I've been on holiday over the past fortnight in what are reputed to be the two most pro-cycling cities in North America - Toronto and Portland. Both have won numerous awards and accolades for their positive attitude to cycling over the past few years, and have made some pretty good progress towards getting more people out of their cars and on to their bikes. In the US and Canada, where the car culture is so much stronger than the UK (I was amazed to see petrol on sale for 38p a litre in Canada!), this is no small achievement.
In Oregon, the number of people regularly taking to their bikes has quadrupled over the past decade, and the city now has more than 160 miles of cycle lanes and another 65 miles of off-road cycle paths.
Toronto already boasts that it is the city with the most bike racks in the world, and its numerous cycling committees are constantly looking for new ways to improve the infrastructure for cyclists. It is now not uncommon to see bike racks on the back of buses in the city (something you don't yet see in London) while a new breed of closed bike lockers are also on trial - allowing commuters to leave their bikes safely overnight, or for longer periods of time.
But as impressed as I've been with what I've seen in Portland and Toronto over the past few weeks, I have not been able to ignore the fact that (although I'm loath to admit it) their efforts pale into insignificance compared with our progress back in London.
Although London's cycling infrastructure still looks rather pathetic when compared with most major north European cities, North America is still some way behind us, both in terms of its current infrastructure and in terms of the amount of money it's investing in the future.
London will invest some £26m in cycling this year - more than 10 times the amount that either Portland or Toronto will. While London is undoubtedly much bigger than both these cities, it is no more than two or three times larger in terms of population when their surrounding metropolitan areas are taken into account.
London already has close to 300 miles of cycling lanes, and aims to have 560 miles by the end of the decade. While it must be said that many of these are inadequate and no great help to cyclists - the same applies in the US and Canada.
While London's bike lanes often mysteriously disappear just at the time you need them most, or are ignored by motorists, cyclists in North America have the whole "it's ok to turn right on a red light" thing to compete with. If a motorist wants to turn right on red, his instinct is to look left as he approaches the junction. When he sees there's no one coming, he turns right without looking to see if there might be a cyclist approaching in the cycle lane down the right side of his car.
I had a few horrible near misses like this last week, mainly because I'm not used to the system. But the whole experience served to make me realise that although we often moan about our cycling infrastructure in London, it could be so much worse - and I don't want to flatter Ken Livingstone's ego too much. His hare-brained idea to try to stick bumper plates on cyclists has left me unconvinced he is completely on our side.
But London is making progress. I was reading about a new manned cycling facility in north London the other day which, like Toronto's bike locker scheme, allows cyclists to leave their bikes and know they'll still be there when they come back to collect them. And the cycle route in east London I ride to work on has been massively improved.
I'm sure my exuberance won't last long once I get back to dealing with the stress of my daily commute, but it's been encouraging to see how much worse it could be.Reuse content