Politics

Has cycling become a part of British life?

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Has cycling become a part of British life?

This article from The Guardian’s cycling blog explores the question of whether or not cycling has become a part of British life, and, if so, just what sort of cycling culture the UK might be said to have. The author describes British institutions like Brompton and Rapha, and holds them up alongside our comical cycle infrastructure (examples herehere, and here), the numerous ghost bikes that line our streets, and the lack of legal protection that British cyclists have compared to our continental cousins.

strict liability map
At present, the UK is out of step with Europe as one of only five EU countries (along with Cyprus, Malta, Romania and Ireland) that does not operate a system of strict liability to protect vulnerable road users.

 

This article was published just over a week after myself and a few members of Edinburgh’s Critical Mass ‘Pedalled on Parliament’ in what has now become an annual tradition. Attracting thousands of participants from up and down the country, the ride is intended to highlight the need for greater investment if Scotland is to meet its cycling and emissions targets by 2020. At the end of the day it was a fun ride, and our sound-system proved to be a great success, but sometimes I think that it would be nice to live in a country where such rides were simply unnecessary.

party on parliament

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Painted lines are not infrastructure

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John Snow: veteran journalist, but did you also know that he’s the president of CTC and a major campaigner for cycling infrastructure in the UK? Check out some excerpts from his comments to the Transport Select Committee from 2012 – do you think much has changed since then?

Everyday Cycling

Excerpts from Jon Snows comments to the Transport Select Committee in 2012.

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Critical Mass Models

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Critical Mass is an important international movement that strengthens the ties between people on bikes. Although individual bike riders can be intimidated by other road-users, the spirit of the mass is that there is strength in numbers. Cycling should be fun and freeing, and Critical Mass cultivates this atmosphere and reminds us that bikes are legitimate forms of transport that deserve space on the roads. That said, the formula for mass rides isn’t a one-size-fits-all model, and so it is worth acknowledging that different strategies work in different places.

Edinburgh Critical Mass

Although there is something of an unofficial ‘formula’ for rides, it seems that in reality Critical Mass models tend to vary around the world.

Instead of meeting on the last Friday of the month, for instance, the Budapest contingent meets only twice a year. However, by concentrating their energies into just two rides, the cyclists of Hungary commit wholeheartedly to making these rides count: although the table below is a bit out of date, the statistics from 2013’s ride indicate that they had more than 80,000 riders at their Spring event – by the time the last cyclist had crossed the ‘start’ line, the rider at the front of the pack was already 13km away!

Staggering statistics Staggering statistics from Budapest (N.B. unrelated protests ruled out the possibility of a ride in Fall ’06)

The Prague ride has also become hugely popular over the last decade, primarily though appealing to families, but also…

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FAQs about Critical Mass

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FAQs.

A lot of people hesitate over Critical Mass because they don’t really understand what it is. Although it defies definition, we’ve compiled a list of ‘frequently asked questions‘ to shed some light on the issues and hopefully attract some new riders.

Edinburgh doesn't have a shortage of cyclists!
Edinburgh doesn’t have a shortage of cyclists, and Critical Mass offers a superb opportunity for them to come together and celebrate their shared interests. (Photograph borrowed from Edinburgh’s Pedal on Parliament ride – probably the greatest mass bike ride in Scotland)

Why should non-cyclists support measures to boost cycling?

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This article (Kaya Burgess – The Times) describes the multifarious benefits of investment in cycling for all sorts of different groups in the UK. In what follows below, I intend to summaries and illustrate just a few of these benefits.

Motorists, for instance, would benefit from fewer traffic jams and less conflict with cyclists. Even Top Gear presenter and general motor-mouth Jeremy Clarkson has praised cycling as a way of getting around. He last year described Copenhagen’s cycling culture as “fan-bleeding-tastic” and said: “Now I know that sounds like the ninth circle of hell, but that’s because you live in Britain, where cars and bikes share the road space. This cannot and does not work. It’s like putting a dog and a cat in a cage and expecting them to get along. They won’t, and as a result London is currently hosting an undeclared war. I am constantly irritated by cyclists and I’m sure they’re constantly irritated by me.”

People who commute by train and by bus will also benefit if more people took up cycling, as the intense pressure on the public transport system would be eased.

London's Underground: Rammed
London’s Underground: Rammed

As child obesity soars in the UK, parents and children will benefit from better infrastructure as cycling to school becomes an option again. The more people who cycle, the safer the streets become, and thus more people will be encouraged to take up cycling . With more than 2/3 of car journeys in the UK being less than 5 miles, most of the driving that people do is completely unnecessary anyway. The school run needn’t be the stress that it has become.

Cycling to school: is this really so radical?
Cycling to school: is this really so radical?

Ordinary adults will benefit from the regular exercise as well. Official advice recommends taking 150 minutes – or 2½ hours – of physical activity per week, but we do not always have the time – or inclination – to get down the gym or go for a jog after a long day or long week of work. Building cycling into a person’s daily routine is a brilliant way of nomalising the activity and incorporating exercise into their lifestyle.

The Dutch have shown us how cycling can be the most normal thing in the world - it definitely doesn't have to involve extreme exertion or specialist equipment
The Dutch have shown us how cycling can be the most normal thing in the world – it definitely doesn’t have to involve extreme exertion or specialist equipment. These people aren’t even close to breaking a sweat.

Taxpayers will also benefit from investment in cycling. The NHS spends around £5 billion each year on tackling preventable diseases exacerbated by inactivity, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and strokes. Around £16bn is currently being spent on the Crossrail project in London and a further £3bn on upgrades to the A9 road in Scotland. Health experts told the Get Britain Cycling inquiry that investing in cycle provision is by far the most cost-effective form of transport spend, recouping £4 in healthcare savings for every £1 invested.

Investing in cycling is also good for businesses and employers. Not only does a manager get a healthier and more alert workforce, but research in New York has shown that the introduction of cycle lanes led to a  49 per cent increase in retail sales. In terms of parking, bikes take up a lot less space than cars, so it follows that bikes can carry more potential customers than cars can.

yuh, good luck finding yours when they all look the same
Can you imagine how much space you would need if all these bikes were cars? The fact that drivers can no longer find parking on their high-streets has led to the death of many local and independent businesses.

As a final point, the article notes that cyclists would also benefit from improved cycle infrastructure. It might seem like an obvious point, but around 2 per of traffic on Britain’s roads is made up by people on bikes, and as this figure grows the infrastructure will need to grow with it. For instance, of all vehicles crossing bridges over the River Thames in London at rush hour, more than half are bicycles – in spite of this fact the cycle lanes (which are shared and often blocked by buses) are at best only a third of a lane in width. It really is time the Government took cycling seriously.

The UK's cycling infrastructure needs improving if it is to cope with the uptake of cycling that the government is encouraging
The UK’s cycling infrastructure needs radical improvement if it is to cope with the uptake of cycling that the government is encouraging

I really liked this article, but it did miss out some other key groups who would benefit from a more Dutch-style cycling infrastructure, as illustrated in the following video:

Britain’s new cycling minister calls for more ‘everyday’ riders

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Britain’s new cycling minister calls for more ‘everyday’ riders

Cycling is such a part of the lifestyle in The Netherlands that most Dutch people don’t even think of themselves as ‘cyclists’.

Indeed, cycling is a perfectly normal activity, and so it is about time that we started treating it as such. This article from the Guardian’s bike blog describes how Britain’s cycling minister wants to see more ‘everyday’ riders on the road – the kind who have baskets on their bikes and just pootle around in normal clothes (i.e. not the usual lycra brigade).

It’s a nice idea, certainly, but I would like to highlight the key issue raised around of the middle of the piece:

“Campaigners […] point out that making cycling an everyday activity for people of all inclinations and ages generally requires years of investment in segregated cycle lanes, bike-safe junctions and other infrastructure.”

Without the right infrastructure to protect them, ‘everyday’ riders would be like lambs for the slaughter in cities like London. The minister for cycling clearly has his work cut out for him if his vision is to be realised.

normal
Why should it be weird that cycling is normal?

 

I realise that this picture is totally unrelated to the post, I just wanted to share it with you because it's awesome
I realise that this picture is totally unrelated to the post, I just wanted to share it with you because it’s awesome

Cycling is not (intrinsically) dangerous

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2013 saw many articles written under titles referring to the ‘dangers of cycling’. A few random examples can be found here, here, here, and here. This one even talks about the ‘terrors’ faced by cyclists on the road.

Indeed, cycling can be a dangerous activity, but this is not because cycling itself is dangerous…

For instance, it isn’t dangerous to cycle without a helmet

no helmets

It isn’t dangerous to cycle without hi-viz
sit up and beg

It isn’t dangerous to cycle with a passenger…

The bike is king of the road in The Netherlands

Dutch bikes - an altogether more civilised way of getting around town.

Looks like fun, huh?

cycling with a passenger

…no matter what age you are!

these guys aren't having too much trouble

Even a couple of passengers (and a suitcase) is no big deal

cycling with two passengers

Cycling with kids isn’t dangerous either
DSC_7251

Riding your bike in the park on a summer afternoon... Such a simple pleasure that is so unreasonably denied to us in the UK

and it isn’t dangerous to cycle with an umbrella

So long as it's not too windy, I find that cycling in heavy rain is actually more difficult without an umbrella.

cycling with umbrella

It certainly isn’t dangerous to cycle next to your friends
children 5 abreast assen oost subjective safety

Even four-legged friends are safe to ride with.

Sometimes up front…
cycling with dogs

…or alongside
alongside

Whether you’re a little bit older…

Gustaf Håkansso
Gustaf Håkansso

a little older

…or a little younger

Vondelpark provides a totally safe environment for kids to ride their bikes

cycling a little younger

…cycling itself is not a dangerous activity.

What these photographs illustrate is how the physical environment affects the relative danger of riding a bike. Many of the pictures also show how good infrastructure is the key factor in determining whether or not cycling is actually safe.

As we move into 2014, I am hopeful that governing bodies in the UK (and elsewhere, for that matter) pick up on the merits of cycling and do what is needed to protect people who ride bikes. At present (and from my perspective), city dwellers face an unappealing trilemma when deciding upon transportation; they can either:

1. Contribute to the city’s pollution and congestion by paying through the nose for a car (+driving licence/insurance/MOT/VED/petrol/parking etc.).
2. Pay to take crowded/crappy (and notoriously unreliable) public transport.
3. Ride a bike but risk their lives by sharing the road with heavy/powerful/fast moving motor vehicles.

If a person is able to ride a bike (i.e. if their health permits it), then it should be in everybody’s interest to support them. Biker riders take up less space on the roads, and so there is less congestion for everyone else; they are not pumping out pollution into the air that we all have to breath; they are exercising their bodies and so easing pressure on an NHS that is currently strained by an obesity epidemic; they aren’t damaging the roads to nearly the same degree that other vehicles do (thus saving tax-payers money); they don’t run people over (and if they do, injuries are usually minor); and last but not least, motor-vehicle dominated cities are noisy and unpleasant places, and so bikes offer a quiet and civilised remedy to this.

I think that cycling is brilliant, not just for the bike rider but for the world. I intend to keep up the pace this year with my campaigning, and I hope to keep you updated with any developments/innovations that might be of interest.

All the best