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This Britain

The Big Question: Is Britain really getting on its bike and turning into a nation of cyclists?

Why are we asking this now?

Because cycling's time has come – or so it seems from a flurry of initiatives sweeping the country as politicians and planners wake up to what is increasingly seen as the transport of the future.

Gordon Brown has now adopted the cause, yesterday pledging his support for a festival of cycling in Newham in east London next year – the latest in a number of big cycling events associated with the capital, all of which reinforce the message that the activity has a central role to play in people's lives. "The place of cycling in our society is set to grow, and I am committed to doing everything possible to encourage that," the Prime Minister said.

Newham follows in the tyre tracks of the first ever visit to London of the Tour de France last year; the Freewheel event, in which large stretches of central London are closed on a Sunday in September for the exclusive use of cyclists; and an event called the Smithfield Nocturne, like Freewheel now in its second year, in which the streets around London's historic meat market are closed for a night of races that have drawn some of Britain's best riders.

What's the event the PM is backing?

A series of indoor track races for top professionals will take place over six days in Newham in October 2009, following the six-day format already hugely popular on the Continent. The man behind it is Tony Doyle, a former British track star and world champion, and the idea is to give people a taste of this uniquely thrilling form of the sport ahead of the London 2012 Olympics, at which Newham will host the cycling events.

There will also be a chance for local people to ride on the track, the hope being to forge the link between the success currently enjoyed by Britain's leading professional riders with the everyday reality of ordinary people taking to their bikes to commute to work or just move about.

And are people really taking to their bikes?

The picture is somewhat mixed. They certainly are in London, where a combination of circumstances has led to an astonishing 91 per cent increase in the amount of cycling since 2000. There was surge in uptake following the terrorist attacks of 7 July 2005, but the trend was already upward, a response to the increasing congestion of London's streets, the discomfort and unpredictable journey times on public transport, and the realisation that cycling was both the healthy and environmentally responsible option. A steady if not dramatic improvement in cycling infrastructure in the capital has also encouraged people on to two wheels.

Nationally, the situation is rather different. The latest figures from the Department for Transport show that the overall number of cycle trips has fallen slightly, down from an average of 17 trips per person in 2000 to 16 in 2006. The average cyclist made six trips a week by bicycle in 2006, spending just under two hours in the saddle and covering 14 miles. But within this rather static overall picture, there are clear signs that where towns make a big effort to encourage cycling, the public will respond.

What sort of initiatives are we talking about?

In 2006 a pioneering scheme was launched to turn five towns – Darlington, Lancaster, Aylesbury, Exeter and Brighton – into so-called cycling "demonstration towns", in which transport policy was radically shifted in favour of the cyclist. Gordon Brown reported yesterday that in Darlington journeys to school by bike had quadrupled since the scheme was introduced.

Much of the cycling revolution has yet to materialise, but the Government and local authorities do finally seem to have realised that in helping to keep both people and the environment in shape, cycling ticks two vital boxes, and the time has finally come to back the activity with some serious investment. Hence last week's announcement of the creation of a series of "cycling hubs" in various city centres at a cost of £100m.

As part of the scheme, Bristol was named as Britain's first official "cycling city", with £23m invested in making roads more cycle-friendly, and providing facilities such as showers for cyclists, secure parking for bikes, and a bike-hire scheme similar to the one that has been so successful in Paris. As a keen cyclist, London mayor Boris Johnson has promised the same for the capital, though he has fallen short of matching his predecessor Ken Livingstone's pledge to spend £500m on making London "Europe's leading cycling capital".

So how do we compare with the Continent?

Mr Livingstone's words always did sound a little ambitious, because the level of cycling in London is still way behind cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen (roughly 2 per cent of total journeys compared with around 30 per cent). The kind of improvements in the pipeline, although extremely welcome to the cycling community, are still not going to create anything like that level of take-up.

Cycling on the Continent is embedded in the culture – in northern European cities, anyway. There are reckoned to be as many bikes as there are people in the Netherlands, and anyone who has visited Amsterdam will know that cycling there is the norm, while car-driving is, relatively speaking, a fringe activity. Road design, and the conduct of drivers, reflects this balance. The bike has priority over the car, whereas in British cities, it remains the other way round. The result is an abiding perception of danger that continues to dissuade people from taking up commuting by bike.

So how dangerous is cycling?

Statistically becoming much less so as more people take to two wheels. Strength in numbers is a principal that cycling enshrines. In 2007 the number of cyclists killed or injured on London's roads was 19 per cent down on 1994 – when the number of journeys by bike was half what it is today. The signs are that motorists are adjusting their behaviour in response to the increase in cycling activity around them, and cyclists are learning the art of survival.

Deaths while cycling always attract publicity, but remain extremely rare when put in the context of the millions of cycle journeys made each year. There were 19 cyclists killed on London's roads in 2006, 15 last year. Most cyclist deaths occur when vehicles – particularly lorries – turn left without the driver realising that there is a cyclist on their inside, with a disproportionate number of women cyclists falling victim. Publicity campaigns have targeted the danger and the fact that the London fatality figure is dropping suggests that the message is getting through.

As cycle campaigners regularly point out, the benefits of cycling far outweigh the risks, and now, it seems, the Government is joining the chorus.

Are two wheels the way forward?


* More and more people are discovering the benefits of cycling – both to themselves and to the environment

* Car use at current levels is unsustainable in the long run. Cycling is the obvious alternative for short journeys

* 'Liveability' is the watchword in today's urban environment. Bicycles contribute to this ideal – cars do not


* People love their cars too much. They are comfortable, feel safe, and they've got space for luggage

* British road design remains fundamentally biased towards the car. Improvements to cycle facilities amount to little more than tinkering

* Britain is too hilly, and too chilly, for people to be prepared to take to bikes in the kind of numbers seen on the Continent