Yesterday was the London Sky Ride. A large circuit was closed off to all motor vehicles so cyclists could enjoy a traffic free ride around the sights of Central London. Approximately 85,000 people turned up for this event. I was there by accident; The Wife and I were staying in a hotel on Victoria Embankment overnight for our first wedding anniversary and completely forgot it was on until we saw the side roads being closed off. We checked out and decided to stroll to Victoria Station to burn off the Full English Breakfast and witness the spectacle.
The first instantly noticeable thing was that the vast majority of cyclists were wearing helmets. This also didn’t go unnoticed by many of the bemused European tourists that were also going for a stroll. They don’t need this sort of event in mainland Europe. If they want to go somewhere on a bicycle, they get on a bicycle and go somewhere. Sometimes the infrastructure is sublime; sometimes it’s almost as bad as ours. Above all, the bicycle is generally regarded as transport requiring no special safety kit. It’s a perfectly normal thing to do (just as it was for older generations in this country).
The Sky Ride website gushes, ‘Cycling is already one of the fastest growing sports in the UK and with our encouragement we want to help people understand the thrill of getting back in the saddle. We want to get more people healthier, fitter and happier and have set ourselves the target of getting one million more people on a bike by 2013’. I’m sure they mean one million people attending their events across the land as opposed to achieving a significant modal shift in transport terms. They clearly regard cycling as a sport,which is hardly surprising considering they sponsor a professional road racing team. It’s something that requires buying lots of specialised kit. It’s a lifestyle choice made by you, the consumer. It’s cycling™.
The Wife and I strolled along the edge of St James Park to the side of Buckingham Palace where one of the exit/access points was for the Sky Ride circuit. It you needed proof of the very sharp contrast between traffic free and traffic choked cycling, it was here. Look back down Birdcage Walk for happy people out for a relaxed ride (as you would see on segregated facilities across various European towns and cities). Turn toward Victoria Station down Buckingham Gate for occasional cyclists starting to look a little bit desperate as they mix it up alongside fast moving cars and vans (as you would see in all British towns and cities). Particularly parents trying to herd their brood alongside a tide of Audi’s and Volvo’s before giving up and using the pavements.
Last night thousands of bikes were probably returned to sheds to collect dust. This morning’s cycle commute also coincided with the beginning of a new school term so the roads returned to resembling a Blues Brothers car chase. The two can be reconcilled with decent, segregated cycling infrastructure designed and built to a Danish or Dutch model. Then everyday can be a Sky Ride. No lycra or helmets necessary. Just happiness.