Why did I ride my bicycle on a motorway?

The M74 Extension in Glasgow opens to cars and trucks at the end of June. Yesterday, cyclists, runners, wheelchair users and walkers were given early access to a five mile stretch of urban motorway that cost a mind-numbing £672m. Naturally, the motorway – built to ease congestion in a city already over-run with elevated carriageways – will soon fill with traffic and within a few years there will be calls for a bypass of the bottlenecks. And so it goes on.

Induced demand is a well-known phenomenon in road transport. But how come the demand inducing is always so car-centric? Why don’t the UK governments build a stonking great bike path network throughout the land and watch as that fills up with ‘build it and they will come’ riders? Why spend £672m on such a short stretch of road when the money could have gone on a transport network that is beneficial to the economy, to health and to peoples’ waistlines?

Because there’s always plenty of money for motorists, and White Elephants cost a lot to feed. This is unsustainable long-term but politicians have yet to wake up to the realities of Peak Oil and Peak Car.

Transport Scotland believe the motorway will “produce immediate benefits by removing traffic from the M8, taking approximately 20,000 vehicles per day off the M8…” and “improve journey times across and through Glasgow with 5 – 10 minutes being saved per journey in peak hours.”

Such time savings are amazingly low yet this sort of stat is wheeled out for every major road building project, and invariably the time savings are quickly absorbed as more and more motorists take up the slack.

So, if building more and more motorways is no answer to congestion, and if I’m clearly no huge fan of spending astronomical amounts of tax-payers money for such small gains, why did I travel to Glasgow from Newcastle (on the train, natch) to ride on the M74 Bike ‘n’ Hike Day?

Maybe lots of locals were treating this as fun ride but, for me, it was a form of wheels-on-the-ground protest.

I’m no Swampy, I’m not going to burrow underground, chain myself to a JCB, or belay off a tree. However, I can join 6000+ cyclists in an official Critical Mass (we paid £5 to be part of ride, with the money going to charity) and claim the M74, if only for a day.

Bike paths ought to be constructed to this sort of quality. The tarmac is super-smooth, perfect for cycling. Bike paths ought to be built wide, too, not the poxy slivers we get foisted with.

As a British tax-payer I help pay for motorways so it’s good to get the chance to ride on one, to see close-up how my money is being spent.

And it’s not being spent very wisely.

Etape Caledonia protestor believes race to be illegal

Etape de Caledonia Simon Willis

In my story on BikeBiz.com, Peter Hounam of ACRE (short for Anti-Closed Road Event) answered my email about his organisation’s opposition to the Etape Caledonia. But he didn’t answer all of the questions. Here they are:

Hi Peter

I’m doing a story on the Etape Caledonia. Would you mind answering a few questions?

1. You’ve been quoted saying local businesses are impacted by the rolling road closure. Is this not very much offset by the money spent in the local economy in the run up to the event, with many of the riders booking hotels and eating in restaurants etc? Your family’s coffee house may have even done a roaring trade because of all the cyclists (one on the link below said he bought chocolates… [NOTE: Peter Hounam’s son-in-law is a chocolate maker based in Grandtully on the route of the Etape Caledonia)

2. Do you believe the Etape Caledonia is a race for the majority of entrants? 

3. In what way do you believe the event to be illegal?

4. Clearly, highways are, by definition, thoroughfares for access, and closure of such rights of way is a restriction on free access. However, closure for the Etape Caledonia is for a limited time only. Road closures by themselves are not illegal: if two cars crashed head-on on the road through Grandtully, the police may temporarily suspend access on this road. What is the difference between these two types of temporary access restrictions?

5. I am aware of your background with the Sunday Times and the Vanunu expose and the budget leak etc. As an award-winning investigative journalist you have experience with taking on ‘the powers that be’ and winning. When and why do you think you will be successful in blocking the Etape Caledonia?

6. On The Courier website a commenter from Leeds said: “If the local people are so against it then who were all the lovely people stood by the roadside cheering, waving flags and playing the bagpipes?” What do you say to that? 

7. As a percentage, how many locals as a whole are against Etape Caledonia? How about tourism-related locals, how many B&B owners and hoteliers are against the Etape Caledonia?

His answer to these seven questions was:

“Please feel free to use what I said to the Courier. You should practice asking open not loaded questions. We shall be issuing our arguments on legality when ready but they do not have permission to race only to run a trial and it is no longer that for many participants. Why not investigate this yourself.  No more to add.”

The BikeBiz story has many more details. Pic by Simon Willis.

Drivers: if your car wheels were on stilts you could do this too*

This is a mesmerising video of a Glasgow commute by helmetcam cyclist @magnatom. It’s 10+ minutes of a cyclist filtering through what appears to be miles of gridlocked cars, vans and HGVs. The hypnotic music and dream-like footage makes for an arresting short.

It’s easy to skip through after watching the first minute or so but treat it like an art film and watch until the end. There’s no twist in the tale, no set-up for a sequel, it’s just ten minutes of freedom, filtered.

Now, there are some who would view this film as video nasty because it shows a ‘vehicular cyclist’ mixing it with fast-moving motorised vehicles. Except they’re not fast-moving, they’re slow at best, static at worst.

Personally, such a daily commute in a car, would be my version of Hell.

The bike commute looks hairy at times and, clearly, it would be so much better if cyclists had big wide lanes of their own. But, in Glasgow, as with much of the UK, such lanes will be a while coming.

The video won’t attract anybody to cycling. In its own way it’s as extreme as a Danny MacAskill video. But as an example of the Tragedy of the Commons, it’s perfect. When everybody wants to use the road at the same time, and in big motorised contraptions that take up a lot of room, and often for just one person, gridlock is the result.

Our cities will see more and more gridlock over the coming years. Congestion costs, and the answer is not more and bigger roads. One of the answers is the construction of bike paths, for those not daft enough, or confident enough, to ride next to cars, vans and trucks. For those who are confident enough (and I’m certainly daft enough), we have to make sure we always keep our right to ride on roads, too. Even busy ones, should we so choose.

* The car-on-stilts trick wouldn’t be an effective long-term solution to gridlock. As pointed out by @chrisgerhard “that’s not going to help when you come up behind another stilted car:-)”