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 quasi-hilarious jibes about the aerodynamic qualities of my Dutch Bike, or 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. And 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 adults, 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 and 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 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, being a toddler, has received more bumps to the head than Laurel & Hardy combined 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, than 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 its own people, 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, and The Netherlands or Denmark with their proven success are regrettably filled with foreigners so, apparently, 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.
Right! First things first. I shall be leading a seaside Infrastructure Safari from Worthing to Brighton on Saturday 18th August. We shall be meeting at Worthing Railway Station at 12.30pm to give everyone a fighting chance of making it down to the South Coast. The pace shall be leisurely with frequent stops to discuss, take photos and sometimes just laugh at various cycle infrastructure issues throughout the route.
Everyone is welcome to join me and I shall ensure that there is a pub at the end (more details on that nearer the time) with a chance to stop for snacks en route.
Anyway, apologies for not writing in a while, dear reader, but my wife and I decided to head to Corfu and Paxos for a week. My Mother in Law stupidly volunteered to look after our son for a week so we could get away for a bit. Although we love our son above everything else, opportunities like this do not come readily. This led to a flurry of research and planning from my wife probably not seen since the planning of the Apollo 11 Mission.
We decided to go to Corfu City for an evening. It has a population of around 30,000, it serves as Capital for the region of the Ionian islands and is very, very beautiful feeling Venetian in character. Whilst wandering around a park (next to the only Cricket pitch in Greece – a legacy of British Empire on the Island), I spotted some vague, ethereal lines painted on the wide pathways, barely visible in the simmering Ionian heat. ‘What’s this?’, I thought. It would appear that modern Britain may have left a legacy too in the form of really average cycle lanes. Since I arrived back in Britain, I encountered these rather good blog posts here and here explaining in more detail what cycle infrastructure was installed in the city. I can only comment on what I saw, which was by sheer chance and I have captured for you in the pictures below. I was going to mention to my Wife how I should have brought a tape measure to check the widths of the path but she might have accurately, firmly and, on balance, correctly kicked me in the testicles.
Yes, a car parked beautifully across the lane! I encountered this at almost every access/egress point making it an equally hilarious experience for wheelchair users, shoppers and parents with buggies.
So, we have seen vague paths which are a bit narrow in places with even more vague signage, cars parked blocking them and pigeons everywhere. Actually, reading that line back, I’ve just described London with the heat turned up.
I strongly recommend you pay the island a visit.The chilled beers also have the Lo Fidelity seal of approval. Infrastructure nerds in particular have a pretext now, if one were needed.
If you aren’t doing anything on Saturday 18th August, why not pop down to the South Coast of England as I’ve decided to lead a Seaside infrastructure Safari and you’re all welcome. Yes, even you.
It will be a very leisurely run between Worthing and Brighton, stopping frequently for chats about infrastructure of different qualities and, weather permitting, we can stop for a picnic midway on the beach and a drink or two afterwards. There is a high probability that it will run from Worthing to Brighton as opposed to vice versa due to the strong chance of a prevailing tailwind straight off the sea which, as I find on the daily commute, makes an 11-12 mile jaunt between two seaside resorts a little more pleasant. There shall be a Twitter Hashtag available for those in more distant lands that wish to follow us in spirit and all pictures and data shall be added to the wonderful Cycling Embassy of Great Britain Wiki as well as CycleStreets.
I intend to show you some of the interesting facilities that I face (or could face if I was a bit more into Masochism) on a day-to-day basis such as this, this and this as well as some gems such as this, this and the ultimate Grand Finale – the wonderfully progressive (if slightly flawed) diamond that is this. I am currently working on a map for you to link to which will be available shortly as the route is pretty simple with lots of talking points and genuinely nice sights. It’s a cycle ride by the sea – what’s not to like?! It will also go up on the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain website.
The reason I’m letting you know early is because, if you are a campaigner, Sustrans Ranger, Local Councillor etc in the Brighton [& Hove] & Worthing areas and would like to help talk us through various bits of infrastructure and how they came to be, please contact me and we can sort out the timetable of the route. If you can’t make it, but would like me to read anything out, please also get in touch. My contact details are at the bottom of the About page, and it would be lovely to hear from you, especially if you’d just like to come along of course.
Finally, I sometimes read out the questions at a quiz held occasionally at a pub in Worthing as I have a beautiful speaking voice. Apparently. However, last week I was tasked with compiling the questions. I would like the George Cross as I dropped this nugget into the General Knowledge round…
Although ‘Road Tax’ is still used as a colloquialism, it was in fact abolished in 1937. Which famous politician abolished it?
(For more details on the answer to that question, I wrote here and of course Carlton Reid is custodian of this gem of a website).
Because I was dressed like ‘one of them’, which is funnily enough how I look when on a bicycle, it was simply an interesting talking point as opposed to me being manhandled into a Wicker Man in the pub garden (it would have been outside because, despite the obvious Health & Safety hazard, you also can’t smoke inside a British public premises anymore).
And finally finally, the family car was taken away for its annual MOT test earlier this week. Despite the car being 10 years old, the startled mechanic informed us that not only did it pass with no complaints but the emissions tests came out far better than newer cars. Probably because it barely gets used.
Last Monday night I was sat on the floor in my Kitchen putting a new inner tube and front tyre on my Brompton. I set a new personal best by only swearing twice as I put all my ‘manly’ effort into levering the tyre over the rim – which felt like my attempt to push over Stonehenge whilst on a family trip aged 4.
I enjoy a little bit of bicycle maintenance from time to time, but only a little. Actually, if I was really honest, I’d rather pour a nice glass of deeply refreshing beer, sit back and relax in the knowledge that someone else is doing it and that I’m doing my bit for the local economy – and Worthing has some excellent local bike shops. Last week, the chain snapped on my Dutch Bike whilst sauntering along the seafront (still a few miles from home) just as the Heavens decided to provide Niagara Fallsian levels of precipitation. I could have tried to fix it, removing the chaincase piece by piece, getting colder and wetter and miserable. Instead I tethered the bike at the nearest Railway Station (as the peak time bike ban was still in force), discovered a pub I’d never seen before and had a very reasonably priced and tasty pint of ale with chatty locals after booking the bike in to a local shop. A bit of an inconvenience but it’s my main mode of transport and it’s still way, way cheaper than motoring.
If we can assume for a moment that a barrier to people not cycling in the UK is lack of confidence on our Nations roads and cycle infrastructure designed on a faulty Etch a Sketch, then a lack of confidence in cycle maintenance must also be added to the list.
If your car breaks down, you have the safety of a metal box to lock yourself in whilst a breakdown recovery service can come and carry out the work required or get you home if necessary. You can be a car owner without having to know the slightest thing about how it actually works beyond where the various fluids go and where to put some air from time to time. The motorist is divorced further from the workings of their machines by the fact that they now need specialised computers to ‘diagnose’ any problems or faults. In the past, to open a car bonnet in the village where I grew up would be to attract the attention of every man within a 5 mile radius, each with their own ‘knowledge’ and ‘experience’ to offer, even non-car owners. Nowadays, motorists have to endure the qualified mechanic or ‘Diagnostic Centre’. I personally dread this; partly because I barely use the family car so the cost always seems out of proportion, partly because I speak like a BBC Radio 4 Continuity Announcer which seems to invite an extra ‘0’ to the final total and mainly because the cretins know they can say what they like and I sagely nod my head to anything because in reality I simply don’t care.
To a general public now completely divorced from car repair (or most sorts of domestic appliance repair), to speak to them about bicycle repair is to speak to them about the life of Alan Titchmarch in Esperanto. Later this year, Bike Week will be held where local cycle organisations & campaigns get their time to shine by holding cycling related rides and events. Usually at such events is what’s called a ‘Dr Bike’ stand, where the public can get their bikes checked out by a friendly & knowledgeable volunteer. Personally, I can remember looking with horror at such events as parents would turn up ensuring that their children had the latest safety equipment such as brightly coloured helmets and hi-viz but had neglected to notice that the brake blocks were missing. Buying safety equipment is of course easy and instantly demonstrates to other parents that they carewhilst beautifully covering the death trap issue.
One solution would be to give more choice to the public of a type of bicycle that has been around for a very long time and is still more relevant for the majority of journeys that they would take. Dutch Bikes and roadsters built for sheer utility are, as a rule, incredibly low maintenance as gears, brakes and chain are enclosed. I have barely had to touch my Batavus Old Dutch in a year and a half of hard use (chain and rear tyre aside), doing 24 miles a weekday plus weekend duties and being left outside in all elements allied to a salty sea breeze.
Here are selected extracts from the response I got from David Hembrow
‘……There are just as many ‘cyclists’ here as in any other country, and they’re just as likely to do their own maintenance.
All my “cycling friends” do their own maintenance, and they all ride around with tools and spare tubes etc., though some may take more difficult jobs to a shop.
However, because of the wide demographics of cycling in the Netherlands, many people who ride bikes in the Netherlands, including many who ride long distances regularly, simply aren’t the sort of person who likes mucking about them. These are the people who perhaps wouldn’t ride bikes if they didn’t live here.
Many people have a bicycle shop which they use regularly, and Dutch bike shops offer “spring maintenance” deals and such-like, so that many people take their bikes into the shop regularly as they would a car for an MOT test. Such a test will typically include an all-in price to repair minor items such as cables or brake pads, but you’ll get an extra bill for more expensive parts.
There’s a definite demographic/class split between the “ride the bike into the ground” types (students etc. I’ve even seen a student in Groningen riding a bike which no longer had handlebars) and those who ride very nice bikes which are well maintained (bank managers etc.).
The time before that was when my ‘fast binders’ snapped while riding and got so entangled in the back wheel that it couldn’t even turn anymore, that must have been a year before that. So I’d say it comes in the shop about once a year and I try not to touch it other than that. But I do fix little things, changed the batteries of my back light and just last week the saddle got loose and the front suddenly pointed upwards… very unpleasant… had to unscrew a screw, put it horizontal again and then I fastened the screw again. The sort of things you don’t get your hands dirty with.
I would fix a punctured tire, but the last time that happened to me must be over 10 years ago. (and tomorrow no doubt… when you say such things).
The ‘s-Hertogenbosch bike is a similar story. I doubt that one has been in the shop in the last two years. It is 27 years old now I think. But I did some maintenance on that one… The original dynamo was slipping and that was because it didn’t turn so well anymore. When it snowed I didn’t have any light anymore. So I bought a new dynamo and actually exchanged it (two screws and two wires I think, about 10 minutes). Before that I actually put it upside down one day… I had to. There was something wrong with the chain for months but the noise it made became audible on the videos… I was too lazy to get it to a shop but one day I got brave and put it upside down. I opened the chain guard (I actually understood how to do that) to find a meter of ribbon people put around presents entangled around the chain and back wheel. I cut it loose and took it out and actually put some grease on the still original chain. Closed the chain guard and it was like new again… That must have been the most elaborate thing I ever did to any bike I ever owned…
So… really not much I do, but I do fix little things sometimes. But the bikes are so low maintenance that you hardly ever have to do something. I do not use services that you can call. I live within walking distance of several workshops. So I can pick and choose. Same in Utrecht. Even the parking facility there offers repairs.
He goes on to state that his partner owns a Mountain Bike which has to be serviced far more than any Dutch Bike (and gets constantly teased about as a result). This is because if you introduce 24 more gears, you introduce more components and more chances for things to go wrong. I own a Mountain Bike because I’ve always loved it, racing my Muddy Fox Courier as a child. I still like to potter along the South Downs Way and other trails around Surrey, Hampshire and West Sussex. However, there are many out there that would just like to go to the shops and get a pint of milk and thankfully there are a more few utility bikes coming on to the market, offering low maintenance, simplistic ways of getting about.
I leave you with a rare treat from the British Council film archive. Good to watch with a Gin and Tonic instead of tinkering with bikes in my humble opinion. Most of the country thinks the same way 🙂
How a Bicycle is Made (1946)
A Bicycle Factory ‘The process of manufacture is traced from the beginning; the design on paper and the raw materials. We see what goes to make the steel tubes of the frames, the handle bars, the gear wheels, the pedal cranks, the pedals, the spokes, the wheels and the hubs, until at last the complete bicycle is ready for testing.’