Take the Last Train to Clarkson

It would be fair to say that Copenhagenize and indeed Copenhagen Cycle Chic were strong influences that led me to set up the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain. I saw images of people on normal bicycles in normal clothing (‘Citizen Cyclists’ to coin a phrase from the author of both sites, Mikael Colville-Andersen). It was guaranteed to make a profound impact as the images seemed completely at odds with the cycling I was experiencing to carry out exactly the same range of tasks as the normally dressed people smiling back at me through the pixels (or doing their best to look European and sultry). I wondered why the act of riding a bicycle in Britain was regarded as, at worst an extreme sport, at best a specialist activity or hobby requiring financial outlay beyond just the bicycle.

Fast forward just over a year and it would appear to have had the same influence on Jeremy Clarkson.

Last weekend, The Sunday Times ran an article by him that read as follows:

“I suspect even the Danes are baffled about why they keep being picked out as a shining example of humanity at its best. Just last week a newspaper in Copenhagen suggested it must be because, while cycling from place to place, visitors enjoy looking at all the pretty Danish girls’ bottoms.

“In fact, I’ve decided that the world’s five best cities are, in order: San Francisco, London, Damascus, Rome and Copenhagen. It’s fan-bleeding-tastic. And best of all: there are no bloody cars cluttering the place up. Almost everyone goes almost everywhere on a bicycle.

“Now I know that sounds like the ninth circle of hell, but that’s because you live in Britain, where cars and bikes share the road space. This cannot and does not work. It’s like putting a dog and a cat in a cage and expecting them to get along. They won’t, and as a result London is currently hosting an undeclared war. I am constantly irritated by cyclists and I’m sure they’re constantly irritated by me.

“City fathers have to choose. Cars or bicycles. And in Copenhagen they’ve gone for the bike.

“In Britain cycling is a political statement. You have a camera on your helmet so that motorists who carve you up can be pilloried on YouTube. You have shorts. You have a beard and an attitude. You wear a uniform. Cycling has become the outdoorsy wing of the NUM and CND.

“In Copenhagen it’s just a pleasant way of getting about. Nobody wears a helmet. Nobody wears high-visibility clothing. You just wear what you need to be wearing at your destination. For girls that appears to be very short skirts. And nobody rides their bike as if they’re in the Tour de France. This would make them sweaty and unattractive, so they travel just fast enough to maintain their balance.

“The upshot is a city that works. It’s pleasing to look at. It’s astonishingly quiet. It’s safe. And no one wastes half their life looking for a parking space. I’d live there in a heartbeat.”

As to whether Mr Clarkson would join the multitude of people that cycle there is another matter but I’d like to think he would. I’d even pay for him to go on a Hembrow Study Tour to see how another country does it successfully. I personally find it no surprise that he compared cyclists to organisations that railed against the Thatcher era to which his car-centric, and wider views are inextricably linked, NUM and CND. If cyclists have to wear a uniform with a camera, it is surely because they are merely trying to adapt to the utterly hostile cycling landscape they increasingly find themselves in, and feel compelled to capture it for the rest of the World to see. Policies from successive Governments, and Thatcher & Major’s Conservatives in particular (having witnessed firsthand the M3 protests at Twyford Down, nr Winchester) favoured the motor car to the extent that motoring journalists were always going to do slightly well to ride the rising tide of a society basing itself on one mode of transport to the detriment of everything else – even Quentin Willson who still looks like Satan advertising the Brylcreem range. Therefore the irony of a motoring journalist enjoying Copenhagen that made, and is still making a conscious effort to remove motoring from people, is deafening, but also quite heartening. A bit like transporting the Marlboro Man to a modern pub to have a similar epiphany about smoking.

Mr Clarkson’s piece was discussed on the wonderful cycling blogs ’As Easy As Riding A Bike’ and ‘Cyclists in the City’ earlier this week and indeed the cycling websites BikeBiz and Road.cc. The latter contained comments from cyclists who saw it as part of a bigger agenda to get cyclists off the road. I personally believe that what the Sunday Times published was a well-respected albeit controversial journalist reasoning that sometimes the car is not the right tool for getting about and that in densely populated areas in particular, you have to hand that task to more humane and civilised modes of transport. He just wrote it his way, which was always going to get up noses as elegantly as an ounce of snuff in a Victorian Drawing Room.

As I was reading all this, an article sprang to mind from a couple of months back that made me chuckle. As a response to a new law passed recently, allowing Parisian cyclists to go through red lights the wonderful satirical website, ‘The Daily Mash’ wrote the following spoof report:

THE combination of pedal-based transport and motor vehicles on roads is utterly insane, it has been confirmed.

As France changes its laws to give cyclists a small, survival-rate-increasing head start at traffic lights, the Institute for Studies has stated that fast metal boxes and slow, wobbling dangerously-exposed humans can never happily co-exist.

Professor Henry Brubaker said: “One of the key reasons for this whole car/bike thing not working at all is that little eggshell hats offer somewhat different levels of protection to, for example, a big f***-off lorry cab.

“We’d all like this relationship to work, but for the same reason that riding a pogo stick through a herd of panicked bison isn’t a great idea, it doesn’t.

“Cars and bikes playing nicely together is a bit like weekend ‘mini-breaks’ to countries more than three hours away, or the simplistic pacifism of the John Lennon song Imagine – a basically flawed notion that humans can’t resist clinging to.

“Maybe the solution is two separate roads. Or that everyone in the country cycles on a Tuesday.

“I don’t know, it’s a real toughie.”

Cyclist Emma Bradford said: “Cycling to work helps the environment and brings an exciting element of immense peril to my otherwise hum-drum routine.

“Personally I’m pinning my hopes on fossil fuels running out before something really bad happens.”

The fact is that you can lead people to the soundest reports stating that statistically the roads are safe, you can hold all the conferences you like, train all the people you like, young and old but if the roads look dangerous or unpleasant, bikes are going to be returned to sheds to collect dust and all the hard effort and work (often voluntary it must be added) will be for nothing. The articles above from The Sunday Times and The Daily Mash portray, in their own unique ways, what the general public thinks regardless of whatever cycle campaigning organisations may say or do. Indeed, as I was writing this, the Department for Transport has released a report entitled ‘Cycling to School: A Review of School Census and Bikeability Delivery Data’ . The first part of the conclusion reads as follows…

‘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.’

For further reading on this subject, I strongly recommend ‘Cyclists in The City’ and David Hembrow who incredibly have covered this already.

I personally believe two things have to happen that aren’t a million miles away from Jeremy Clarkson’s piece; I think we have to start spending on high grade infrastructure with fully segregated routes (as explained here – it’s probably not what you think) and calming the desire to compress high volumes of motor traffic through our most densely populated areas. Yes, it will cost money, nice things do. But it means that all the hard work put in by cycle trainers will bring change currently beyond their wildest dreams. We also need to return the bicycle to the masses by normalising it (where the promotion comes in). Just normal people of all ages, riding in normal clothing (or lycra if they wish, let’s not be picky), doing normal things without fear, discomfort or prejudice, not even from Mr Clarkson.

On that bombshell, I leave you with this film from Top Gear involving a race across London involving James May in a car, The Stig on public transport, Jeremy Clarkson in a speedboat and Richard Hammond on a bicycle. Mr Hammond of course has to look like Robocop having a crack at speed dating but it’s still good fun with an interesting conclusion.

5 thoughts on “Take the Last Train to Clarkson”

  1. Lots of great points in the article, even Mr Clarkson’s piece has some accurate observations and constructive reasoning!

    In the spirit of reducing hostility and attracting ‘normal’ people would you consider censoring The Daily Mash’s f-word ?
    This would make the article accessible to those behind web filters and more acceptable to those who are easily offended – the parallels with subjective safety and magic plastic hats could be saved for a separate discussion 😉

    I agree with the long term goals and appreciate how the efforts of many trainers and volunteers are currently undermined by the conditions cyclists often face, but I’d like to highlight the short term gains that can be, and often are, achieved…
    Initiatives encouraging road users to understand and tolerate each other can help – I do think attitudes and awareness are improving across the modes but there’s a lot more to be done and it could take a generation or a massive modal shift.
    Designing out car parking and through traffic from our town centers is already making a difference in many places, helping bikes become more effective than cars for lots of local shopping and commuting trips. It’s even created a new type of park and ride with folding bikes in the boots of cars – not ideal but definitely progress and often understandable given the poor rail provision in many areas.
    Creating the short links needed between existing traffic-free or low traffic routes can make a massive difference, and highlighting these routes really helps new cyclists. Pedestrian and cyclist permeability was obviously not part of the 1970s highways engineering manual but the DfT seems to be encouraging local authorities to try and address this.

    I know you’re not suggesting we only seek a perfect, long term solution, I’m just trying to support and encourage the little steps that are (very) gradually helping too.

    Keep up the good work 🙂
    Cheers, Jonathan.

    1. Jonathan

      The post has been edited 🙂

      I agree that training is vital. Riding a bicycle is a life skill. The problem I have is that we have always gone for the encouraging little steps whilst not really focussing on the big picture. Our solutions are always piecemeal, the funding is always on a knife edege or shoestring, the workmanship of infrastructure from design through to implementation is shoddy, it is usually reliant on Section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act and I simply don’t buy in to the ‘making cars and bicycles play nicely’ as from our weakened position, cars will win every time. You and I both know, we are no longer in the halycon days of CTC’s ‘Cyclists Special’. It will always be about subjective safety. I could cycle north from Worthing on the A24 dual carriageway (the only way directly north from the town) but it would be as pleasureable as eating glass and the desire to put my 2 year old son on the child seat would also be a bit lacking. Funnily enough, the vast majority of the population think the same, even with training and a copy of ‘Cyclecraft’ mounted to the handlebars.

      You say it could take a generation to create a modal shift. Well, so be it. But we have to start somewhere and we have to set our aspirations far, far higher then they are presently. At the moment we have ‘Summer of Cycling’ which, if we’re in the business of honesty, is just another promotion excercise, and more money committed for cycle training. Although the latter is always money well spent, we have managed to let the Government off the hook again (even after all the furore generated by The Times’ excellent Cyclesafe campaign) by not getting them to commit to a firm plan of action to create decent, subjectively safe conditions for the masses to cycle in. Denmark and The Netherlands made that conscious decision 40 years ago. Also, they have solutions that could be readily applied over here.

      So I agree that small gains (especially those achieveable by local cycling campaigns) and ‘soft measures’ such as promotion and cycle training all play their part. But they have to be set against the backdrop of a far, far greater and aspirational long term plan. It’s all about the infrastructure.

      And you keep up all the good work 🙂


    2. Jonathan: Given an environment where cycling was much more pleasant and safe than it is now in the UK, the small steps would actually help. However, with the roads as they are now, all those little steps is that they are not adding up to forwards progress, and the efforts of those who work hard is being wasted. We have to be honest about what is happening: the government is happy to spend small amounts of money on cycle training, and “encouraging” cycling in other ways, but is not spending the larger amounts of money required to produce real progress. For so long as they are cheered by cycling campaigners for paying lip-service to cycling, they have no reason to consider doing more.

      BTW, in the UK in the 1970s there was often a far higher priority given to enhanced permeability for pedestrians and cyclists vs. cars than is the case now. The problem is that where this was done, it was not quite good enough. Also, the period where this happened was short and later developments are not designed to encourage cycling and walking. Forty years later, the better parts of what were built remain only as not very well maintained islands because later developments made no attempt at all to hook up with what was achieved at that time.

      The Kings Hedges Estate in Cambridge offers a good example of better than average 1970s planning. I wrote about it, with photos to illustrate it, in 2006.

  2. Call me a hopeless optimist but I actually think that this article from Clarkson is a sign that the tide is turning. It’s certainly the first time I can remember being in broad agreement with him. I’m intending to quote the positive bits in future presentations and then ask people who they thought wrote it – I’d be surprised if many guess correctly!

  3. I noticed a tangential reference to France in your post (the Daily Mash – advance greens for cyclists) which came to mind when I was in Brittany last week, and learnt of two new developments there.

    Part of the problem we face in the UK is that any, but any, action which constrains the unfettered freedom of the motorist is quickly condemned by foaming-mouthed Mail journalists and their ilk as “war against the [hard-pressed] motorist”. Hence even the most innocuous measures such as ASLs, cyle lanes etc come in for a lot of stick, and proper separated provision is likely to provoke fury.

    France is hardly paradise for cyclists – a whole lot better in my view than the UK, but a way to go – but official attitudes to cars are far more robust than here, and I have always sensed that the French are a lot less petrol-headed than we, as a nation, are. It is also the case that while France has a rather poorer overall road safety record than the UK, when it comes to pedestrian and cyclist casualties they actually do rather better than us.

    So, it has come to pass that, in an effort to get a grip on road safety, a conservative government has taken some measures which would surely cause riots on the M25 if introduced here. Since January, speed radar detectors have been unadvertised and disguised – additional radar speed advisory panels are to be installed but motorists will no longer have warning to slow down while they pass the traps. It is also illegal to carry or use detector devices or GPS databases of speed traps. Basically, they WANT offenders to be caught, and given a reinder of why they should not offend. From July, the maximum alcohol level is to be halved, and it will be an offence, subject to a modest fine, not to carry an unused, functioning breathalyser – and that applies to foreign visitors as well.

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