Britain is in the grip of a cycling revolution as clogged roads, concern at global warming caused by air pollution and the quest for improved fitness persuade millions to opt for pedal power.
After a decade of stagnation in the number of bicycle journeys, new figures show there has been a dramatic leap in commuters and leisure cyclists focused on Britain's cities and the burgeoning network of cycle routes. In London, trips by bike have increased by 50 per cent in five years to 450,000 per day while figures obtained by The Independent show use of the National Cycle Network, covering 10,000 miles of urban and rural pathways, rose last year by 15 per cent to 232 million journeys.
The explosion in bike use, which campaign groups said was happening despite "woeful" under-investment by the Government, is generating increased friction between cyclists and motorists in cities. Last year, there were 328 cyclists killed or seriously injured on the capital's roads and more than 20,000 cyclists are injured every year in accidents across the country.
Transport for London (TfL), which is overseeing the most rapid increase in bicycle use in Europe, confirmed yesterday that it was planning a publicity campaign to encourage greater respect between drivers and cycling commuters as they battle for road space.
Despite the phenomenal growth, Britain remains near the bottom of the European league of cycle use with just 2 per cent of all journeys made by bike - beating only Spain, Greece and Portugal. The Netherlands tops the league with 27 per cent.
But Sustrans, the sustainable transport charity in charge of the National Cycle Network, said that after many years of steady but unremarkable growth in Britain, cycling had suddenly taken off. The proportion of commuters using the cycle network has doubled in recent years, to 28 per cent, according to previously unpublished figures.
Andrew Cope, director of research and monitoring, said: "This is an exciting time for cycling and its development in Britain. On traffic-free routes, particularly in urban areas, we are seeing a very significant uptake in use.
"Established routes that have been available for a long time where we expected figures to plateau are just seeing more and more use and new areas, such as Stoke, are blossoming. Where the facilities are provided, people tend to follow."
Cycle use now accounts for 28 per cent of all journeys in Cambridge, 19 per cent in York, 15 per cent in Gosport and 12 per cent in Crewe.
Experts said the boom was being driven by a mixture of factors, ranging from the "feel-good" influence of getting fit and reducing the impact on the environment to the practical reality that cycling is often a quicker, cheaper and more pleasant way to get around compared to private vehicles on jammed roads and overcrowded buses and trains. Traffic in London now travels at 10mph on average - 2mph slower than it did in 1906 - while satisfaction levels with public transport stand at 44 per cent for the Tube, 37 per cent for buses and 28 per cent for trains.
The growth has been led by London, where the July 7 bomb attacks generated a 20 per cent increase in cycling as commuters abandoned the Tube.
That "spike" has turned out to be a temporary blip, with most returning to public transport. But it has been replaced by a steady growth after investment in cycling increased from £5.5m in 2000 to £24m in 2006-07. The projected budget for 2009-2010 is £30m, by which time there will be 560 miles of dedicated cycle paths across the capital, compared to 310 miles currently.
A TfL spokesman said: "Cycling is a quick, healthy and convenient way of getting around London. But it is also the case that the Tube network is reaching capacity and we can only put so many buses on roads that are already extremely busy so the future lies in cycling."
In so doing, transport bosses are increasingly aware of the delicate balance of power on urban roads between drivers angry at cavalier bikers going through red lights and emission-free cyclists who live in fear of road-hog motorists. A TfL source said: "We recognise there is tension out there. We are developing a campaign which will encourage cyclists to respect the rules of the road and motorists to recognise the right of cyclists to use the road as much as they do."
But amid burgeoning sales of bicycles and accessories (put at £500m per annum), campaigners insisted that the cycling revolution is far from comprehensive and is being starved of Government funding. Despite a pledge (quietly dropped in 2002) from Labour to quadruple the number of cyclists between 1996 and 2012, Britain spends just £1 per capita each year on cycling infrastructure and training. The European average is £5.
The London Mayor Ken Livingstone has set a target of doubling the number of cyclists in the capital by 2020. But even if this target is met, the proportion of bike journeys will have reached just 4 per cent of all journeys, compared to the Danish capital, Copenhagen, where the proportion is 30 per cent. When Cycling England, the government body in charge of implementing the National Cycling Strategy, was set up last year, it was given an annual budget of £5m, compared to the £70m that had been requested.
Adam Coffman, senior transport campaigner for CTC, the national cyclists' advocacy group, said: "Central government cannot take much credit for the growth in cycling because the money has not been put in. This has been a movement from the bottom up led from places like London. The growth is very encouraging but we still lack a cycling culture in Britain. There is a tendency to think you need to don special clothes and buy an expensive bike whereas cycling needs to be seen as part of normal activity - what you do to go to the shops, school or work."
Ed Lehmann, 58: 'You're safer than in a car'
"I usually try to cycle the 13 miles to work each day from where I live in Oxfordshire," says Ed Lehmann, a chemical engineer from Stanford-in-the-Vale, who has cycled for 44 years.
"I love it because it gives me the vigour of someone 10 years younger, and according to one study I read about, it should give me an active life expectancy 15 years longer than someone who doesn't cycle regularly. We're a slightly anarchic lot, us cyclists, and love the freedom granted by a bike in that you don't have to worry about congestion or bus times or your impact on climate change.
I'm not too concerned about dangers because although it may be hard to believe, you're safer on a bike than you are in a car."
Alex Crawford, 25: 'Freedom is big appeal'
Alex Crawford, a radio journalist from Camberwell, south London, is a novice cyclist. "I cycled as a child but then gave up when I went to university because I was in Durham, so it was hilly and it was just easier to walk. I'd been meaning to get back into it and the frustration of not being able to rely on decent public transport, and the expense of the bus and Tube, was the trigger that made me do it.
After the London bombings, there seemed to be a big growth in the number of cyclists until it reached a kind of critical mass. That had the effect of encouraging more people to get on their bikes, because you feel safer when there's more of you. The freedom you get from cycling is the biggest appeal, but also it keeps me fit and healthy and it's good fun, especially the banter with the odd white-van man at the traffic lights."
Pauline Powlesland: 'I can get to the shops in minutes'
Pauline Powlesland, a psychotherapist from Godalming, Surrey, has been cycling for nine months. "I began cycling again because I wanted to get fit but jogging bores me and I don't like the gym, whereas I always loved the fresh air and freedom you get from the bike. When I was a young person I used to cycle everywhere.
"I'm really glad I took up cycling again because it's really convenient. Whereas it would take me 20 minutes to walk to the shops from where I live, and while it would be expensive to hop on the bus, instead I can cycle there in just a few minutes.
"I'm wary of the major roads, just from a lack of experience, but I think that will pass. I've never had an accident, but to begin with I got a cycling instructor."
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