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.’
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.