James Daley: The Cycling Column

Let's keep taking the cars out of our cities
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Indy Lifestyle Online

More than 40,000 people took to their bikes in London on Sunday to participate in one of the biggest cycle rides ever organised – not just in the UK, but in the world.

Nine miles of roads were closed off in the centre of town (running between Westminster and the City), and a big cycling festival was held on the edge of St James's Park.

For me, this was not the first time I'd been given the chance to ride around London without any traffic. As regular readers of this column will know, Critical Mass (an unofficial reclaiming of the streets) provides a similar experience on the last Friday of every month. And while I still think the unpredictable and uncoordinated nature of the Mass makes it a much more exciting affair, it never tends to be attended by any more than a few hundred people.

Sunday's event, the Hovis Freewheel, was an entirely different affair – meticulously planned and attracting at least 50 times more people than the average Critical Mass.

There was free food, free bike maintenance, toilets, first aid and stunt displays – as well as hundreds of marshals and officials on hand to provide help and support.

The idea of the event was simply to promote cycling in London, and I reckon it did a very effective job. Everywhere you turned, people were grinning and remarking about how great it was to be amongst so many cyclists without any cars. The festival proved so popular that the marshals spent most of the day trying to persuade people to do another lap of the course, and to come back later.

Although the event was clearly a great success, and Mayor Ken is already talking about organising an even bigger ride next year, I think the next step should be to think about closing off most of the roads in central London on a very regular basis – perhaps even every single Sunday.

You wouldn't need marshals or any great kind of organisation – we already have the Congestion Charging cameras in place to police such an initiative – and it would surely prove a very effective way to encourage Londoners and tourists on to two wheels.

Already there are several other cities around the world that have similar initiatives. In Boston, for example, they close off one of the main arteries every Sunday to let cyclists, rollerbladers, and skateboarders have some space to themselves. And in Bogota, Columbia, they close off more than 110km of roads to cars every Sunday from 7am to 2pm, and on bank holidays, too, to encourage residents to exercise. El Paso in the US also has a similar initiative on Sundays in May.

I imagine there would be uproar from motorists at such a suggestion in London, but Ken has fought off the motoring lobby before – and his challenger at next year's election, Boris Johnson, has shown he's a big supporter of the cycling movement, too.

Ironically, Boris got one over his rival at the weekend, by turning up to the Freewheel, and handing out "Back Boris" flags to hundreds of those enjoying the ride. Ken was sadly a no-show at his own event – snubbing it in favour of the Labour Party conference.

While Ken has done more for cycling in London than any politician before him, I'm still so disappointed that he's never seen on a bike himself – even at an event that his own department laid on. He claims to have had some traumatic biking experience when he was younger – but I'm not sure I buy it. A more likely explanation is that he never learnt – and is now too embarrassed to admit it.

Still, he put on a great day for Londoners on Sunday, and has shown that he's a big supporter of cycling in the capital. If he is willing to go one step further and hand the roads back to cyclists on a regular basis, I guess we'll have to forgive him.


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