Well, Fancy That! No 3: Riding a Bicycle Doesn’t Always Have to be ‘FUN!’

Team Sky found it easier to cycle as a group to the shop to buy Cycling Weekly and Red Bull for Cavendish as apparently ‘Safety in Numbers’ really works in Britain.

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!’

Well, Fancy That! No 2: Children will be Children

The Dutch even have bins like this by every school because they actually understand that children are lazy little sods…..sorry, I meant the future. That the children are our future. (Picture: David Hembrow – Go on his study tour and try this bin yourself – click on the picture for further details)

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 herehere 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.

Look at that. No lights, no Hi-Viz, no helmets and I bet they don’t have any plastic bags to clean up after Timmy the Dog….

Another contentious area where child and adult Worlds collide is that of helmet compulsion. Annette Brooke MP is leading the latest well-meaning but misguided charge, no doubt following on from Bradley Wiggins, who uses his bicycle to win major sporting events as opposed to buying some milk or getting a library book. Before we take a glance into this emotive side issue, I’ll just give you my ‘official’ stance.

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.

Even Evel Knievel paused for a moment to consider cycling around Vauxhall Cross…

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.

 

 

Well, Fancy That! No 1: Nice Things Cost Money

Localism for Dummies

A Wet Parliamentary Bike Ride

Last Tuesday morning, I put on my Cycling Embassy of Great Britain approved attire (just a regular suit for a regular activity) and attended the Annual All-Party Parliamentary Bike Ride, which is now in its twelfth year and is a prelude to Bike Week. Despite the wretched weather, there was a respectable turn out of MP’s (also in Cycling Embassy of Great Britain approved attire) including Norman Baker again (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport).

After the ride, we assembled in the Houses of Parliament to listen as Mr Baker spoke about how wonderful cycling is and took questions (I recorded it for YouTube and it should be going out shortly if you can contain your excitement). One of the key points he made was that cycle campaigners should not be afraid to approach Government Departments other than transport. This, in a way, makes sense; after all riding a bicycle is healthy so the Department for Health should be actively promoting it, it could get kids to school so the Department for Education should be actively promoting it and it is good for the economy where high quality infrastructure would bring rewards both locally and nationally to the exchequer so the Treasury should be actively promoting it. The problem is that we are pretty hopeless at the ‘high-quality infrastructure’ bit – the very thing that has been proven to have success overseas in getting the masses on their bicycles with increased subjective safety. So I guess that brings us back to the Department for Transport, who should be actively promoting it.

Cycling has always been about ‘Localism’ and ‘Big Society’ with local campaigners and activists that have been bashing their heads against the wall of local democracy for years (and for free). This, for me is where the problem lies; it’s all well and good giving local authorities ‘the right tools’ with devolved powers, but what if they don’t know what to do with them (or don’t even want to know). It’s like giving a group of primary school children ‘the right tools’ to design Britain’s successor to Trident – many will be keen as mustard and will give it their best shot. The results they come up with, whilst thankfully not feasible, will be all the more wonderful as a result and fascinating.

…and then it comes back down and blows everything up, Daddy. Next week we’re redesigning Bow Roundabout to give it lots of pretty lights….

The results that local authorities come up with for bicycles are usually far from wonderful and although we’d be fascinated to know how they arrived at their conclusions, local campaigners are usually locked out. It’s as though they are left staring through the railings at some sort of nightmare-ish Willy Wonka factory churning out pointless pavement conversions. Except their Council Tax helped pay for the nightmare.

Where ‘Transport’ and ‘Sustainable Transport’ collide (Worthing, West Sussex)

What’s worse is that when Councils across the land started to make austerity cuts, we didn’t need a crystal ball to predict that the position of Cycling Officer would be the first to go thereby cutting what is usually the only gateway between local campaign groups and the local authority. Worse still is that many councillors are actively hostile towards the humble bicycle, who view it as a symbol of non-aspiration to ferry the great unwashed along the gutter or an imposition to progress in their local area (particularly to the golf club). After all, bike parking doesn’t bring in parking fees, the most consistent issue in any local newspaper. In many cases, asking a Council to organise a consistent quality cycling policy is a bit like asking Nick Griffin to organise the Notting Hill Carnival.

I’m certainly not against localism. There are Local Authorities that are trying at the very least to understand the bicycle and just what a bewilderingly diverse mode of getting about their patch it is. But I personally believe that there has to be stronger guidance from Central Government in terms of consistent infrastructure standards, policy and funding which is at best piecemeal and often utterly soul-destroying for local campaigners. I still cannot fathom why ‘Transport’ and ‘Sustainable Transport’ are still treated as separate entities – We build a major road scheme and then apply the sustainable bits at the side or as an afterthought, which is why it needs to be integral to the Department for Transport, as opposed to a quango whose flame can be snuffed out as easily as Cycling England.

Everyone, from Local Authorities that haven’t yet realised the real benefits of the bicycle from more energised workforce & schoolchildren, better local business and increased tourism (or ‘Localism’) to local campaign groups (or ‘Big Society’) deserve far better than this.

Scenes From My Commute

Lancing Boat Club

I was cycling my merry way home this evening as I usually do along the seafront from Brighton to Worthing. The Sturmey Archer 3 speed was ticking away like a pacemaker made for Bez from Happy Mondays and the sea breeze was slowly caressing my slowly dwindling hair. Just outside Worthing on the edge of Lancing Beach, I normally encounter this…….

It’s obviously a skip, but it was placed right in the middle of the cycle path to prevent access to the neighbouring greensward by Gypsies and Travelling folk who are despised in Britain slightly more than cyclists, although it’s a very close call. The Daily Mail rule of thumb is that cyclists don’t pay Road Tax (which hasn’t existed since 1937) but Travellers don’t pay any tax (allegedly). We ignore the fact that Vodafone and other large corporations get away with not paying their fair share to the tune of billions because in modern Britain its just easier to pick on minorities. Anyway, imagine my surprise when I came across this…..

The structure on the left already had the seating stripped out to remove the homeless people who would sleep there occasionally and had been given a shiny new coat of red, white and blue, I assume due to the forthcoming Jubilee celebrations. In the patch of brown where the skip was there is now a shiny new blue sculptural bollard  announcing that you are now entering or leaving Lancing Beach.

Unlike the other black columnar art installations you can see, there is nothing reflective at all on it. The picture above shows a bit more context – like the fact that cyclists following the path from Worthing have to do a 90 degree right turn (there is a high white wall just set back to the right) so as they accelerate away, provided they haven’t hit any oncoming cyclists or pedestrians, they can collide with the art installation. The words ‘Lancing Beach’ can be the last thing they remember as they gracefully slip into unconsciousness, with the gentle crashing of waves to keep them company. It’s all part of the rich kaleidoscope that is riding a bicycle in Britain.

Why People in the UK Don’t Cycle No 6 – British Cycle Infrastructure

Apparently, Brooks also dabbled in Surrealism whilst developing their prototypes before they settled on a traditional leather saddle.

According to Wikipedia,

‘Surrealist works feature the element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequitur…’

‘As they [Surrealists] developed their philosophy, they believed that Surrealism would advocate the idea that ordinary and depictive expressions are vital and important, but that the sense of their arrangement must be open to the full range of imagination…’

Although the epicentre of the Surrealist movement is cited as Paris immediately following, and as a reaction to The Great War, I would argue that Highways Authorities in Great Britain in the late 20th/early 21st centuries are a worthy successor through their Surrealist installations across the land, never short on elements of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non-sequiturs.

Ceci n’est pas une cyclepath
(Pease Pottage, West Sussex)

One would have thought it simple to design for the bicycle. After all it’s so simple, a child can use it. A surrealist juxtaposition forms because Britain excels in making the most complicated mode of transport simple and the simplest modes of transport complicated.

Warrington Cycle Campaign started it’s always entertaining ‘Cycle Facility of the Month’ back in March 2001. They even have a book out first published in November 2007 (proceeds to CTC’s worthy Cyclists Defence Fund). The problem is that it’s a few years on and highways authorities across the land either still haven’t got to grips with the bicycle, or simply see the bicycle as an imposition to ‘progress’, or are utterly hostile to the bicycle based on prejudices that really shouldn’t be lurking in any professional environment. Local cycle campaign groups are only usually consulted when the plans are programmed for construction so even if they object it’s too late, but at least Officials can then say that they’ve consulted with those ‘cyclists’ whilst rolling their eyes and ticking another box.

No funny caption, just marvel at the surreal incompetence (from ‘Facility of the Month – January 2012)

When a new road is constructed, motorists are drawn to it because it offers speed, directness & quality of surface. It is often touted as the ‘solution’ to a problem that nobody seems guilty of creating but that doesn’t matter anymore because, thanks to the new road, the problem will never, ever occur again, apparently. When a new cycle path is constructed, cyclists shy away from it because they don’t need surrealism on the way to work or school. They are often ponderous, indirect and are often barely converted pavements with poor sight lines, overgrown vegetation and of course, pedestrians, who are probably wondering what they did to deserve such Hell.

There are four classifications of cycle infrastructure in Britain [as I see it based on observations at local cycle campaigning level]:

Dirt Cheap

Usually a ‘Town Centre’ route from an outlying suburb where you may get to your end destination in under three days – Directional signs only. Inexplicable Dropped Kerbs also fall into this category.

Cheap and You Should Consider Yourselves Grateful

Usually a ‘Town Centre’ route from an outlying suburb where you may get to your end destination in under a day – Combination of directional and ‘Cyclists Dismount’ signs, some converted pavements and on road cycle-paths (paint only) – some of it possibly paid for by Section 106 money if it runs past a new development. Tactile paving is provided to catch bicycle tyres and trip the elderly (even more lethal in snow). This is to fulfill standards that the designer may have read. These facilities are defined by lycra clad experienced cyclists who correctly and pointedly use the road next to it, often armed with cameras to record abuse from motorists who think they should be using something that Salvador Dali couldn’t have thought up even after a bottle of ‘White Lightning’. Some ‘safe routes to schools’ often fall into this category – great ideas but the children still have to dress so they are visible from Neptune and are no match for a Land Rover containing children that are more important, apparently.

Ridiculously Expensive [According to Comments Section in Local Newspaper].

This is generally a scheme that has had money donated from an external source such as Sustrans. This fact of course goes straight over the heads of local newspaper letter writers and Wetherspoons Pub Frequenters who never let things like cold, hard facts get in the way of prejudice. Schemes vary from more expensive ‘Town Centre Links’ as mentioned above, ‘Railway Station links’ where at the end of a hard ride we are supposed to have a post-coital cigarette at seeing the amount of cycle parking provided (some of it under cover), converted paths through parks and lightly converted canal paths with strange gates at either end looking like the entrance to Narnia complete with dog walkers. Also Beeching-era railway lines that make great cycle paths accidentally.

F*ck me, HOW MUCH!!

The above phrase is often spoken by both cyclist and member of the general public, but for differing reasons. Still far, far cheaper than a road scheme, this is where we enter Grand Designs such as ‘Cycle Superhighways’ where painting the previous three categories a shade of Barclays blue creates continuity and changes it magically for the better for some reason. This is often the most tragic of categories as so much is often promised and some political will has been found before the cold hands of compromise and lobbying strangle the usefulness out of it, sometimes with the worst possible outcomes. This category also includes well used segregated bi-directional cycle paths that are in reality for unbelievably narrow people or the population of Lilliput, often going from somewhere to nowhere because they aren’t part of a decent, coherant network. These are generally routes that people currently use and would use because they follow the desire lines for the commuting public. As a result, they are generally heavily trafficked and therefore the stakes (and costs) are considerably higher. A lot of the money would have been spent on Feasibility Studies alone.

And we still haven’t mastered junctions.

British Cycle Infrastructure is the result of the end users being treated like flies on a cow – consistently being swatted away as tiny annoyances and occasionally being given dung to feast on (that’s also cheap to purchase). If you look at a Dutch Streetscape, you are often under no illusion what local and national Government thinks of the bicycle. It is also easy to conclude what local and national British Governments think by looking at our streetscapes and this is yet another factor which, to the general public, makes the act of riding a bicycle as appealing as Badger Baiting with Peter Andre. This is yet another reason that makes the simple act of riding a bicycle continue to be seen as a peripheral, specialist and potentially dangerous activity (no movement ever got anywhere telling the general public how they should be feeling. If it looks dangerous, then that, as they say, is that).

Having said that, I do wish to acknowledge at this point that we do have excellent cycle training and trainers in this country doing invaluable work (often for free). I am making the argument that infrastructure done correctly would amplify their efforts a great deal. It’s also worth acknowledging the biggest irony that, thanks to organisations like CTC, there are reasonably good cycle infrastructure guidelines already out there.

I leave you with a film I made for the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain (our AGM is later this month – be there!!); the first three clips were shot on a David Hembrow Study Tour of Assen and Groningen whilst the final clip is of my everyday commute between Worthing and Brighton. When I arrived at the ferry port in the Netherlands, to make a train connection, I cycled the 37km from Hook of Holland to Rotterdam with a friend without consulting any maps or GPS and without hi-viz, helmets, hassle, fear or intimidation. Now think about the last time you rode a bicycle in the UK. Yes, surreal isn’t it?

Please also see:

Why People in the UK Don’t Cycle No 1: Class

Why People in the UK Don’t Cycle No 2: Culture of Fear

Why People in the UK Don’t Cycle No 3: DANGER!

Why People in the UK Don’t Cycle No 4: Driving is Easier

Why People in the UK Don’t Cycle No 5: Bicycle Maintenance

The Winds of Change

The Future. For Britain. In 1992. And now again, apparently.

I was cycling to work this morning through very thick sea mist. The ‘March winds’ have not really materialised here on the South Coast. The winds of change are definitely picking up however.

At the beginning of March, I went to Portcullis House to represent the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain at the Labour Cycling Summit, chaired by Ban Bradshaw MP and Maria Eagle MP (Shadow Secretary for Transport). This was triggered by The Times ‘Cities Fit for Cycling’ campaign. All the usual suspects were there from safety campaigners, road designers, local government and road users, including HGV operators. It was remarkably cordial and some good points were made such as the need for systemic change in the training of future engineers to stopping thinking car first and foremost. I made the following points:

  • That The Times ‘Cities Fit for Cycling’ campaign is an incredible effort that should be acknowledged for, at the very least, taking cycling issues ‘out there’ far, far beyond the realm of Cycling groups and internet chat rooms.
  • That current cycling infrastructure is great if you like ‘abstract art’ (always good to get an early laugh in).
  • If adults need to not only put on body armour to commute to work but also put surveillance measures on that armour, than what hope is there for our nations children wanting to cycle to school?
  • Whilst there’s a lot of incredibly hard work done in the name of Bikeability (which I personally believe should change it’s name back to ‘Cycling Proficiency’. It is a life skill, not a jolly sounding activity) along with Sustrans ‘Safe Routes to School’, there needs to be a quality network of routes to get the 98% considering cycling again through methods with proven success such as those used overseas. Otherwise, parents may indeed ride to school with their children but instead of going on to the shops they nip back and get the car out, due to lack of dedicated ongoing route, lack of subjective safety and the very act of riding a bicycle looking like an overly complicated specialist activity.

What was particularly pleasing was that there was no political point scoring and it was accepted that whatever happens from here on in, it is a cross party issue.

Last week, I went to the House of Commons to represent the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain at the launch of ‘The Summer of Cycling’ which any organisation, group, shop or magazine can support. All the usual suspects were there in cycling and cycle campaigning. “It’s always the same bloody people” someone quipped (and no, for a change it wasn’t me). It has a shiny new website that will develop as the week’s progress with a facebook page and twitter feed. The premise is simple; if everyone that rides a bicycle pledges to get someone who would not normally ride a bicycle to ride a bicycle then the amount of people riding bicycles would double. Simplest ideas are always the best and all that.

At this point, I would normally write something with distain about promotion being one of usual the soft options we always settle for in campaigning to the detriment of everything else because it’s cheap. However, it would be sheer lunacy to not to get some extra promotional mileage out of the Olympics being held in Britain this year, particularly with the success already achieved on road and track. It helps that Philip Darnton is at the helm. He not only has the uncanny ability to sniff out a fiver in a force nine gale – essential for cycling in Britain as it currently stands, but to amplify the meagre funding that cycling in Britain has come to expect through the years, with Cycling England being the classic example.

Summer of Cycling is run for the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group (on which the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain sits) and was created by 23 organisations late last year. It was confirmed at the meeting that Minister for Transport Norman Baker has pledged £20,000 for this venture (slightly less than the list price for a Volkswagen Tigua Crossover 2.0 TDi 140 BlueMotion 5 Door) with another £70,000 going to Bike Week (slightly less than the list price for a BMW 750i 4 Door Saloon).

This lunchtime marked the 2012 Budget delivered by George Osborne. Cycling is mentioned in the official document twice.

  • [The Government] is committed to tackling congestion, improving connectivity and supporting cycling in and around London. The Government will explore the case for using the Planning Act 2008 to streamline the planning process for the proposed additional river crossings in East London, for example at Silvertown, which will reduce peak period delays and congestion in the area……In addition, the Government will grant £15 million to TfL for investments in cycle safety, which will include improved provision for cyclists at junctions across the capital under consideration in TfL’s cycle safety junction review’
  • 2.255 London cycle safety grant – The Government will allocate £15 million to TfL for investment in cycle safety. This will include improved provision for cyclists at junctions across the capital currently under consideration in TfL’s Cycle Safety Junction Review.

In the same document, £56 million is going to the Bexhill-Hastings link road. Which is slightly more relevant to me as I live in Sussex and not London. I’m not sure what the implications are for the rest of the country.

This very week, the idea of privatising the roads was presented in a speech by David Cameron to the Institute of Civil Engineers. Some commentators were quick to say on Twitter that it was just a smokescreen mainly to detract from the NHS and Social Care Bill and partly because there are many that are convinced that we have reached ‘peak car’. At War with the Motorist believes we shouldn’t worry as cyclists about it anyway as it will only affect Trunk Roads (Motorways in all but name) and Motorways. I personally believe that the Income Tax changes were the smokescreen and what we are actually seeing is a nation three years into a deep recession with a deeply car-centric Government that thinks ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ is a challenge as opposed to a warning.

I can’t help but feel that the proper stuff that will actually succeed in enabling consistent mass cycling is as far away as it ever has been. At least people are starting to listen now and act. High quality cycle infrastructure will cost serious money – nice things generally do. Surely it’s better to get the right measures in now and get to put an end to the well meaning but crap facilities being built in our name as opposed to seeing more roads being made increasingly unusable with no safe, quality alternative. Or new private or publically built roads having the usual dreadful or non-existent provision. It’s always cheaper to get it right at the design stage than to retro fit afterwards.

The winds of change are certainly blowing. But not quite hard enough to clear the mist yet.

A Spoonful of Sugar

It appears that Lord Sugar is a bit bored now that he doesn’t have any apprentices to bully in the board room.

This from the nicely redesigned road.cc

“Lord Sugar has ignited a debate over whether cyclists in the UK, like those in some parts of the US, should be required to carry identification with police being given powers to confiscate the bicycles of those who fail to provide it, but the government has said it has no plans to do so.

The Amstrad founder and host of the BBC show The Apprentice, himself a keen cyclist and owner of a fleet of Pinarello bikes, was speaking yesterday during a debate in the House of Lords following a question about pavement cyclists tabled by Labour peer Lord Harrison.

Lord Sugar, who regularly cycles both in Britain and when saying at his other homes in both Spain and Florida, asked government transport spokesman Lord Atlee, “Is it mandatory for a cyclist using the roads to carry some form of identification on them?”

“In the United States of America we are told to carry identification with us so that the police can take action against people who are riding on pavements or jumping lights.

“If you don’t have identification with you, they confiscate your bike and it is up to you to go and get it back and pay a big fine.”

In reply, Lord Atlee, who is the grandson of the Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee, said the government had no plans to introduce such a requirement…..”

Then he had a think about it in the Board Room and instead of pointing at people, he started typing instead..

“…On Twitter this morning, Lord Sugar expanded on his comments yesterday, saying: “Cyclists should carry some form of ID, so they can get nicked by police for jumping pavement or lights. Otherwise they just lie who they are.”

He added that carrying ID was also a good idea for cyclists “in case they get knocked off bike in serious accident that might render them unconscious” and that when out riding, he always carried ID, cash for a taxi and a phone.”

I like to think he’s just a naturally pragmatic man saying naturally pragmatic things. I unwittingly always carry ID for the simple reason that my Drivers’ Licence is in my wallet. Do read the full report as it has pragmatic comment from Lord Young & CTC’s Chris Peck too. Personally, I sincerely hope it doesn’t ignite a debate because we still live in a nation where some are having a little bit of trouble understanding that catering for something so thermodynamically simple, libertarian, egalitarian, that increases health and wellbeing (physical and mental) for all ages, colours, genders and creeds, empowering to the masses, that produces no emissions for future generations, less financially damaging to personal wallets and budgets for the NHS, road maintenance, policing (more people on bikes and on foot means safer communities) and returning civility, neighbourliness and localism might be quite a good thing.

Because we have nurtured and grown such a car-centric culture in Britain (hence for some inexplicable reason we still need to debate 20mph limits where people are and curtailing someone’s right to drive slightly less like a pillock), to mention an ‘out group’ like ‘cyclists’ is to crack open the tar and feathers. In Britain, stick someone who regards themselves as a normal, ‘respectable’ citizen in front of a computer and suddenly they’re suggesting Hanging for those lycra-lout, scruffy, unlit/ lit too bright, tax dodging, smug, sanctimonious ‘cyclists’ who ride within 20 metres of them. Yet when there’s a road crash in their locality involving motor vehicles (even with horrific consequences), their computers fall eerily silent. It’s just one of those sad things involving normal, ‘respectable’ citizens.

In the spirit of the Apprentice (I’m 40 next year so ‘Young Apprentice’ is probably a little ambitious) and sense of justice in the UK & US which is obviously high up in Lord Sugar’s mind, I would like to suggest to him a new product – I call it the Bicycle Observation In Local Environment Realm SUIT.

Very Visible. Unless of course your job involves picking oranges.

Like the bicycle, it’s a beautifully simple design and all the Cyclists details can be stencilled on the back. It’s machine washable (despite cyclists being ‘the unwashed’), available in all sizes, high-viz (shown here in ‘Amnesty Orange’) and the best way to identify a group of deviants that will break the law at any moment, you mark my words. I did my market research in the comments section of the Daily Mail and local newspaper websites as they seem to know everything. For cyclists, there’s no wondering about what to wear on the bike anymore – the downside being that the fit might clash with a Pinarello, Rapha will still make their own Suit for about £500 and British Cycle Chic websites may look a little bit samey after a while, even with more Dutch bikes.

What’s that? I’m fired? Thank you Lord Sugar.

Once again, here’s a film I made a while ago for the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain. In the final clip you might be able to see why [subjectively] some cyclists in Britain might favour the pavement at the moment, particularly with children. Happy cycling wherever you are.