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I’m in favour of separated paths for cyclists. I’ve been hammering on about it for the best part of 25 years, with editorials on the subject in the mags I founded such as BicycleBusiness (in issue number one, August 1999, I waxed lyrical about the “tendril-like spread of cycle infrastructure”) and On Your Bike, the non-Lycra magazine for newbie cyclists. More currently, I have an 8-page feature in the second issue of Cyclingmobility magazine on the sometimes excellent bike infrastructure in Taiwan.
But ‘build it and they will come’ is only a part of the solution to getting more Brits on bikes and it’s very possibly not even the biggest part. The perception of cycling as a sweaty, slow, outgroup thing to do is a huge barrier to cycling in Britain, and building a hyper-connected, Dutch-style cycle infrastructure, door to door, still wouldn’t get Brits on bikes en masse. Of course, more people would start cycling if road danger was removed by physical separation but probably not in the numbers that would be required to satisfy Government return-on-investment equations.
When new roads are built, cars quickly clog up these roads. Similar doesn’t happen with cycle infrastructure in the UK, even high quality cycle infrastructure. Partly this is because even the best, protected facilities are short - and a network with gaps won’t be used as much, but a joined-up network can’t be built overnight - but it’s also because there are many other barriers to cycling. ‘Danger from motorised traffic’ is always close to the top of the list when folk are asked why they don’t cycle but there are many others on the list too, and some of them could be just as important.
In the US, grannies are being attracted to motorcycling in record numbers despite the dangers. Some even tote their grandchildren. They are far from blase about the danger but recognise that the trade-off is worth it.
Two of the fastest-growing segments of the motorcycling population are women and riders 55 and older.
Kathy Hilstein of Arroyo Grande is one of those new riders. She called herself a “back seat” rider until 18 months ago, when she bought a Harley-Davidson Street Glide three-wheeled cycle.
Now, the petite and youthful 52-year-old grandmother rides daily, including shopping trips and toting her 9-year-old grandson Cruz Sumner around the area.
“It’s my way to relax. It just takes away all of the stress,” she said, admitting she was terrified of motorcycles until she and fiancee Dave Cantua rented one a Hawaiian vacation.
Now it’s her favorite pastime, and she rides alongside Cantua, venturing as far as Laughlin, Nev.
“I try to be aware of my surroundings constantly, but it doesn’t keep me from riding,” she said, adding her bike gives her a new-found freedom. “I don’t like to wait until he gets off work to go riding.”
Now, if a US granny can get over her fear of riding a motorcycle on American roads, why wouldn’t a British granny get over her fears of riding a bicycle on British roads? It can’t just be because motorbikes are fast and can accelerate away from danger; this acceleration probably adds to the danger, motorcycling is far more dangerous than cycling.
Bit Zen, I know, but British grannies don’t ride bicycles because they don’t ride bicycles: the UK culture for riding bicycles was wiped out in the 1950s.
To rebuild that culture it will take separated bike paths, yes, but an awful lot more, too.
In 2009, Peter Zanzottera of UK transport consultancy Steer Davies Gleave told the Scottish Parliament: “People love cycling but hate cyclists.”
In the UK, and in many other countries, cyclists have a bad reputation. Cycling may be good for the economy, good for waistlines, good for unsnarling traffic, and good for the planet, but when a UK politician hears cyclists calling for dedicated infrastructure, nine times out of ten that politician pictures a cyclist running a red light, or buzzing pedestrians.
This is a mistaken perception but it’s a prevalent one. Cycling in the UK is perceived as - and is - tribal. In the Netherlands, there are lots of people on bicycles, not lots of people who would call themselves cyclists. For cycling to go mainstream in the UK, it needs to become more “normal”. This is already happening, albeit slowly.
London’s ‘Boris Bikes’ are being used by people who otherwise might have taken the Tube or a taxi. In Darlington, the Beauty and the Bike scheme (a scheme part-funded by the Bike Hub levy, of which I’m involved) is showing that cycling doesn’t have to be all about Lycra, testosterone and helmets. Yes, the teen girls in that Dutch bike scheme want bike paths (”It’s the Infrastructure, Stupid”) in Darlington but the very fact they are cycling in Darlington, despite the dire cycle infrastructure, is slowly creating a culture of everyday cycling in Darlington. It’s not just ’safety in numbers’, it’s about making normal cycling visible, trendy even.
Because cyclists are inherently tribal, groups are solidifying, especially in the blogosphere: there are those who say cycle numbers will only increase if cyclists are separated from motorcars, and there are those who say cycling on roads is far from a danger-fest. Both groups are right. But both groups (of which there are many sub-divisions) are coming at this from the point of view - shock, horror - of cyclists. This isn’t always helpful because, well, cyclists aren’t exactly loved by mainstream British society.
To those who hate cyclists, calling for infrastructure to protect cyclists is like calling for nicer prison conditions for pedophiles. That’s a deeply shocking thing to say, and no doubt it will be plucked out of its context and quoted back at me, but we have to recognise we’re often despised to a degree out of all touch with reality. Even a picture of Kelly Brook riding a bike in a flouncy dress and heels can’t stop hate comments against cyclists in the Daily Fail.
If we’re hated, and our calls for infrastructure are going to continue to fall on deaf ears until our numbers increase, perhaps we could learn from what happened in the Netherlands? Not just by pointing our engineers and politicians to examples of great cycle infrastructure, but perhaps trimming back the cycling message altogether and going with a more broad-brush approach?
For instance, why do we feel there should be separated lanes just for cyclists? Why not also lanes for roller-bladers? Or pogo-stick users? Daft parallels, of course, but you have to put yourself into the shoes of a city planner or a politician. They get it in the neck about law-breaking cyclists, and to provide better conditions for cyclists - you know, who don’t pay for roads or bike lanes - is not something that will curry favour with the majority of their constituents.
Critically, increasing bike modal share will involve cyclists partnering with other groups. Other groups that also want cars tamed.
One of the reasons for the success of the automobile has always been the united front - at least in public - put on by what was once self-styled as Motordom and which we now know as the ‘motor lobby’. By singing from the same hymn sheet, the disparate parts of the motor lobby was able to steam-roller the not-at-all organised opposition.
By joining forces we could be stronger.
Tacking cycling aims to wider societal aims was one of the ways that cycling’s modal share was increased in the Netherlands. Post WWII cycle usage didn’t drop as far or as fast in the Netherlands as it dropped in countries such as the UK, but nevertheless, the writing was on the wall: cycle use was on the way out.
In the 1970s, the Stop de kindermoord campaign helped create an atmosphere in which Dutch politicians and town planners could do more for cyclists, arresting the decline. Stop de Kindermoord means ’stop the child murder’. This was a safety campaign by a loose coalition of cycling groups but Stop de Kindermoord didn’t major on cycling. Its focus was on protecting children from harm, and that harm came mainly from motorcars. Tame the cars and children’s lives would be saved. Tame the cars and cycling is more pleasurable. Win/win. [There's now a British, 2011, 'Stop the Child Murder' group. It's on Facebook, naturally].
Likewise, the success of Sustrans in the UK, an organisation created by cyclists and largely still run by cyclists, can be attributed to its broad appeal. When it lobbies local Government or negotiates with landowners or goes cap in hand to grant making bodies for funds to extend the National Cycle Network, it doesn’t lead with its cycling credentials, it talks about routes for people, people on bikes, people in wheelchairs and people on foot.
Intelligently, like Stop de Kindermoord, Sustrans also pushes for better travel conditions for children. Which local politician could possibly argue against ’safe routes to school’? By lobbying for routes that protect children, Sustrans is very successful at getting localised traffic calming. But schools are dotted here, there and everywhere. Join up the dots between schools and you have an urban cycle network. Sorry, an urban active travel network, designed for walkers, wheelchair users and, oh, coincidentally, a few cyclists.
Cycling groups who want to get more cycling in their locales need to buddy up with pedestrian groups, with wheelchair user groups, with child safety campaigners, with NIMBY organisations fighting urban sprawl. Don’t just fight for better conditions for child cyclists, fight for better conditions for all children. With cars tamed, human powered transport can flourish. And the taming is better done collectively rather than tribally.
Explicit encouragement for specific modes - the creation of dedicated infrastructure for cyclists, for instance - is important in some locations but it’s essential cars are tamed everywhere. Not every road needs a bike path, but every road needs slower, more carefully driven cars.
Be loud. Be proud. Stand up for cycling. But be aware that not everybody shares our passion. If we push for dedicated cycling infrastructure as the be all and end all of cycling promotion, we’ll achieve a lot less than if we had a broader objective, an objective shared with other, non-cycling, city dwellers.