You would think that this particular moment in history would be the humble bicycle’s time to shine. Recently petrol oozed its way up to nearly £2 per litre and the cost of living started outstripping wages at an unprecedented rate. The stress of energy bills is draining the energy of more and more people but also stoking a lot of anxiety and fear. And there’s the small matter of catastrophic climate change. Using a bicycle or going on foot for more everyday journeys could help keep household costs down, make local environments more pleasant and improve health. Particularly mental health, which for many is taking a kicking right now. However, I feel that a lot of these points are the reason why the very act of riding a bicycle and more specifically, providing safe areas for this to occur, is singled out for hatred and vitriol.
The ideology of the motorcar has become so ingrained for so long and the memories of how people used to get about long forgotten, the majority have become unwitting slaves to motoring. The huge advertised promises of fun, freedom, prosperity and modernity have now become an expensive weight, grinding down on people that can see no possible change to their lifestyles even if they want to. The costs of which ever spiralling upwards out of control. People may feel trapped and frightened of an uncertain future. As a result, they may need a scapegoat and more populist areas of the media and social media are happy to provide them.
We aren’t very good at dealing with simplicity in the United Kingdom. It’s probably why riding a bicycle is regarded as a sport or leisure activity first and foremost. It can be pigeonholed as requiring specialist clothing and equipment. It becomes easy to regard bicycle riders as an ‘out group’ on our highways. With lycra, bicycle riders have a uniform to be despised and controlled with threats of red tape and regulations that would act as a deterrent. Apparently red-tape and regulations are a bad thing in all other aspects of life. Except the humble bicycle.
For all the trillions spent on motoring advertising and infrastructure over the decades, the car has won many, many battles but not the war. The bicycle was here before and isn’t going away. But now we need to make sense of a battlefield radically changed over the years; Housing developments with no walking or cycling provision and offering little local utility. Town centres smashed up in the past to make way for motoring without regard for the future. Public transport fares so expensive, they make the passenger consider sex work as a more serious and viable career option.
Even when infrastructure is provided for bicycles in the Shires, it would have gone through a consultation period longer than World War II only slightly less hatred exchanged. The end product usually looks like it was designed by someone left in a room with a bottle of vodka and an Etch a Sketch. We make designing for the simplest modes of transport complicated and the most complex forms of transport simple.
However, in our towns and cities, there is a planning concept that has recently leapt back into the public domain that has provoked some bizarre responses from Populists and ‘influencers’ ; The “15 Minute City” (or “15 Minute Neighbourhood”)
The concept is quite simple, but I’ll let Wikipedia explain:
“The 15-minute city is an urban planning concept in which most daily necessities and services, such as work, shopping, education, healthcare, and leisure can be easily reached by a 15-minute walk or bike ride from any point in the city. This approach aims to reduce car dependency, promote healthy and sustainable living, and improve the overall quality of life for city dwellers.
Implementing the 15-minute city concept requires a multi-disciplinary approach, involving transportation planning, urban design, and policymaking, to create well-designed public spaces, pedestrian-friendly streets, and mixed-use developments. This change in lifestyle may include remote working which reduces daily commuting and is supported by the recent widespread availability of information and communications technology. The concept has been described as a “return to a local way of life”.
Basically, it’s returning things to how they were before the car took control of our lives. In essence this involves dividing a town or city into zones and re-prioritising streetscapes in a way that completing a journey by car takes longer than by foot, bicycle, powered wheelchair or mobility scooter. It is a concept that has existed on mainland Europe (and to a lesser extent here) for many, many years. It makes an area with all its shops and public utilities more accessible and pleasant to all ages and abilities creating a more level playing field.
It shows that in society the car has its place, but people come first. In the UK it is nearly always the other way around.
However, with every positive action, there is a negative reaction. People that make a living from stoking fear and hatred have come up with conspiracy theories that even Joseph Goebbels would have marvelled at. In particular, there is much talk of neighbourhoods becoming ‘prisons’ and that their freedoms will be removed. In the future, one would need a pass or QR Code to pass from city zone to city zone. That emergency services will be prevented from doing their jobs. Far Right groups have hijacked the debate with protests claiming that the schemes are ‘Socialist’ or ‘New World Order Communism’ (no, me neither) whilst GB News is a QVC shopping channel of dystopian, climate change denying ideas touted to people that didn’t get enough cuddles as children. But I guess they need their 15 minutes of fame.
To reiterate; I am writing about a simple planning concept that has been used successfully elsewhere for decades. After all, there is a finite amount of vehicles one can fit into a finite space. Another notion put forward by nay-sayers was that there would be a radical increase in CCTV as people valiantly move from city zone to city zone (maybe people that think this could find more gainful employment with Marvel). Ultimately, the United Kingdom would become a ‘Police State’. However, for all the talk of enslavement and freedoms being removed, there is less talk of the fact that, to get to this point in history we have already incarcerated and removed the freedoms of our children to get from place to place safely.
We live in an age that seems Hell bent in perpetrating the culture of fear. There’s money and notoriety to be made from it for starters. In the meantime, we certainly know how to put the car in incarcerate.
It would appear that the Daily Mail has got bored of immigrants to distract us from a Government determined to make the United Kingdom a privatised, inflation ridden, sewage filled North Korea. They have now moved on to that other bastion of minority groups – cyclists. Apparently us bicycle riders are reckless and dangerous which funnily enough describes the Daily Mail’s journalism since the 1930’s.
According to the main piece, there are rumblings in Whitehall as opposed to the clinking of bottles in Downing Street recycling bins. There was a rise in the amount of people taking to their bicycles during the pandemic for exercise but mainly due to the fact that there were far less cars on the road making it safer for families to venture out. In the midst of a climate & health crisis, one would have thought this a good thing; less pollution, people maintaining a healthy lifestyle taking the strain off an underfunded NHS, improved mental health, quieter streets, no damage to the road network, people working and spending locally. Unfortunately, good things aren’t really newsworthy to the Daily Mail.
The bicycle should appeal to Conservatives as much as it did to Boris Johnson; it’s a libertarian mode of transport offering freedom to all. It’s safe enough to be free of the red tape and laws required for maintaining and operating heavy machinery at non-human speeds amongst humans.
Ministers and the current (possibly outgoing) Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps, don’t appear to agree..
“Mr Shapps told the Mail: ‘Somewhere where cyclists are actually not breaking the law is when they speed, and that cannot be right, so I absolutely propose extending speed limit restrictions to cyclists. I don’t want to stop people from getting on their bike, it’s a fantastic way to travel, and we’ve seen a big explosion of cycling during Covid and since. But I see no reason why cyclists should break the road laws and be able to get away with it.’”
Daily Mail 17 August 2022
My road has a 30mph speed limit. I couldn’t break the speed limit for any period of time if I tried because I’m more Chris Biggins than Chris Hoy in stature. I also want to enjoy my bicycle riding about town at citizen friendly speeds as opposed to Evil Knievel on MDMA and Special Brew.
But here’s the thing; one of the problems we face in the United Kingdom is that there is still a lack of affordable bicycles prominently available for transport as opposed to sport. Go into most bicycle shops and the vast majority are road bikes or mountain bikes. It’s the bicycle equivalent of offering everyone the binary choice of a Ferrari or Range Rover to buy a pint of milk when all they want is something more humble (and less nickable); a vehicle that favours comfort and practicality for carrying a bit of shopping or the kids to nursery that can be ridden in everyday clothing. Making cycling ‘the People’s Transport’ again, if you wish to give it a name.
Look to The Netherlands or Denmark and the bicycles ridden over there. Upright bicycles where a rack, lights and mudguards are integral as opposed to optional. Research & Development stopped in about 1940 because you can’t really improve on perfect. This brings us on to the fact that there are also no registration plates, which is an idea being put forward over here. Again.
“…Though this has been proposed many times, no-one has managed to make registration of people cycling or their cycles a workable proposition. Aside from any concerns about how to register children, whether the registration is for the vehicle or the person, or what rules one would have to follow in order to acquire such a licence, we know that registration schemes have no real value. The costs and complexity of introducing any such system would significantly outweigh the benefits.
If it were true that being registered made people safer, then it would be possible to link the levels of driver or vehicle registration to the safety of the roads. But as almost every car crash involves registered drivers in licenced vehicles, it is clear that registration does not appear to offer any meaningful disincentive to those who drive – or cycle – badly.
Furthermore, as cycling is a mode of transport which is widely acknowledged should be encouraged – as it is safe, efficient and doesn’t pollute – adding bureaucratic hurdles would only serve to discourage usage.”
One person killed by a fellow human riding a bicycle is one too many. But the crash statistics for bicycles pale into insignificance when compared to the death and destruction caused by motor traffic, not withstanding the secondary effects of pollution.
If a person on a bicycle is breaking the law, then maybe it has something to do with the way they are trying to navigate infrastructure often designed by a local authority that hates bicycles or create routes that look as though they were plotted on an Etch-A-Sketch. This does not excuse law breakers; it boils my urine to stop at a red light and see someone sail through, oblivious to the slow hand clap I’m giving them. But cycling is the only mode of transport where the bad behaviour of a minority of that mode is held as an excuse to not build any new infrastructure at all for the rest. If we shut all roads to motorists where there were examples of law breaking whilst motoring, there would be nowhere left to drive.
This is all however just a silly season headline. A clear attempt to distract and divide from the horror show that is the current administration and the world we now inhabit. Unfortunately, readers of the Daily Mail and supporters of political parties that have vested interests will run with this. It sells papers, gets web clicks and gets at least one portly, middle aged ex-cycle campaigner blogging again.
But they may take it out on people that have merely decided to get from A to B on the most efficient, cost effective, fun, clean, community building mode of transport whilst driving the most space inefficient, polluting, anger inducing, community splitting mode of transport. And it’s this that is unforgivable.
For a nation that so despises red tape, we seem dreadfully keen to tie ourselves in knots with it if it discourages a minority group. Even children.
Oh, it’s you. Well, come in, come in. Wipe your feet. I’ll just put some plastic down over the seats. We don’t want to get oil or grease marks on them do we? You know what some cyclists are like. I’ve put on a selection of home made cakes on those doilies and tea in the Harrods container over there. Now, let’s have a little chat about class.
The British developed a strange attitude toward class and status through recent decades. In the past everyone knew their place and only spent what they could afford. The bicycle was the mode of transport for getting about as your place of work and shops were nearby anyway.
With relentless marketing from the motoring lobby (Ford made no secret of their product placement in programmes such as The Professionals) and construction of infrastructure hostile to anything without an engine, the car became the affordable, progressive item of desire for the working classes to have. In the village where I was brought up in the 1970’s, the main place of work was an engineering factory about a mile away. Everyone walked or cycled as it was the logical thing to do. By the end of the decade, all but a hardcore minority had moved from bicycle to car. My father worked there, made the same transition and developed heart problems that could have been eased by riding a bicycle more often to a job building camshafts for cars.
I often look at the price tag of a new car and think ‘how many can really afford that’. Of course in our recent times of easy credit, it was easier to burden oneself with the payments over a period of months with the choice of upgrading their car or paying a lump sum to make the car officially theirs. People were always going to go for the upgrade, burdening themselves with more debt and ensuring brand loyalty.
The adverts the customers saw promised quite a lot. They promised empty forests and fire roads or strangely desolate city centres with romantic street lighting. Beaches with empty car parks or country lanes without farm vehicles. Above all they promised aspiration and freedom. Buy this product and suddenly you can become [even more] attractive to the opposite sex. You could free yourself from your supposedly lowly bonds and BE somebody.
If motorists are a bit aggressive, it’s partly because behind those angry, stressful eyes they’re wondering why the Ring Road is full to the brim of other aspiring sexy types looking for that open tundra. Near Ipswich. They will carry on motoring to the death, as they feel that they have paid their way to sit in such misery. They have had to insure it, ensure that it’s roadworthy, fill it with fuel and pay for the amount of emissions its engine size will generate. This, to many motorists, means that they have ‘bought in’ and own the roads. They are part of an exclusive club believing the roads are theirs when they aren’t, that think they can drive how they want when they can’t, and think their journey is more important when it isn’t.
In these supposedly enlightened times, the humble bicycle is still generally regarded in the UK as the poor mans transport, for people that don’t quite fit in or the great unwashed who don’t pay their way. The media, largely reliant on motoring advertising revenues, are happy to maintain the status quo.
Another factor, particularly pertinent as we enter Autumn is the use of hi-viz. To the aspiring classes, an activity requiring a high-viz tabard is something that…well….poorer people do. You don’t need hi-viz in a gym unless you are particularly clumsy, or you’re there to work on the air conditioning. You shouldn’t need it when cycling either, but that debate is for another time.
In recent years, levels of cycling have started to rise in places such as Central London. Although in real terms cycling still has a pitifully low modal share, especially in outer London and the shires, Boris Bikes, Superhighways and even ‘going Dutch’ seemed to be floating around the media in a positive way. Cycling was starting to be discussed which could only be a good thing. To counter this, a new battle front opened up. This time it was sports/leisure cyclists that spent too much money. Enter the MAMIL (Middle Aged Man In Lycra). The papers clearly wanted middle aged men back in golf club bars moaning about immigration and buying sports cars (preferably ones they’ve reviewed).
It would appear that advocates for bicycles and safer streets are not immune to snobbery or weird prejudices either;
Mikael Colville-Andersen is behind the wonderful Copenhagenize blog and was one of the inspirations that led to the creation of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain. Last week, he came up with the following tweet..
I’m praying he’s using exaggeration for comedic effect here.
To be fair, when I look at the price tag of an e-bike or e-cargo bike, I’m soberly reminded of my working class roots in that they’re generally more expensive than any of the cars I’ve ever owned in the 29 years since passing my driving test. The only exception is the one that’s currently collecting dust and bird poop in my driveway.
However, I kind of have to doff my flat cap to individuals and families that are prepared to go through such commitment and financial outlay in the United Kingdom specifically where nearly everything is stacked against you from volume of traffic to infrastructure designed by Salvador Dali if he had a penchant for Tennents Super. This set against a backdrop of unfathomable anti-bicycle prejudice on public Facebook groups where people express views that Joseph Goebbels might have winced at.
Mikael prefaced that last tweet with the following one…
I felt a bit guilty, white and privileged as all the elements listed in his ‘postcard’ are also in the smartphone I read it on. And the smartphone Mikael used to generate the tweets in the first place.
Again, I pray it’s an attempt at humour, but even so, It’s kind of treating cycling as an inverted snobbish cult and those ‘able-bodied’ people that invest in an e-bike have somehow fallen from the pure faith. I would love to watch him debate with able-bodied but more vulnerable sections of society who have decided to invest in an e-bike as it offered a bit more freedom or maybe just an introduction to the broad church of cycling. E-bikes could offer more security, allowing users to get clear of a potentially dangerous confrontation for example. Or to get away from men taking photos of women for a blog simply because they are riding a bicycle in regular clothing.
The simple fact is that cycling can be as expensive or as cheap as you want it to be without compromising your safety and wellbeing. It doesn’t require membership to a club or cult. It’s an egalitarian, libertarian mode of transport that effortlessly transcends class which is why this Sceptered Isle of ours has so much trouble dealing with it. We seemingly want to return Britain to when it was ‘Great’, yet develop a collective amnesia if it’s pointed out that rates of cycling for transport were far higher in those heady bygone times. We design networks to make the most complicated and expensive mode of transport simple and make the most simple and cheapest mode of transport complicated. We happily turn a blind eye to woodland being destroyed for road schemes regarded as essential, yet will set up pompous protest groups against putting a tarmac strip through woodland which would open it up for all ages and abilities.
The most wonderful thing about the bicycle, human powered or otherwise, is that it loves you just the way you are regardless of social status or credit rating. Just make sure you don’t mix with those pedestrians. Common as muck they are.
Please find below the ‘Rules for Cyclists’ as outlined in The Highway Code adapted by me to give more accuracy (in my humble opinion).
You should wear
• a cycle helmet which conforms to current regulations, is the correct size and securely fastened. It won’t necessarily help, but will make motorists think they can drive like lunatics around you because you are ‘protected’ and make cycling look much more dangerous than it actually is, putting everybody else off. Motor companies (like Volvo and BMW) actively promote helmet use. Isn’t that a coincidence?!
• appropriate clothes for cycling. Avoid clothes which may get tangled in the chain, or in a wheel or may obscure your lights. Do NOT wear lycra as that is very, very bad and our obese society will judge you for some reason.
• light-coloured or fluorescent clothing which helps other road users to see you in daylight and poor light because normally they can’t be bothered to look for you unless you’re lit up like a Mardi Gras carnival float and visible to a Mars Rover.
• reflective clothing and/or accessories (belt, arm or ankle bands) in the dark for that extra nerdy/librarian look. Also, as illustrated in the pictures below, you MUST switch from black to white shoes.
60 At night your cycle MUST have white front and red rear lights lit. It MUST also be fitted with a red rear reflector. White front reflectors and spoke reflectors will also help you to be seen. Flashing lights are permitted if you wish to resemble a very small lighthouse but it is recommended that cyclists who are riding in areas without street lighting use a steady front lamp. HOWEVER do not use Mountain Bike lights as people will moan that they are too bright or dynamo lighting as people will moan that they are too dim. People will moan whatever you do, basically. And marvel at the phrase, “I SAW a cyclist with no lights”. [Law RVLR regs 13, 18 & 24)]
61 Cycle Routes and Other Facilities.
Use cycle routes, advanced stop lines, cycle boxes and toucan crossings unless at the time it is unsafe to do so. Use of these facilities is not compulsory and will depend on your experience and skills which you will need lots of because the facilities normally look as though they were designed by someone that kicks mammals for a hobby. But they can make your journey safer IF you are the last person on Earth and even then they are a waste of time and space.
62 Cycle Tracks.
These are normally located away from the road, but may normally be found on footpaths or pavements. Cyclists and pedestrians may be segregated or they may share the same space (unsegregated). When using segregated tracks you MUST keep to the side intended for cyclists until another cyclist approaches when you both suddenly realise it’s too narrow. Take care when passing pedestrians, especially children, older or disabled people. Everyone will drift into the cycle lane for no reason, usually plugged into a phone and/or headphones. Always be prepared to slow down and stop if necessary as they wander about aimlessly. Take care near road junctions as you will have difficulty seeing other road users who will not notice you. If you live outside a major city, expect to see well designed stuff delivered in the 23rd Century as NIMBY’s will oppose it anyway. [Law HA 1835 sect 72]
63 Cycle Lanes.
These are marked by a white line (which will be entered by ALL other road traffic) along the carriageway. Keep within the lane when practicable through all the sunken drain covers and broken glass. When leaving a cycle lane check before pulling out that it is safe to do so and signal your intention clearly to other road users which will be ignored. Use of cycle lanes is not compulsory and will depend on your experience and skills, but they can make your journey safer if you are in Denmark or The Netherlands or Germany or anywhere else EXCEPT the UK.
64 You MUST NOT cycle on a pavement UNLESS the Council has painted a white bicycle on it. There is a difference APPARENTLY. [Laws HA 1835 sect 72 & R(S)A 1984, sect 129]
65 Bus Lanes.
Most bus lanes may be used by cyclists as indicated on signs. Watch out for people getting on or off a bus. Be very careful when overtaking a bus or leaving a bus lane as you will be entering a busier traffic flow and the bus driver thinks they are at Le Mans. Do not pass between the kerb and a bus when it is at a stop UNLESS you’re unbelievably thin.
66 You should
• keep both hands on the handlebars except when signalling or changing gear or sticking the finger up at yet another example of incompetent driving.
• keep both feet on the pedals UNLESS you are trying to do a really cool trick to impress your friends to justify owning a BMX whilst in your 30’s.
• never ride more than two abreast, and ride in single file on narrow or busy roads and when riding round bends. You’ll get abuse regardless from motorists that confuse ‘a country drive’ with ‘Paris – Dakar Rally’.
• not ride close behind another vehicle UNLESS it’s slowed down just after overtaking you for a speed camera or police patrol car.
• not carry anything which will affect your balance or may get tangled up with your wheels or chain such as a chainsaw, which MAY be the only thing that stops motorists passing so closely.
• be considerate of other road users, particularly blind and partially sighted pedestrians. Let them know you are there when necessary, for example by ringing your bell if you have one. Try using common courtesy, which is an ancient British craft that died out years ago.
• never mention LTN’s. Never. Yes, we know they are commonplace in other countries and they work. And they have no impact on emergency services response times. And they return children safely to the streets that we effectively banned them from for decades. But just don’t. It only encourages people to attack planters.
67 You should
• look all around before moving away from the kerb, turning or manoeuvring, to make sure it is safe to do so. Give a clear signal to show other road users what you intend to do. This will be ignored.
• look well ahead for obstructions in the road, such as drains, pot-holes and parked vehicles so that you do not have to swerve suddenly to avoid them. Leave plenty of room when passing parked vehicles and watch out for doors being opened or pedestrians stepping into your path, particularly heavy users of mobile phones, the lemmings that they are.
• be aware of traffic coming up behind you. They know not what they are doing.
• take extra care near road humps, narrowings and other traffic calming features . They are supposed to improve road safety. In reality, they turn something as simple and easy as riding a bicycle into some form of gladiatorial combat, designed by the people that devised the course for ‘Extreme Wipeout’.
• take care when overtaking. Wave to queuing stationary traffic and smile to indicate you are passing them safely. This should cheer them up no end.
68 You MUST NOT
• carry a passenger unless your cycle has been built or adapted to carry one. Those carefree days are over, apparently.
• hold onto a moving vehicle or trailer UNLESS you are going for £250 on ‘You’ve been Framed’ or you’re Marty McFly.
• ride in a dangerous, careless or inconsiderate manner. The Daily Mail and talkRADIO think you will anyway but ‘dangerous, careless or inconsiderate’ also describes their take on journalism.
• ride when under the influence of drink or drugs, UNLESS you live in West Sussex as it can help you finally understand the County Council’s approach to cycling. [Law RTA 1988 sects 24, 26, 28, 29 & 30 as amended by RTA 1991]
69 You MUST obey all traffic signs and traffic light signals. That means NOT breaking red lights. The wearing of a replica professional team kit does NOT make you immune from all traffic laws. You know you’re doing wrong because of the self-righteous yet furtive look you always have when you’re doing it. FAILURE to comply means ALL LAW ABIDING CYCLISTS and SOME OTHER PEOPLE I’VE JUST THOUGHT OF have the right to abuse you. [Laws RTA 1988 sect 36 & TSRGD reg 10(1)]
70 When parking your cycle
• find a conspicuous location where you think it can be seen and passers-by will ignore.
• use cycle stands or other cycle parking facilities wherever possible and do NOT let the vandalised bicycle already there with the kicked in wheels put you off in any way.
• do not leave it where it would cause an obstruction or hazard to other road users although they will find some reason to moan whatever you do.
• secure it well so that it will not fall over and become an obstruction or hazard UNLESS outside the Daily Mail offices (Northcliffe House, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT) or talkRADIO (The News Building, 1 London Bridge Street, London, SE1 9GF)
71 You MUST NOT cross the stop line when the traffic lights are red. Some junctions have an advanced stop line to enable you to wait and position yourself ahead of other traffic. They will generally have motor vehicles waiting in it. [Laws RTA 1988 sect 36 & TSRGD regs 10 & 36(1)]
72 On the left. When approaching a junction on the left, vehicles will turn in front of you, out of or into the side road. Just before you turn, check for undertaking cyclists or motorcyclists. Do not ride on the inside of vehicles that are signalling or slowing down to turn left despite the fact they just overtook you at speed.
73 Pay particular attention to long vehicles which need a lot of room to manoeuvre at corners. Be aware that drivers may not see you. They may have to move over to the right before turning left. Wait until they have completed the manoeuvre because the rear wheels come very close to the kerb while turning. Do not be tempted to ride in the space between them and the kerb. In fact, if you see a lorry indicating or about to make a turn just STOP for goodness sake. The world is a brighter place with you still in it.
74 On the right. If you are turning right, check the traffic to ensure it is safe, then signal and move to the centre of the road. Allow for Audi & BMW drivers that will still overtake you even in the middle of your manoeuvre. Wait until there is a safe gap in the oncoming traffic and give a final look before completing the turn. It may be safer to wait on the left until there is a safe gap or to dismount and push your cycle across the road. No-one is going to stop as motorists are always in a terrible hurry for some reason.
75 Dual carriageways. Remember that traffic on most dual carriageways moves quicker than the speed limit but it’s acceptable because they are all experts [in their own opinions] and when an accident occurs, it is clearly a problem with the road or the vehicle. When crossing wait for a safe gap and cross each carriageway in turn, like Mark Cavendish on MDMA and Lucozade. Take extra care when crossing slip roads. Bear in mind the Highways Agency don’t actually want you there at all, yet can’t put a proper segregated route in because that involves thinking and doing stuff.
76 Roundabouts can be hazardous ONLY if motorists are about and should be approached with care.
77 You may feel safer walking your cycle round on the pavement or verge. If you decide to ride round keeping to the left-hand lane you should
• be aware that drivers may not easily see you as they have vehicles with touchscreens now which are far more entertaining & fascinating to look at than the roads they are on. Especially in Guildford.
• take extra care when cycling across exits. You may need to signal right to show you are not leaving the roundabout and that you exist at all.
• watch out for vehicles crossing your path to leave or join the roundabout or do whatever they bloody well like
78 Give plenty of room to long vehicles on the roundabout as they need more space to manoeuvre. Do not ride in the space they need to get round the roundabout. It may be safer to stop and go to a nearby pub to wait until they have cleared the roundabout. And then perhaps a couple of other lorries after that, just to be safe.
Crossing the road
79 Do not ride across equestrian crossings, as they are for horse riders only. Do not ride across a pelican, puffin or zebra crossing. Dismount and wheel your cycle across EVEN if you are wearing a hooded top with the hood up smoking a B&H on a ‘Mountain Bike’.
80 Toucan crossings. These are light-controlled crossings which allow cyclists and pedestrians to share crossing space and cross at the same time. They are push-button operated. Pedestrians and cyclists will see the green signal together. Cyclists are permitted to ride across and will inevitably get in the way of a pedestrian who will write to the local paper because they are a bloody stupid idea.
81 Cycle-only crossings. Very rare outside London. Cycle tracks on opposite sides of the road may be linked by signalled crossings. You may ride across but you MUST NOT cross until the green cycle symbol is showing. Try to ignore the hatred simmering from the motorists you’ve stopped as you’ve added about 3 seconds on to their journey time. Do NOT forget to press the ‘Wait’ button again on the other side as courtesy to other cyclists who may be approaching. Somewhere. [Law TSRGD regs 33(2) & 36(1)]
82 Level crossings/Tramways. Take extra care when crossing the tracks (see Rule 306). You should dismount at level crossings where a ‘cyclist dismount’ sign is displayed. Then feel a little foolish when you see the replacement bus service pulling out from the station car park.
In the past, Surrey County Council would design bicycle and walking infrastructure like an entity that really hated riding a bicycle or walking; bicycle symbols painted on narrow pavements, solid white lines painted on busy roads inviting close passes from motorists, ‘Cyclist Dismount’ signs (the classic rear guard action of a really bad design) and rough surfaces turning a simple trip between two towns into an extreme sport.
All the above listed feature in the ‘Guildford-Godalming Greenway‘ in my home county of Surrey. It is the classic ‘Work in Progress’; at best mediocre, at worst dangerous. I’ll be expanding on the history of this route at a later date but as a quick overview; it’s Active Travel yet again shoveled to the margins, looking in places like it was designed on an Etch-A-Sketch after drinking a litre of Vodka. Thank goodness there isn’t a climate emergency.
However the Pandemic saw a massive surge in cycling and walking along with the Conservatives allocating funding (a drop in the ocean compared to road building) and backing the creation of more Active Travel routes (making it policy, no less). This prompted Surrey County Council to suddenly surprise everyone earlier this year (particularly the local residents who probably assumed that the status quo would carry on for yet more decades). They announced the following scheme focusing on a stretch of the route; Dagley Lane in Shalford.
Surrey County Council (SCC) is seeking the views of households in the vicinity of Dagley Lane in the relation to the proposed active travel scheme for the Dagley Lane National Cycle Network Route 22….
….Currently, Dagley Lane lacks a tarmac surface. As a result, SCC is proposing to construct a 3-metre wide tarmac path to make it more accessible for cyclists as well as walkers. In wetter times of year, it currently can be impassable.
We have been working with the Surrey Wildlife Trust (SWT) to understand the sensitivities on wildlife in the location. SWT have been undertaking a number of wildlife animal surveys including bat surveys and have been guiding us on measures that would need be taken to mitigate impacts during construction, as well as impacts of the scheme’s infrastructure. Construction would only be carried out at certain times of year to minimise ecological impacts and vegetation cut back would be limited to just beyond the width of the proposed path.
The proposed works on Common Land are part of a route section along Dagley Lane, for which Surrey County Council has funding to construct a high quality facility for walkers and cyclists which it says is ‘inclusive, safe, attractive and comfortable’.
There is an alternative route; the Wey Navigation also connects Guildford and Godalming. However, as I’ve written before, this is not particularly appropriate as a safe cycle route with all the potential for conflict between walkers, cyclists, joggers & anglers that a narrow towpath provides. It is also, like Dagley Lane, pretty muddy in places and bumpy going for anyone in a wheelchair, pushchair or a folding bicycle.
Of course, only an idiot would return to Dagley Lane with a camera and a tape measure.
So anyway, there I was with my camera and tape measure to walk the stretch of Dagley Lane. It’s a route I’ve cycled lots of times over the years. I’m going to start us at the railway bridge to the right on the map above and head toward Guildford.
This is the bridge over the North Downs Line. Note the optimistic National Cycle Route sign with it’s typical surface. Just make sure you don’t suffer from arthritis and/or riding a Brompton.
Here the track narrows to about 1.5 metres. A lot of vegetation. From here on in the width varies from 1.5 to about 4.5 metres.
So far, so rustic. If you like shaking children, recreating a ‘Japanese Earthquake Experience’ for anything on wheels or maintaining access to the countryside for only the fit and able then these pictures are for you. The Guildford to Horsham Road (A281) runs parallel just to the east and you can hear the gentle hum of traffic at all times.
Notice that on some pictures there are garden fences on the right where this Lane runs along the back of dwellings.
Looks pleasant doesn’t it? And wide enough to take a hardened surface without too much trouble.
But wait dear reader!! What’s this coming up??
I’m sure that if The Netherlands was not so flat, they’d have steps built into their active travel routes too. Only kidding!! They’re not that tragically stupid. This is the precise moment that the route becomes inaccessible for many and a ridiculous insult for what is supposed to be a ‘National Cycle Network’ route. Thank goodness there are plans afoot from the Council to right this wrong.
However, for every action, there is a reaction. A group has formed called the Dagley Lane Preservation Group. Before we come to them, let’s take another look at what passes for active travel infrastructure in Britain in the 21st century…
Readers that follow me on Twitter may be familiar with these steps. About a week ago the Dagley Lane Preservation Group appeared on the front page of the local newspaper, The Surrey Advertiser.
The photo does a very good job of ‘Angry Residents Looking Particularly Angry’. I particularly like the ‘Token Cyclist’ energy. However, the photo is taken on the very steps that make the route unpleasant or inconvenient for many with no sense of irony whatsoever. However, it does go to show how a vocal minority group can command the front page of a local newspaper and this can’t be understated. To reiterate; this is a short link between a large town and a village immediately to its south.
(People don’t ride horses to Guildford to do the shopping, by the way. You may have your views on Surrey folk but this never happens).
From here it gets narrow again as the path drops down toward a river with just vegetation and small trees that can be removed and replaced. It also has the same rutted, horrible surface that of course is even more of a pleasure in Winter (if anyone is able to use it).
Eventually we end up at a Water Treatment Works. Sorry! I meant ‘Ye Olde Water Treatment Workes’ (this is apparently an ‘ancient route’ after all).
The Dagley Lane Preservation Group article in the Surrey Advertiser is as follows…
I’ve tried to find their alternative route suggestions, but they seem a bit lacking.
The simple fact is that 70 years of pandering to motoring has led us all here. Guildford and Shalford are traffic choked. Guildford is now on its second bypass (the A3) and people now want that widened. We’ve lost a generation to the simple joys and practicality of riding a bicycle in everyday clothing to work, the railway station, to school or the shops. Many people wanting to cycle are put off by unpleasant and potentially lethal road conditions so the vicious circle of car domination continues.
One of the arguments I encountered against the Dagley Road Scheme was that because the rest of the Greenway is not particularly good, it would be a waste of money to do anything here. Whilst it’s certainly true that the current Guildford-Godalming Greenway feels like walking or riding through the soul of Nigel Farage, we have to start somewhere. And this is a very good place to start with a pretty good proposal from Surrey County Council.
Another problem is political will; I do have sympathies with the Dagley Road Preservation Group in that I’d love to see fully kerb protected cycle tracks along the main roads, I really would. But if segregated cycle tracks were run along the roads into Guildford, they would fizzle out at any narrow point or sign of trouble. The solutions to this are available, but would be regarded as radical and…well…European and therefore a bit foreign. Beleaguered local councillors would barracade their homes as Facebook groups went into meltdown claiming the design was signed off by Marxist revolutionaries. The Daily Mail as well as the Jeremy Vine Show would simultaneously explode. Basically, it would be regarded as political suicide which is why the Greenway at large has been a work in progress for 20 years.
What can’t be ignored however is that loads of new housing is being built around Guildford and Godalming putting further strain on transport infrastructure and access to the countryside. There is no escaping that fact and high quality answers need to be found quickly.
We could live in a weird nostalgic miasma where the local population won’t grow, more housing won’t be built and those less able should be kept out of sight and not enjoy the countryside in comfort. Or we could accept that a decent link needs to be upgraded between a town and a village on its doorstep where far more local people could enjoy the countryside (and Shalford’s facilities) for more of the year.
And the countryside will always be there, still looking beautiful, despite the Dagley Lane Preservation Group presenting their case as though the entire area is about to be slashed and burned whilst any mammal found would be punched to death by burly Council workmen live on YouTube.
It would be wrong and disingenuous to dismiss a pressure group’s concerns out of hand. However, it it is sad that yet again different user groups are at each others throats while the cars continue to rumble on in the background and increase in volume as we push out of the pandemic. That a new scheme benefiting the wider community could have any usefulness strangled out of it by the fickle hand of compromise. I understand the concerns about tarmac and personally would prefer to see an alternate hardened surface installed that is just as robust. But even the most extremist of preservation groups would have to accept that steps on an active travel route are a little bit silly, let alone having your photo taken on them. In fact, it should have been me on the steps looking angry in that photo. I’m 48 years old. Angry comes easy to me these days.
As a footnote, if you get drawn in to Facebook ‘discussions’ where the same, tired, hackneyed fallacies about riding a bicycle crop up (such as ‘road tax’ or ‘registration’, I strongly recommend the excellent Cycling Fallacies website, supported by the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain.
I now reside on the edge of Godalming, Surrey and have done for just over 2 years. It is only 4 miles from my home village where my mother still resides, my Father having finally passed away from cancer in 2014.
The highways authorities that design bicycle infrastructure in my home county of Surrey carry out their work in the style of Salvador Dali with the soul of Katie Hopkins. We shall be uncovering more of this Third World of Transport in future posts.
I live very close to the Wey Navigation. There were many reasons why canals such as this were built from the mid 18th century; roads had not really developed from medieval times, the Industrial Revolution meant Great Britain was becoming a true global power with all the goods that needed to be transported efficiently as a result, and of course the transport had to be inland as opposed to coastal due to a mistrust of the French. But that’s still around today. The canals were the Amazon Prime of their time but with boats instead of drones. Kind of.
Connecting to this is the Downs Link path running from Shalford (just south of Guildford) all the way down to Shoreham by Sea, in West Sussex. When I lived in Worthing for a spell, I’d occasionally cycle its 37 miles to pop up to visit my parents – slowly. I’m more Chris Biggins in shape than Chris Froome.
The path follows the course of two dismantled railways, both of which closed in the 1960’s as a result of the Beeching Axe. As the canals capitulated to the railways so the railways capitulated to the roads from the Second World War and the end of petrol rationing (along with a rather ‘conflicted’ Minister for Transport). However the railways were the Amazon Prime of their time but with trains instead of drones. Kind of.
Canals have enjoyed a Restoration period for a few decades now offering relative tranquility for leisure be it boating, angling, walking and of course, cycling. It would be wrong however to think that these can be part of a meaningful network as far as an efficient transport mode is concerned. Some are blessed to use them for cycle commuting (and the Wey Navigation is stunningly beautiful for the most part) but the conditions I personally feel are often inappropriate – narrow, overgrown, un-surfaced, blind corners and so on. It relies on a lot of mutual goodwill and tolerance from all users (and indeed the volunteer groups that maintain these routes).
Post-Beeching railways that haven’t been lovingly restored by Railway Heritage groups can make excellent long distance routes with the subtlest of gradients. Again, like canals, they can get narrow and overgrown and still require goodwill and tolerance from all users (and indeed the volunteer groups that maintain these routes). But in the case of the Downs Link, the fact that one can cycle 40 relatively easy miles through the South of England with the barest of interactions with motor traffic is wonderful. Don’t however suggest giving them a proper surface and even street lighting where they connect with towns and villages to make them usable in all seasons (the southern end can get horrifically boggy in winter). If you do, cries of ‘urbanisation of the countryside!’ will rain into your local newspaper from people who should be more worried about taking back control of their blood pressure as opposed to our borders.
As I rejoin Surrey’s roads on a bicycle, it’s as though my few years of absence from bicycle campaigning never happened. Below is a picture of some typical British cycling infrastructure. Built with such beautiful contempt for the end user, I don’t know why all pretence isn’t scrapped and ‘THAT’S ALL YOU’RE GETTING FUCKERS!!’ painted at frequent intervals on the pavements. To be fair, Council budgets have been stripped bare over the last decade due to the interesting notion of Central Government of supporting the devolution of powers to the regions and then stripping said regions of any money to do anything. As far as I can ascertain, Her Majesty’s Treasury are basically hiding anywhere outside London in a cupboard under the stairs (except Northern Ireland).
I also had to chuckle when last week, Report No: 1,452 on the benefits of cycling was published (I made that number up, but it feels like 1,452). The Department for Transport commissioned Sustrans amongst others to carry out this particular study – specifically relating to the effects of the Cycling Demonstration Towns and Cycling City and Towns programmes that ran in periods between 2005-2011. It reached the conclusion that where there was investment in urban cycling, there is an increase in the number of trips taken.
Canals, railways and roads will always have money poured into them as long as there is or was monetary return. Well designed and implemented bicycle infrastructure is never a sound investment unless your return is to society in which it pays dividends – a healthier population being less of a financial burden on the NHS into old age, safer communities as more pairs of eyes and ears are outside of metal boxes cycling around, more galvanized communities as people reacquaint themselves with their local shops and amenities from a saddle, less pollution, less congestion, more independence for children, better journeys for wheelchair users and mobility scooters, the list goes on. In these times of Brexit uncertainty and the requirement to be a more self-sufficient Inland Empire, I can’t think of a better time to invest in society.
It’s just a shame that the best ideas are foreign.
Sustrans were also there along with Dr Adrian Davis (Chair), Dr Fiona Spotswood of UWE & Ed Plowden of Bristol City Council.
I was speaking immediately after Dr Dave Horton, who was one of the team behind the excellent Understanding Walking & Cycling project last year (and blogs wonderfully about it too). I have given public talks on behalf of the Embassy before so I was not only extremely happy to put the our view to Local Government, but also to the general public who attended – many of whom were probably gearing up for a nice juicy Local-Newspaper-Comments-With-A-Dash-Of-Jeremy-Vine-Show-And-A-Twist-Of-Daily-Mailathon. Many (particularly groups representing the Elderly) had a particular and justified grievance against that doyen of local media, the pavement cyclist.
They were a bit taken aback when I started showing them what has been achieved overseas. In my allotted 15 minutes, I was able to convey the fact that; bicycles, pedestrians & motorists don’t have to be in constant gladiatorial combat with the correct provision and planning, that the economies and societies of the Netherlands and Denmark did not plunge into anarchy or boarded up ruin by designing the private car out of town and city centres and that providing inviting conditions for walking and cycling as valued modes of transport means all ages and abilities can get around equitably and without fear or the need for safety wear to mitigate that fear. This to me is the mark of a civilized society.
RESEARCHERS have called for improvements to cycling conditions in Bristol, which they say could solve the problem of cyclists using pedestrian walkways.
Speaking at a council meeting yesterday, they argued that safer cycling networks in the city will help to discourage cyclists from mounting the pavements.
Judith Brown, chairwoman of the Bristol Older People’s Forum, which has been campaigning against cyclists using pavements, attended the Sustainable Development and Transport Scrutiny Commission meeting. After the meeting she told the Post that the council should listen to what had been said and change its “inadequate” policy.
Five experts addressed the public meeting and backed an investment in infrastructurethat would pull cyclists away from the pavements and avoid conflict.
Dr David Horton, a sociologist focusing on cycling, said that his research showed how potential cyclists were put off by “terrifying” road conditions. He said: “Too often words like ‘petrified’ and ‘terrified’ crop up in surveys when people are asked why they don’t cycle around town.
“In urban Britain, at the moment, we are really struggling to provide for cyclists. There’s a real mismatch between policy and practical work leading to improvements.”
Jim Davis, chairman of the cycling embassy of Great Britain, said that planners should look to examples in Europe, where the provisions for cyclists make travelling by bike more “normal”.
He added that the changes abroad had also led to less conflict between pedestrians and cyclists.
Leading the debate, Adrian Davis, a public health and transport consultant, said: “There’s no doubt that the debate in the city is often very polarised. We want to move on from this by looking at the harsh realities.”
Following the meeting, Mrs Brown told the Post: “I think the council has to think seriously about its inadequate policy for all.
“As Bristol is a cycling city, the council must think how it accommodates them properly.
“What countries have done in Europe looks promising and it’s certainly worth thinking about how they can make life safer for everybody.
“I’m going to take this away to digest and tell my members.”
Mark Bradshaw, a Labour councillor and chairman of the cross-party commission, said: “What we are trying to do is get a bit more recognition and understanding about the cycling debate.
“Whether you are a cyclist or an elderly person, your views are just as important and valuable.
“As a commission, we want to share this with the rest of the council and with their officers.”
A common argument against having high quality cycle infrastructure is that there is ‘no political will’. That’s certainly true but political will comes from a mandate from the masses and how can the masses get behind something they don’t know about yet? The assembled audience had no idea what was being practiced abroad with proven success (why should they know?) and, when presented to them in a non-campaigning way that they could understand and buy into, they realised that if there had to be an ‘enemy’ it certainly wasn’t cyclists, pedestrians or motorists – it was the transport system we all have to navigate on a day-to-day basis. Society has simply been playing the cards that have been dealt them by successive Governments. And for decades the British deck has been stacked in favour of unfettered car use.
What the Netherlands did was to essentially prize apart the different modes of travel and put them back together into a coherent, integral whole. We seem light years away from even grasping the fact that, to make a decent, equitable, sustainable transport system you need to make the simple modes of transport simple and the complex modes of transport complex. Convincing the British public that this works could be simpler than we think. We just have to give them the correct information for a start.
Here’s a challenge for you – go to any shop selling newspapers and magazines and try to find anything of substance regarding bicycles as transport. Sure, you’ll find lots on the subject of cycle sport from time trialling to triathlon to mountain biking to leisure riding but nothing on just riding to the shops. That’s because it would be commercial suicide to attempt such a thing – cycling as transport should be a boring, humdrum activity as opposed to a particular ‘lifestyle’ or activity filled with thrills and spills requiring the purchase of specialist kit. In Britain however, we don’t do boring and humdrum. Cycling is all about ‘FUN!’ or ‘Olympic Legacy!’ if you like.
When I visited the Netherlands on a David Hembrow Study Tour last year, I baffled the locals by getting my camera out and taking photos of the cycle infrastructure (at least, I hope that’s why they looked baffled). They simply couldn’t grasp why someone would want to take pictures of something that was, to them, so boring and taken for granted, or photos of them doing such utterly routine stuff like going to a cafe to meet friends, going to school, or to the shop to top up a mobile phone. To be honest, my wife would have agreed with the Dutch. I’m going to be 40 in November.
The fact is, in Britain, going to a cafe to meet friends, or to school or to the shop to top up a mobile phone are not regular activities undertaken by bicycle. Cycling around a forest or seafront or reservoir are activities undertaken by bicycle because it’s ‘FUN’! And you can buy a magazine to assist with all the tips on high-tech equipment to ride and wear (including racks to mount your bicycles to your car to go to that forest or seafront or reservoir). After all, adults and children are advised to get training and read a large manual of advanced techniques before really tackling British roads to go to a cafe to meet friends, go to school or go to the shop to top up a mobile phone.
In the Netherlands [and I would imagine Denmark also], all this boring, humdrum bicycle as transport stuff goes on, and yet they still manage to have an intensive and varied cycle sport scene. They have Road Cycling and Cyclo-Cross and BMX and Track Cycling and Mountain Biking and Human Powered Vehicles (yes, dear Reader, I did write Mountain Biking). See? In cycling terms, even in Europe they know how to have ‘FUN’!!!
It would be easy at this point to say something along the lines of, ‘well, at least the Dutch and the Danes know where to draw the line between sport and transport’ but that would be the wrong, and blatantly untrue distinction to make. Whilst I was cycling around Groningen and Assen on their bicycle infrastructure, our group was frequently overtaken by individuals or groups of cheery club cyclists in full kit on road bikes. However, because we were going through towns and villages where any infrastructure and population was obviously at its most dense, I found that although they were travelling quicker than us, it was respectfully quicker. They were always travelling at what the Starship Enterprise would call ‘Impulse Power’. The distinction I found, and I stress this is based purely on what I observed, is that they were cycling as though they still had a debt of responsibility where people were, the same as motorists. If they just kept their legs ticking over at a not unpleasant speed [for them] they knew they would be able to open up the speed later in their ride (particularly as Dutch Infrastructure is about segregated ROUTES and not the usual British misinterpretation). The point I wish to make is that the bicycle infrastructure provided is suitable for everyone – not always perfect, but more pleasant and often more direct than the road. It’s perfectly possible to travel at speed too.
The Dutch and the Danes know how to have ‘FUN!’ But they also know how to get to the shops and their children to school correctly.
The problem Britain faces is multi faceted but I’m going to quickly focus on two; Firstly, is the fact that practically every piece of bicycle infrastructure designed and implemented to date is diabolical, and one cannot blame the hardened experienced ‘FUN!’ loving cyclist for being deeply sceptical. If motorways were designed in the same cavalier fashion with piecemeal budgets, minimal consultation and guidelines that are readily ignored, then both driving and cycling on specific infrastructure would be ‘FUN!’ but in a white-knuckle, terrifying fairground ride sort of way. I personally think that level of excitement should come from inside a library book as opposed to cycling to the library to get that book.
Second is the fact that we are spectacularly awful at separating the ‘sport’ from ‘transport’. Some Britons like to think that by cycling to work, they have left the ‘Rat Race’ but all they’ve done is lock themselves into new one of their own construction. Consumerism finds a new and unexpected outlet with all the kit, cameras and, thanks to applications such as Endomondo, a smart phone negates the need for a cycle computer telling the rider everything from average speed to how many calories were burned each trip. A daily gauntlet has been thrown for the quick and the brave with a great deal of risk taking. The thought of ‘Going Dutch’ or ‘Danish’ horrifies them as they cling to the some divine right to the road. A right that has been effectively lost to the majority already.
I personally believe that there needs to be a standard in bicycle infrastructure that acts as a quality benchmark as opposed to guidelines that currently exist which, although are quite good, are all too easily discarded in the name of budgets or just simple lack of understanding of the bicycle as a mode of transport. There needs to be continuity, quality and more than a nod to what has enjoyed proven success in Continental Europe. A Standard that is suitable for every type of bicycle and caters for every type of rider.
There should never be a magazine about mass cycling as transport because it should be the routine, everyday thing you do to get to equally routine activities or more exciting adventures that start as soon as you walk away from a safely locked bike. Mind you, if there was such a magazine, I’d probably subscribe to it. I’d keep it hidden from my wife though. One must maintain an image of ‘FUN!’
Just before I set off for David Hembrow’s Study Tour in The Netherlands late last year, people jokingly said to me, ‘don’t forget to put aero bars on your Dutch Bike’. I thought these were jibes about the aerodynamic qualities of my Dutch Bike or rather lack thereof. It wasn’t until I was enjoying a coffee and looking out of a delightful Dutch Bed & Breakfast window one morning that I actually understood what they meant – amongst the legions of young people cycling to school and college were bikes with aero bars fitted onto them. Although they were probably to assist in persistent headwinds (as some students cover quite a distance on their commutes from outlying suburbs and villages), they were also remarkably handy for resting ones arms on to use a smartphone for social networking – an essential pre-requisite to youth. Indeed the infrastructure provided allows all ages to cycle in groups and chat away which is social networking at its best. There were no shouts from motorists, and I assume no-one froths at the mouth in the local or national newspapers either. Basically, the Dutch have created an environment where their children can be children and don’t have to pay anything like the ultimate price if they make a mistake. I think that’s very honest, civilised and quite incredible.
This situation came at a cost. The Netherlands and the UK both saw widespread decline of the bicycle from the 1950’s as the car became the symbol of modernity. A lot of old cycle infrastructure was ripped out to make way for such progress. The result? In 1972, a total of 3264 people were killed on Dutch roads, and in 1973, 450 road deaths were of children, mostly travelling to and from school. Since that point, and partly due to the launch in 1973 of the ‘Stop De Kindermoord’ (‘Stop the Child Murder’) pressure group along with the OPEC fuel crisis, the Dutch gradually took the decision to return to the bicycle and acknowledge that the car has its place but people come first. Nearly 40 years on and Britain is still struggling with this concept to its detriment. More on ‘Stop de Kindermoord’ can be found here, here and from this excellent film.
If the Famous Five went for a bike ride in today’s Britain, they would find a landscape ripe for adventures, but not necessarily children’s adventures. If they were actually allowed out in the first place on their own, there would still be the odd patchwork quilt of fields and woods to enjoy (but not to play in of course. They’ll only create trouble). Swallows, Sparrows & The International Space Station would see our pubescent peloton venturing down country lanes due to their Hi-Viz and helmets. The motorists won’t of course as they steam through at jolly impolite speeds. Eventually, sweaty and defeated at trying to have adventures in a Britain ruined by ‘progress’, they head home for lashings of Ginger Beer. Or Crabbie’s, probably.
I fully appreciate why people feel compelled to wear cycle helmets in today’s hostile British road environment. However we must strive to create conditions where helmets and protective clothing are seen as irrelevant as opposed to essential. If adults currently feel compelled not just to wear cycle helmets and high visibility clothing but also to put surveillance measures on their helmets in the form of cameras, then what hope is there for our children wishing to simply cycle to school? It is not really the most cordial invite to a mode of transport that should be everyday, safe, even a bit boring and not classified as an extreme sport.
Note, that like the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, or indeed CycleNation and CTC, I am not anti-helmet but anti-compulsion for cycling as transport. On this, all cycling groups stand united.
However I have a confession to make; when I cycle with my two and a half-year old son on the Dutch Bike, I put a helmet on him. I do this not because of safety concerns but because I feel that I look like a bad parent if I don’t with scathing looks and comments (mainly from people who don’t cycle yet but do like writing letters to local newspapers due to anger management issues from not cycling). I don’t wear a helmet for the simple reason that when I used to wear one when commuting from Morden to Camden Town in London, it was like a subconscious cloak of invincibility. As a result, I put myself in road positions that were at best, daring. At worst, lethal. I’ve often observed since that people who wear a helmet ride as though they will need a helmet. Without a helmet, I don’t put myself or any passengers in that danger in the first place. Also when off the bike, my son has received more bumps to the head than Laurel & Hardy in his short toddling career. I assume I’m a bad parent for not keeping the helmet on him at all times but curiously no-one seems to be having a serious debate on this.
I’m now going to give out a piece of information that I think has been lost in this debate but it always helps to remind ourselves.
Children don’t always do what you tell them because they are children.
Imagine that helmets were made compulsory for children under the age of, say, 16. One day my son will want to cycle to a local shop to buy sweets, just like his Dad used to years and years and years and years and years ago. He may realise that his cycle helmet is upstairs in his bedroom and he just can’t be bothered to get it as the shop is only 5 minutes ride away. Even if I made him put it on, there’s nothing to stop him taking it off again when out of sight because it doesn’t look cool (or whatever the word is these days). If you didn’t do anything naughty or without your parents knowledge when you were younger, then you are deluding yourself. So, he cycles off without one and because putting helmets on everything and hoping for the best allows the powers that be to ignore the real issues of road safety, he gets hit by a real issue in the form of a car. Not only would we have the emotional turmoil of an injured child (or worse) but also the legal and social ramifications of him not having a helmet on. This to me is needless insanity, especially allied to the fact that the real answers for keeping children (and indeed all ages) safer, are a simple ferry trip away.
There is of course excellent cycle training available in this country. I did so well in my cycling proficiency in the late 1970’s, I got a copy of the Highway Code as a prize. The bicycle is a very liberating experience for a child and Bikeability (as it is now known) is enjoying a large takeup today. However, a report was published in March this year that you probably haven’t seen. It was written by transport consultancy, Steer Davies Gleave, for the Department for Transport called Cycling to School
This is from the conclusions,
‘Overall this report shows the level of children cycling to school in the last five years has remained stable. There have been small increases in the actual numbers of secondary school age children cycling to school between 2006 and 2011 across the UK. However, this has been almost matched by a very small decline in the proportion of primary school children cycling to school.’
Where there were rises in Secondary Schools, there had been a concentrated efforts on cycle training in the Primary Schools that feed the Secondary Schools in question. There are of course all kinds of variables & factors to take in account when viewing the data. Generally however, I believe that a lot of excellent training is going to waste. We can train all the children we like to cycle on our current road system but if it looks dangerous (especially to the parents) or there is one close pass from a motorist then that, as they say, is that. The bike heads off to the shed to come out maybe at officially sanctioned events such as the Sky Rides or Boris Johnson’s latest elegant parlour trick to avoid addressing the real road safety issues, ‘Ride London‘ – the biggest irony being that although a safe traffic free environment is created, helmets and hi-viz are de rigueur.
Here is a film by Mark Wagenbuur of children cycling to school in Culemborg in The Netherlands. I just want to show this as it deftly addresses the issues touched on in this post; no safety equipment (even students occasionally giving friends a lift in on their rear racks – could you imagine that happening here?!), cycling as groups for greater social safety and also quality time to chat and share gossip. Above all decent infrastructure, that goes where people need it to go, combined with 30kph roads to create segregated routes (ie routes that could not be completed or would take longer by car).
We have created a nation that is still debating 20mph where people live. A nation still debating curtailing someone’s right to drive like an idiot around others. A nation still building cycle infrastructure that is often a dangerous insult whilst ignoring examples that work probably due to fear of cost despite continuing to build ever more expensive and intimidating streetscapes. A nation that expects its young people to stick on a helmet, some hi-viz and hope for the best. I think that’s spineless, uncivilised and quite despicable.
Children will be children. It’s a pity that the adults are behaving even more childishly.
It is a wonderful time for sports cycling in Great Britain; Bradley Wiggins has become the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France with Chris Froome enjoying an equally unprecedented second place. The hard-working men and women of Team GB are no strangers to success in Olympic events and so it has proved in London with medals on the road and the track with performances to give inspiration to all.
Wonders like this don’t happen by accident as other nations are already comfortably aware; This was never about ‘plucky British underdog spirit’. This was about the right talent, the right coaching staff giving the right strategies, confidence and belief and the right mechanics working on the right machinery. Above all, what we have been witnessing over the last few years is what consistent and focussed investment actually looks like by people who know what they are doing and care.
Norman Baker MP (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport) proudly trumpets the fact that last January he announced the Local Sustainable Transport Fund to the tune of £560 million (which has recently been increased to £600 million) as well as £15 million specifically for cycling infrastructure projects at railway stations to link communities and centres of economic growth. He has also recently announced a further £15 million cycle safety fund to help local authorities deal with high risk junctions.
These are undoubtedly large sums of money. I have no trouble with Norman Baker MP, nor do I doubt his overall commitment to cycling. However, I do have trouble with the fact that Local Authorities have been bidding for this money and are going to oversee the spending of this money. Put simply, the Government is giving sums of money for ‘Active Travel’ projects to people who largely haven’t a clue about the benefits of cycling as a mode of transport or don’t actually care about cycling as it gets in the way of more ‘serious’ modes of transport. Moreover, cycling design guidelines at local level are treated with the same professionalism and reverence as Dr Seuss. Meanwhile, The Netherlands or Denmark with their proven success are regrettably filled with foreigners so nothing they do must ever be considered, let alone copied. As a result, we end up with what we’ve seen for many years; inconsistent and unfocused investment by people who don’t really knowwhatthey aredoing or don’t care.
I don’t see this as a recipe for the same delirious success as Team GB.
In a way, it is good that Local Authorities have had to bid for pockets of money. By tendering for funding, we get to see the projects that they have in mind and therefore some sort of benchmark for local active travel groups to monitor (hopefully, they would also have been involved in the consultation). The problem lies in the precedents already set by Local Authorities which are a bit lacking in quality. Actually, most are appalling. Generally, the only time bicycle infrastructure works well in Britain is more by accident than by design; usually a converted pre-Beeching railway line or upgraded coastal path or promenade. Even then, because we never seem to be able to think in terms of network and linking stuff, people will often drive to it with their families if it offers the premise of inviting, quality traffic-free cycling.
The simple fact is that nice things cost money and, funnily enough, that includes cycle infrastructure. Why not pay more for a network based on principles of proven success such as The Netherlands and Denmark that people can and would actually use. It has to be better than our current sporadic and, by comparison to Mainland Europe, amateur looking attempts to solve a car-choked problem that has become too big to solve with pockets of cash dotted around Local Authorities that clearly need better guidance from Central Government on how to spend it.
If this country can even begin to consider schemes such as High Speed Rail, or an entirely new airport for London, then there is no reason why we can’t consider thinking big in terms of providing a consistent quality network for the bicycle with its excellent rate of return in terms of jobs, transport, health & well-being, greater freedom and subjective safety – especially for more vulnerable sections of society, increased social safety and reduced emissions. If Local Authorities are going to be the agencies providing it (which I’m not actually against believe it or not), then the guidance and funding from central government has to also be high quality, strong and consistent. Nice things cost money, even for a mode of transport so simple, egalitarian and cheap.