Straying from the path: Britain falls behind Europe in the cycling stakes

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Picking their way through the thundering traffic of Britain's towns and cities this morning, few cyclists will feel that the Government loves them.

Picking their way through the thundering traffic of Britain's towns and cities this morning, few cyclists will feel that the Government loves them.

Navigating dangerously narrow cycle lanes, going shoulder-to-shoulder with huge lorries belching toxic fumes: it is all part of the daily commute. It seems to be the case of four wheels good, two wheels bad.

Yesterday, however, the bicycle clips were off and campaigners launched an all out-assault on the Department for Transport's failure to back the bike. Not only can cycling solve the country's burgeoning health crisis, it can dramatically cut CO2 emissions that cause global warming, they said.

Philip Darnton, a former chief executive of Raleigh bicycle makers and now chairman of the National Cycling Strategy Board (NCSB), said £70m was urgently needed to kick-start an effective cycling policy in Britain.

At present, the Government spends just £1 per person per year on cycling, compared to £5 in Denmark, a country that boasts Europe's highest proportion of cyclists and where one in five journeys is taken on two wheels.

Compare that with Britain where only 2 per cent of trips are made in the saddle. The NCSB is stunned at Whitehall's refusal to stump up the cash for cyclists. Mr Darnton said he saw "no overall strategic commitment" to cycling at ministerial level. "The truth of the matter is that there is no more money coming from Government at all."

The board, which was set up in 1996 to advise on policy, submitted a "very clear proposal" to the Department of Transport in September. It said an extra £70m from the annual £4bn transport budget would have a "dramatic effect" on the quality of life for Britain's cyclists.

Mr Darnton compared that to the £21m earmarked by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to train 44 elite cyclists for the Olympics. "It is not that I resent that money, I find it incredible that one government department can find that sort of money and the Department of Transport can't," he said.

Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, is the first to admit he is no cyclist - describing it yesterday as "hard work" - but he inherited an ambitious commitment to quadruple the number of cyclists in Britain by 2010. The pledge was quietly dropped last year as figures showed only 13 per cent of people cycled once a week, while 60 per cent never do.

Mr Darling's department estimates it is providing £40m a year to local authorities to improve cycling. Some - York, Cambridge and Lancashire - have been very successful. But the biggest disincentive for people thinking of taking up cycling is the danger that riders face on the road. Last year 17,000 cyclists were injured, with a fatality every three days.

John Grimshaw, chief executive of Sustrans, a charity which aims to reduce motor traffic, says the key is to create safe, high quality networks. Largely thanks to Sustrans and its £43.5m Lottery grant received in 1995, Britain is heading towards 10,000 miles of cycle lanes, a twentyfold increase in the past decade.


The Dutch are better at getting on their bikes. Amsterdam's streets teem with 600,000 cycles, ferrying much of its population of 730,000 on 400km of cycle paths which criss-cross the city. Buyers can visit any of the city's 140 cycle shops.

In Denmark, many people cycle more than 100 miles a week, on the network of 2,500 miles of bike lanes across the country. Cyclists do not have to wear helmets, but you are not allowed to carry a passenger unless they are a child under six.

In Parma, 16 per cent of Italians travel by bike. The council is so keen to increase the number they offer financial financial incentives to anyone buying an electric bike.

Parisiens have 197km of cycling paths. In Bois de Boulogne they have an extra 23km. And researchers say casualty rates for cyclists in Europe are 5 to 10 times less than in the UK.