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Can pounds 42m make Britain a nation of cyclists?

Christian Wolmar asks whether the Millennium Commission's contribution to a cycle network can change the country's habits

When the history of cycling policy in Britain comes to be written, yesterday's date will be seen as the most significant since the invention of the machine itself. The announcement that the Millennium Commission is to provide pounds 42.5m for the building of a national network of cycle paths has rightly been welcomed by cycle campaigners as the first concerted attempt to reverse the long-term decline of cycling in Britain.

If Sustrans, the lucky benefactor of the commission's munificence, succeeds in its aim of providing 6,500 miles of cycle route by the year 2005, it will be a remarkable achievement, making Britain an attractive tourist destination for cyclists and ensuring that cycling can once again become a family leisure activity. But as most of the paths will run between cities rather than within, it will take a lot more than that to turn the British into a nation of cyclists. To do so will require not just an urban network of cycle routes, which Sustrans hopes local authorities will build in conjunction with its national network, but a fundamental change in people's attitude towards cycling.

Almost uniquely among northern European countries, Britain has disdained cycling since the end of the Second World War. Cycling has, until very recently, been seen as a marginal form of transport, of little interest to politicians or planners because they felt that the British did not want to use bicycles. While German children cycle to school and Dutch mothers routinely carry two or more toddlers on their cycles, only the brave and the foolhardy take to the Britain's roads on unmotorised two wheelers.

When in the Eighties the Dutch were building an extensive network of separate cycle routes and the Danes were initiating a national policy of boosting cycling, some local councils in Britain, such as Kensington & Chelsea, were actually ripping up cycle paths because they got in the way of motorists.

But it was not always so. Between the wars, cycling was the main means of transport for some 20 million Britons, who used bicycles not only for getting to work but also for leisure activities. During the war, with private motoring effectively banned by petrol rationing, cycling was virtually the only means of personal transport. Yet it was this association with war and austerity that seems to have hastened cycling's decline. The British took to their newly bought cars and rejected cycling along with ration books and dried eggs. They did so in far greater numbers than elsewhere in northern Europe where cycling also declined but remained an important form of transport. While in Britain there has been a small shift back towards cycling, it still represents only a tiny proportion of journeys, whereas other European countries have seen an extensive growth thanks to deliberate policies to boost cycling. Some Dutch towns now even boast more than 50 per cent of journeys by cycle, a historically high level.

Even experienced cycle campaigners are at a loss to explain precisely why the British psyche seems to have taken against cycling. Jim McGurn, editor of the quarterly magazine Bike Culture, reckons that the influence of big business, particularly the motor industry, has been crucial: "They had the ear of government in Britain in the way that they didn't in other European countries. Essentially, cyclists were seen as a nuisance. If you want to run lots of cars quickly along roads, then you need to get rid of the cyclists." As he wrote recently, "So imperative was the motoring cause that it made cyclists seem like unenterprising and insignificant social stragglers. They began to be treated as such."

In Britain, bikes became associated with poverty, cloth-capped workers going through factory gates on their bikes because they couldn't afford anything better. Keith Bingham of Cycling Weekly says: "The Dutch have no problem with bikes. They just see it as a form of transport but somehow in Britain it got itself a poor image." Indeed, unlike in countries where cycling is more widespread, British cyclists, who now tend to be predominantly middle class, buy expensive bikes in an effort partly to dissociate themselves from this image.

The usual cry of cycling campaigners is that there are no cycle routes, but interestingly it was a tactical error by the cycling organisations after the war that may have contributed to their absence. The Cyclists' Touring Club was opposed to the notion of separate cycling paths because it wanted to ensure that cyclists had the right to remain on the roads. Indeed, there are still some active cycling lobbyists who do not like the national network being built by Sustrans because they think that cars should be forced to slow down to make way for cyclists. With no one to press for cycle facilities and the roads lobby effectively pushing cyclists off the roads, it was hardly surprising that cycling declined rapidly.

The CTC has long changed its policy and now recognises that the provision of cycle routes and paths is essential in fostering cycle use. Adrian Davis, who has been studying cycling in Denmark, said that Denmark had experienced a similar decline to Britain in the Fifties and Sixties, bottoming out in 1974: "At one point cycling was down to 9 per cent and now it is over 20 per cent of journeys."

The decline was halted by active intervention from the government such as legislation forcing local authorities to ensure that schoolchildren could cycle safely to school. Mr Davis says that unlike teenagers in Britain, young people in Denmark do not necessarily rush to get motorised "wheels" as soon as they are old enough to drive. "Because bike riding has become a habit for them, and is cheap and quick over short distances, they see no need to travel in cars. And as there are safe routes for them to use, they keep using bicycles." Even women carrying two children on their bikes take to the roads late at night.

Britain has a long way to go before cycling mums, or even cycling schoolchildren, become commonplace, but the funding of the Sustrans network is undoubtedly a turning point in cycling history. It will provide the stimulus for many other cycling schemes and the publicity surrounding it will help to to rein back on much of the negativity felt about cycling. Indeed, the very readiness with which the Millennium Commission seized on the Sustrans project, which was always seen as virtually certain of obtaining its grant, shows that the zeitgeist has begun to change.

Over the past few years, several transport ministers, notably Steven Norris, have begun to reorient government policy towards cycling, recognising that it is a benign form of transport which is cheap to cater for and has environmental and health benefits. This is a major transformation.

But despite the allocation of a few million pounds to cycling schemes, the Government's policy still has a long way to go before being comparable with those of Holland or Denmark where there have long been policies that seek actively to boost cycling, rather than merely expressing vague support for it, as in the UK. And ultimately, in the words of Jim McGurn, "the key test of the government commitment will be whether it is prepared to take road space away from motorists to provide for cyclists". When motorists are being pushed off the streets by cyclists, history will have turned full circle and the bike will be back.

'Bike Culture' is obtainable from 4 New Street, York YO1 2RA, pounds 20 per year.