Cycling boom defies official apathy as the car still rules: Bicycle ownership has surged in the past 20 years but few towns have followed the continental lead in improving facilities. David Nicholson-Lord reports

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a stirring piece of courtroom drama. Dr Robin Stott, a hospital consultant charged with riding his bike through Kensington Gardens, was fined pounds 10 by Bow Street magistrates. He remained defiant. 'For those of us who take health and environmental responsibilities seriously,' he declared, 'going to work on a bicycle is close to being a moral imperative.'

After years of persecution, cyclists are flexing their muscles. Not since the Second World War have bicycles been so popular. From a post-war trough around 1970, when Britons bought only 641,000, demand has climbed inexorably and now regularly outstrips that for new cars. By 1990 we were buying 2.8 million bikes a year, half as many again as in the 1930s.

With the spread of the bike - there are 15 million in the UK compared with 22 million cars - has come a new self-awareness. The London Cycling Campaign, with 7,000 members, has doubled its size in three years to become the largest urban cycling group in the world. Many other cities have similar groups.

The rediscovery of the bike is based on health, environmental awareness, convenience, and also image. Regular cycling can make you as fit as someone 10 years younger. It is probably the most efficient form of transport known to man, using 50 times less energy than a car. It is also much faster than a car in gridlocked cities - 12mph, compared with 6.6mph, in one recent trial.

However, many bicycles see little of the roads. Four per cent of trips are made by bicycle, compared with more than 50 per cent before the war. In urban areas, cycling has grown, but only by 30 per cent since 1973. The cycling lobby says this is because many of us are too frightened to use our bikes.

One reason is the car, and its influential backer, the Department of Transport. In two-thirds of collisions between cars and bicycles, the driver is to blame. Yet while the Netherlands, for example, has launched a strategy to combat traffic congestion, the department views cycling as a health hazard and a road safety problem, excluding it from many travel surveys and cost benefit studies. Spending on bicycles is equivalent to 0.015 per cent of its roads budget.

British Rail is also becoming hostile. Thanks to the disappearance of the guard's van, the advent of new Sprinter rolling stock, tighter financial controls and overcrowding, the bike is being squeezed off trains. According to the Cyclists' Touring Club, a bewildering variety of rules for taking bikes on trains makes cross-country travel a 'nightmare'. Privatisation will make this worse.

With a few honourable exceptions, most local authorities have ignored the bike. In Oxford, which 20 years ago abandoned a pounds 250m roads programme in favour of a balanced pounds 5m pro-bike policy, cycling has increased by seven times the national average. But 86 per cent of cycle commuters have no cycle routes.

The irony is that, traffic apart, cycling is more people-friendly than ever. Lightweight frames and 21-speed gears are taking the edge off hills. Puncture-resistant tyres have been developed. Modern fabrics offer rain-proofing without sweat.

The British Medical Association is among bodies advocating a large-scale switch from bikes to cars. A tenfold increase in cycling could cut car-borne emissions of carbon dioxide - the gas mainly responsible for global warming - by half. It would also save public money: a long- distance biking and walking trail, mile for mile, costs less than a thousandth of an extra lane on the M25.

'The bike is saying 'Be healthy, save money, make the country a nice place to live',' according to Jim McGurn, editor of New Cyclist. 'But the Government is just not listening. It is an ideological problem. People are being forced into cars because there is no alternative.'