lucky in a sense. I’ve done a lot of work for florists which is really nice. One, they’re very light so I’m not lugging heavy goods up and down Park Street or Constitution Hill day in day out. And two, when you get to your destination people are very pleased that you are bringing them flowers.

But that’s the courier side of things and we want to move it onto the logistics side of things. If someone comes to me with 5,000 items they want dispersed all over Bristol then I have to find a way of working out how I can do that without running myself ragged. Basically there has to be a methodology. This is where logistics comes in. It has to be considered and thought out. Not only from the economic point of view but from a physical practical pint of view. And that’s the kind of place we want to move to.

I’m wholly convinced just by all the dialogue I have with like-minded people and all the people I talk to and people who have been in this business a lot longer than me, the transport and logistics business, that this will happen. Five, maybe ten years down the road this will be the norm in urban environments I believe. I’d like to think that most people will believe it to be a good thing.

I’m voting for it.

Well hopefully… We’re talking to the Council, and the people we are talking to are resistant because they are afraid of what the implications are for them as individuals and as an organisation, job security and all the rest of it. But I believe that in terms of the economic situation organisations like the Council will see the benefits involved and because of the image they want to project in the City that they will get on board with it. Whether they do it themselves or work with external providers or contractors remains to be seen but at some point it will happen.

What about Bristol’s roads? Do they have the capacity?

Well, If you got to the situation where you had the problem of trying to cater for thousands of bicycles moving goods around the city, that would be a nice problem to have. I don’t know. I’m not an engineer I don’t know what the problems might be. I’d like to think we can wait till we get to that stage: they’ll be thinking about that as and when it grows.

It’s not going to happen all of a sudden overnight. I think there is a genuine possibility that at some point some company that’s already running a similar sorts of operation like GNEWT or the like and just sort of jump in with all the professionalism and marketing know-how and transforming the situation in a relatively short space of time.

If you look at different parts of the country people are up to all kinds of things. The biggest company in this country is based in Cambridge. They’re called Outspoken Delivery. They’ve got a dozen riders and they are working with more than 200 different organisations on a regular basis, from cake shops to The University.

And, this is a point I would like our local council to take on board… to at least consider: over in Cambridge the local authority have got a policy, between 10 and 4 on every working day, to close the city to motorised traffic.

People just don’t appreciate and understand what the potential is and I would like people to consider that.

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a full transcript of the interview is available as a pdf document here

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