City where cycling culture is put on a pedestal

National Bike Week puts the urban two-wheel experience into perspective . Martin Whitfield reports
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The Independent Online
York is very much the home of bicycle culture. It is the closest Britain comes to a European cycling city, boasting bike tours, bike rickshaws, bike deliveries and ice-cream sellers on bikes.

It is also the home of Bike Culture, a pounds 5 quarterly magazine for "open-minded cycle freaks everywhere".

Jim McGurn, 41, publisher and editor, is something of a guru in the cycling world and founded New Cyclist, the first non-sporting magazine for cyclists. He chose to live in York because of its cycling credentials and has a vision of the city as a centre of cycle tourism and alternative transport technology.

"York has the chance to show how it's done," he said. "It is a natural stopping-off point on the 1,000-mile cycle route from Scotland to Dover which will become a major tourism artery in this country."

York's reputation as being the most progressive city for cyclists has not happened by accident and cannot be accounted for solely by a history of high bicycle use. About 20 per cent of journeys to work are by bike, more than five times the national average of 3.8 per cent.

Positive intervention by the city council began in the mid-1980s when a combination of cycle-friendly politicians, committed officers and pressure from cycle campaigners started to produce results. It accelerated when Labour took control in 1986 and has meant more than pounds 1m spent on cycling facilities.

Dave Merrett, deputy leader and chair of the transport committee, said the political will was vital if change were to come about, but authorities would soon have no choice but to restrict car use.

"We have a fair number of cycling councillors, whereas most local authorities will be lucky to have one or two.

"If we took out the 20 per cent of journeys to work by cycle and three- quarters of those people went by car, it would increase car traffic in the city centre dramatically. The road network is already close to capacity and we have to maintain or improve the level of cycling".

John Rigby, director of development, is used to a stream of visitors coming to see how it is done. As cycling has become more fashionable and congestion more acute, other city engineers are looking for solutions. They are shown city-centre cycle racks able to hold 900 bikes, 22 miles (35km) of cycle routes, bike-controlled crossings and extensive traffic calming and car-access restrictions.

Success has not just come in the form of more cyclists, but also in a reduction in the number of accidents as a result of safe cycling routes, and considerable time savings. A challenge organised by the cycling campaign found a typical journey took 11 minutes by bike, 17 minutes by park-and-ride and 25 minutes by car, including finding a parking space.

Even with all this apparent interest and enthusiasm, however, Mr Merrett said they had a long way to go to compare with Munster in Germany - one of York's twin towns - where 50 per cent of all journeys are by bike.