Edmund King, 50, is President of the Automobile Association. He was formerly the executive director of the RAC Foundation. Earlier in his career he worked in the Californian motor industry and was a campaigns coordinator for the British Road Federation. He’s a regular in the media, wheeled out to put the motorists’ case on such topics as the proposal to reduce the national speed limit on single carriageway rural roads from 60mph to 50mph. To some cycle campaigners – who only know him from his TV interviews or his motoring columns in The Guardian – he’s the devil in a car, mate.
In fact, King is an urban cyclist and a weekend warrior. He rides a Brompton (“I never drive in London”) and a £2800 full-suspension Whyte E-120XT trail bike (“cycling is my main hobby.)” King is more in tune with CTC president and Channel 4 anchor Jon Snow (“we see each other on our bikes from time to time”) than motormouth Jeremy Clarkson. There’s some serious sibling cycling going on, too: King’s brother is a cycle campaigner on Tyneside.
When he was at the RAC Foundation, King introduced RAC members to the concept of “mobility, not just motoring”, spearheading a ‘smart travel’ campaign by selling RAC-branded bicycles. These were re-badged Moulton APBs, produced by Pashley. “We sold a few,” said King, ” but it was more to make a statement than make money.”
This AA President is no petrolhead? He told me: “The car isn’t always the best means of getting to your destination.” Next time you see him interviewed on the TV news, crane your neck. Can you see his Brompton?
Were you weaned on two wheels?
“My earliest bicycle memories are racing bikes down the garden as a child in Norwich, with four sisters and four brothers. We use to race our trikes.
“At age 9, a close neighbour was Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus sports cars. He sold my mum my first two wheeler. It was a pink Raleigh girls’ bike. I painted it black and called it a ‘Lotus’.
“We had so much freedom. We’d cycle four miles to a local mill, and go swimming.
“I next had a bike at university, in Newcastle on Tyne. It was a Univega MTB bought at Hardisty Cycles [now Edinburgh Bicycle in Byker]. In fact, I bought two. I bought one for my girlfriend at the time. I thought if I bought her a bike it would snare her into the things I liked. She’s now my wife.”
What bikes do you own?
“When I started living in London, I had a mountain bike but was using it for off-road cycling out in the countryside. When I started working on mobility issues for the RAC Foundation, I got a Brompton and started riding it from Islington to central London.
“I cycle when I can, and certainly every weekend. I rode a Marin Alpine Trail for about twelve years. I recently treated myself to a Whyte E-120XT. It’s truly awesome. I thought it was worth investing in because cycling is my main hobby.
“My three children [8, 6, and 5] are all now on two wheels and absolutely love it.”
Is it ‘them and us’ out there, cars v bikes?
“We have to get past the ‘them and us’ mentality. Cycle campaigners often do themselves no favours in this respect. And motorists can be just as bad. Let’s not forget, people aren’t welded to their cars 24 hours a day. Motorists have to get out and walk places too. It’s not two tribes at war. Out of their cars and off their bikes, these are the same kind of people. We need better behaviour all round. Motorists see cyclists running red lights. Cyclists see motorists cutting them up.
“We need to widen the social acceptance of bikes. We have to get away from this cultural thinking that says “I’ve made it, I need a car.” It’ not like that in the Netherlands. Look, I’m the president of the AA, I never use a car in London. Never. Some people are surprised by that, thinking I’d use a car all the time. No, I use the transport which is relevant for the journey. Sometimes it’s a bike; sometimes it’s a train; sometimes it’s a car; sometimes it’s walking.
“We should be getting people to think about common sense mobility, not one form of transport to the exclusion of all others.”
“We’re not yet like Holland, owning lots of cars but still getting everywhere in town by bike. We need to changes things culturally but I think this is happening, slowly.
“The majority of cyclists have cars. The majority of motorists have cycles at home, even if they don’t always use them.
“It’s all about changing attitudes at a young age, getting more people to cycle at a young age, but also improving the facilities for cycling. My local train station at St Albans has recently improved its cycle parking facilities substantially. There’s now CCTV, double the space for bikes, and they’re all under cover. Cycle spaces now fill up every day when, before, the cycle parking was under-used because it was so grotty.
“We also need better facilities in some of our towns and cities. And existing cycle routes could be better designed. Cycling needs to be incorporated at the planning stage of developments. Ridiculous cycle facilities, like 10 yards of route, are the result when cycling is added in an afterthought.
“Getting rid of cars isn’t the only answer: look at Oxford Street; cars aren’t allowed but it’s not a pleasant place to cycle. There are lots of buses and taxis, and pedestrians not looking where they’re going.
“A lot of people are put off cycling by actual or perceived danger. A lot of parents won’t let their children cycle, even teenagers. But fourteen, fifteen, sixteen is a critical age. By the age of 17 they’ve got a provisional licence and won’t ever cycle.”
With eco and health issues, will cars start taking a back seat to bikes?
“The renaissance of cycling is definitely happening. My local bike shop, Addiktion Cycles in St Albans, tells me their business is better than ever. In the first quarter of the year, their sales were up substantially. It’s not leisure cycles; it’s urban bikes, folding bikes.
“Over next 100 years I can’t see the car disappearing. But our car use will change. New technology and other pressures will change our travel habits. Journey planning could be much more important in the future. The AA journey planner is the biggest online journey planner in Europe. Perhaps information could be added to show when a journey is quicker by bike?
“As a society we will need to get much smarter about the way we travel. Some companies put people into cars for a meeting 100 miles away. That’s ridiculous. At the AA we’re very good at teleconferencing: we dial-in, we don’t always drive-in.
“I never drive in London. I’ve not once paid the congestion charge in London. I take the train, I ride my bike.”
This piece was first published in Cycling Plus magazine.