Will bikes ever truly belong on Britain’s roads?

One of the peculiar pleasures of urban cycling is the amount of time you can spend wondering both at how badly money for cycling can be spent, and how well

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Racing cyclists have a term for those who cruise in someone else’s slipstream and thus save themeselves a lot of effort: wheelsuckers. David Cameron’s announcement of a £77m investment in new cycling infrastructure sounds wonderful, as did London Mayor Boris Johnson’s announcement earlier this year of an equally dazzling – and, at £900m, far more expensive – range of new cycle schemes for the capital. But, aside from the entertainment involved in watching the prime minister and the prime-minister-in-waiting vying for the votes of a lot of smelly men in trendy cycling gear, isn’t this all just a bit of political wheelsucking?

Cameron’s promise certainly looks impressive. The money is to be split between eight English cities – Manchester, Bristol, Cambridge, Norwich, Oxford, Leeds, Newcastle and Birmingham, with four national parks getting a further £17m. The bulk of the money will be for adaptations to the existing road network as well as improvements to the design of new ones, and since the funding will be matched by local councils, the total to be spent on new infrastructure stands at £148m. Cameron’s aim is to capitalise on the post-Olympic glow and put the British up there with the Dutch for all-round bike friendliness. Since at present only 2 per cent of all journeys are made by bike in the UK whilst one-third of journeys in the Netherlands are, it’s an ambitious target.

Still, complaining about fabulous sums of money to be spent on cycling seems churlish. But one of the peculiar pleasures of urban cycling is the amount of time you can spend wondering both at how badly money for cycling can be spent, and how well. All of us – or those of us still alive to tell the tale – have particular villains: three-foot-long bicycle lanes, paths that hurl you into the jaws of incoming traffic, lines that encourage you to cycle straight into opened car doors. Equally, there are moments of pure cycling transcendence: lanes through parks, one-way routes opened up as two-ways for cyclists, even the option to take bicycles on the London Overground. None of these things are expensive, but they do make a genuine difference both to the safety of cycling and to the pleasure of it.

Often, it’s those improvements on which most money has been spent which have proved the most useless. Until recently, many of the new lanes seemed to be designed less to benefit cyclists as to annoy motorists. Which, in turn, goes to the heart of the problem: the deep-seated British belief that one form of transport has always to be in direct competition to another.

The reason why cycling in the Netherlands is so different is partly because back in the 1970s when the Dutch faced the same transport choices as the British, they ignored the oil lobby and opted instead for an infrastructure which included both bicycles and cars. So almost all roads built since the 1970s were planned with big spacious level cycle lanes running parallel to the road.

By including cyclists in transport planning from the outset, something very powerful happened. Dutch cyclists have equal status with motorists. Not more, not less, but the same. Which means in turn that getting round Dutch cities is not an adversarial free-for-all, but a leisurely, almost boring, commute from one place to another. It would be wonderful if most new roads in Britain could now be built in the Dutch way, but practically speaking the challenge in most British cities is to retrofit cycling into roads built entirely around driving.

London is the city which has seen the greatest change in cycle usage over the past decade, but there are still huge anomalies. How, for instance, would you make London’s Park Lane cycle-friendly? Start roadworks to paint a few cycle lines on it and you bring the capital to a standstill. Or Shepherd’s Bush roundabout, or Elephant & Castle, or Old Street, or Marylebone Road? Most already have something for cyclists already in place – a scribble here, novelty traffic light there – but because the priority is to keep traffic moving and the city functioning, cyclists have to come second. Or third. Or not at all.

Unfortunately, as politicians are now beginning to realise, by marginalising urban cycling for decades they have managed to turn a bunch of mild and herbivorous middle-class individuals into a motley flock of feral cyclists – fit, righteous and educated up to European Court level in the art of transport lawbreaking. Anyone who took up cycling before last year’s victories in the Olympics and the Tour de France learned to see it the British way: wary, ingenious, individualistic, pitted with snobberies and secret signals, and – to anyone Dutch or French or German – as daft as Dad’s Army.

So announcing initiatives is the easy bit. The challenge is finding traffic planners who are themselves cyclists and who understand that bicycles are not just remarkably thin cars. Who like cycling themselves, but don’t see one form of transport as excluding all others. And who can somehow manage to fit bicycles into a system already crowded with competing interests. Above all, it’s going to be interesting to see if this signals a genuine long-term Dutch-style shift in policy, or whether it’s just another bit of post-Olympic wheelsucking.

Bella Bathurst’s books include ‘The Bicycle Book’, published by HarperPress

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