Unlike much of Europe, the British are reluctant cyclists: we take to the saddle for a mere 2 per cent of all journeys, compared to 40 per cent in Denmark and a respectable 10 in hilly Switzerland. This, despite the fact that more than half our journeys are under two miles long - surely something that even the creakiest sit-up-and-beg could manage occasionally? The British Medical Association recommends cycling as one of the most efficient forms of exercise that a body could hope for. One survey suggests regular cyclists enjoy the health of those 10 years younger.
So what is stopping us? Most commonly cited are fears of accidents, fumes, time and effort, getting rained on and/or sweaty. As is the way with fears, many of them are unfounded. The notion that cycling has to be hard work is often a throwback to the gearless heavyweight machines of childhood; today's models allow most of us a relatively sweat-free cruising speed of 15mph. As that is nearly twice the average traffic speed in central London, it deals with the time argument as well.
Vehicle fumes are a threat to anyone on the street, but more so, perhaps, to motorists than cyclists. A recent study showed that levels of some pollutants were between three and 18 times higher inside cars than on the street outside - so maybe it's drivers, not cyclists, who should be wearing gas masks. And even in our moist climate, the regular short-haul commuter cyclist only gets a drenching 12 days a year.
But it is the safety fears that are foremost in people's minds, and these are grounded in grim reality: mile on mile, the rate of death and serious injury among cyclists is 14 times higher than that of car drivers. Yet when relatively simple provisions are made for cyclists the picture changes dramatically. Since the introduction of a cycle-friendly transport system in Basel, Switzerland, in the mid-1970s, the amount of cycling has doubled while accidents have fallen dramatically. Groups such as the London Cycling Campaign (LCC), the Cyclists' Touring Club and Friends of the Earth are pushing hard for the introduction of similar measures here.
So what are the options? Signposted cycle routes are one of the most straightforward - and cheapest. They make use of quiet back streets, parkland and roads barred to through traffic to guide the wary rider across town. The best incorporate special traffic lights at major road crossings: there is nothing like seeing a crocodile of container trucks brought to a halt in favour of a single bicycle to make cyclists feel they have a right to be out on the streets.
Some routes even mix bikes with pedestrians. Anyone who has survived a near miss with a Lycra-clad kamikaze courier mounting the pavement may doubt the wisdom of this, but experience from York, and numerous European cities, suggests that in practice the two can co-exist in relative harmony. The authorities in Livingston, a new town in Scotland, have simply legalised cycling on many pathways, apparently without disaster.
After years of lobbying by the LCC, the Department of Transport has given its stamp of approval to a scheme to mark out 1,000 miles of cycle routes across the capital - though, needless to say, the funding has yet to follow. One of the most imaginative initiatives along these lines has come from a small charity, Sustrans, which converts disused railways into cycle tracks. Its many completed projects include a link between Bristol and Bath, and there are now ambitious plans to provide a continuous cycleway from Inverness to Dover, with specially commissioned sculptures and milestones placed at strategic intervals along the path.
The next step up is the marked cycleway running alongside the road. In theory, at least, this offers some degree of protection from the rest of the traffic, although dodging round illegally parked cars and jam-packed buses ensures that there is still an element of danger to enliven the trip. Common in Germany and the Netherlands, cycleways are gradually appearing in the UK. Ideally (but rarely in Britain) these are augmented by such tricks as 'toucan' crossings (like pelicans, but for cyclists too) and staggered stop lines at traffic lights, to give pedallers a head start over the surge of cars growling at their rear mudguard.
Any ideal cycling city should also include provision for parking in the form of secure racks, as pioneered by Sheffield in its 'people's republic' days (although, in London, parking meters seem to serve the same purpose). Leicester City Council has earned some bouquets by enshrining targets for cycle parking in its long-term strategy. Employers who provide showers, to wash off that rare bead of sweat, are also the cyclist's friend, although few go as far as Ciba-Geigy in Geneva, which also supplied 200 free bicycles for its work force.
Then there is the interface with public transport - or, rather, lack of it. BR's reluctance to accommodate freely, at least without substantial prior hassle, the large numbers who would like to take their bikes by long-distance train has made it the bete noire of the cycling campaigners. By way of comparison, they point to the continent in general, and Switzerland in particular, where cycles are carried free throughout the network, the carriages fitted with space-saving cycle hooks, and a 'pick it up at one station, leave it at another' cycle hire scheme is in operation. In Dortmund, Germany, the station car park has been given over to cyclists, with cars being pushed off to a more marginal patch. Back in Britain, however, BR continues to justify its relative failure to welcome bikes on board by arguing that 'less than 0.5 per cent of passengers travel by cycle' - a brave piece of sophistry considering that the lack of present provisions hardly encourages more to do so.
Tinkering with road markings can go some way towards making towns more cycle-friendly, but campaigners argue that if people are really going to be encouraged back into the saddle, there needs to be a sea-change in transport strategy. They cite the Netherlands as a shining example. There, the government has set a target of increasing cycling by 30 per cent, and halving deaths among riders, by 2010. In addition, it aims to ensure that the bicycle is the quickest form of transport for any journey under 5km (about three miles).
Such ambitious goals could not be achieved by cycleways alone: they depend heavily on persuading people out of their cars by a sophisticated system of traffic calming. This ranges from the sort of measures we're becoming accustomed to in the UK, such as speed humps (or the less bone-shaking speed cushions), chicanes, and road-narrowing and closing programmes, to more assertive steps such as road-pricing and even the closure of whole sections of towns to all but essential motor vehicles.
Where these are combined, the effect can be dramatic. In the Dutch city of Groningen, cycling accounts for 50 per cent of all journeys - a European record. Britain's best effort is probably York, where 10 per cent of all commuters are cyclists, largely thanks to a more-or-less traffic-free town centre. Not everyone can take to two wheels, of course, so any serious traffic-calming initiative has to include improved public transport - hardly a priority in the UK at present. Where decent park-and-ride schemes do exist, as in Oxford, cycling reaps the benefits.
For the most part, though, there is little sign of British authorities, at either local or national level, making the strategic leap required to bring about a Dutch-style change. As Oliver Hatch, of the European Cyclists' Federation, points out: 'Cycling is hardly at the glamorous end of transport policy. If you're a young planning officer and you're keen to get on, you're not going to make your mark specialising in cycling.' There are signs that this is changing, notably with a new 'package' approach from the Department of Transport. This encourages local authorities to draw up a more holistic strategy, making provision for all levels of transport, when applying for central government funding.
Some campaigners are unwilling to wait. In Oxford, one group of cyclists has been literally taking to the streets every Friday afternoon in support of their drive to ban traffic from much of the city centre. By riding in a tight ring around the roundabout at the end of Magdalen Bridge, they mount a suitably infuriating, if wholly legal, rush-hour blockade of one of the city's most strategic road junctions. In Lambeth, south London, other militants have taken to painting in their own unofficial cycle lanes along the highways.
Guerrilla tactics such as these may not win over the average motorist, but the experience of others just might. In Bremen, Germany, six 'average' families agreed to a trial month without a car. In return, they were encouraged to travel by bicycle and public transport. When the scheme ended, four out of the six decided they could do without their cars for good and sold them. The main reason cited? Cycling was so much easier.-
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