A guest blog post from the Alternative Department for Transport
I have a confession to make: I'm not a cyclist. At least, I don't think I am.
I think this mainly because I don't own a bike. I ride the London hire bikes a few times a month at most (nearly always along specific low-traffic routes that I'm familiar with). I have no idea what a derailleur is. I have absolutely no interest in cycling as a sport — I've never been to a velodrome, I don't watch the Tour de France, and I didn't know who "Wiggo" was until he got knocked over.
But on the other hand, I write a blog in which cycling features heavily. I went on two cycling holidays in the Netherlands this year. If one of my friends asks me what I've been doing recently, they may well get an hour-long lecture about modal share, recent Dutch history, and Boris Johnson's broken promises. Cycling to me is a mode of transport, albeit a much misunderstood and suppressed one here in the UK, though it has the almost magical ability to transform our lives for the better. I think it should be a safe, easy and efficient transport option for everybody at any age, like it is in the Netherlands.
The fact that I cycle so rarely shows how far London really is from being a city fit for cycling (to coin a phrase). Riding a bike in London so often results in stress and terror, neither of which I wish to incorporate into my daily routine.
I've read that to get modal share from 2% to 3% is pretty easy — the extra 1% of journeys are made by people who are already eager to use a bike and they don't need much encouragement. (To get from, say, 25% to 26% is more difficult, as those people are much harder to convince.)
Well, I'm part of that group of people who are easy to convince to become regular riders, the 1% who are cyclists-in-waiting, and will make up the next increase in cycling rates. I really want to ride a bike every day — I yearn to, even! — and yet I rarely do so because it's just so very unpleasant. It's nicer to walk, and it's easier to get the tube or a bus. Sure it's slower or more expensive, but there are far fewer near-death experiences. For most people, that's a reasonable trade-off.
Being new to this whole cycling scene, many of the things which seasoned cyclists say strike me as being either fantastically optimistic, utterly baffling, or downright insane.
One of the strangest things I've come across is vehicular cycling. I know it's a survival technique for riding on the road, but the idea that it's suitable for everybody is beyond belief. It sounds awful, and is never going to attract new people to cycling. If anything, it's more likely to put potential cyclists off for good. Every time you say "take the lane" to a non-cyclist, they hear "risk your life" and will then decide to "take the car" instead.
Similarly, the idea that we can train people to enjoy bike-riding in traffic is also quite baffling, and seems rather desperate to me. The vast majority don't even want to try it. Unless you'd genuinely be happy for your children or your grandparents to do it, anywhere and at any time, it's not the right answer.
Another strange belief is that people don't ride a bike because there are no showers at their destination. This is truly preposterous. If cycling was something that inherently involved sweating profusely enough to require carrying a change of clothes then I wouldn't consider doing it anyway, I'd find another mode of transport instead. (Also, if it were true that showers are the big thing, absolutely everybody would cycle to the gym, surely?) In the Netherlands I cycled 35 miles a day, and didn't break into any more of a sweat than I would have done walking.
I often hear it said that people don't cycle because they don't know how to do their own repairs. Again, I'm floored by this. Most people don't even get close to the stage where they're doing their own repairs. If they bought a bike and it needed repairing, they'd take it to a repair shop. The few that like getting their hands dirty would just look up on the web. (I'm one of these people — I fixed our washing machine by replacing the carbon brushes in the motor. My flatmates' solution was to throw it out and buy a new one.) Lack of repair knowledge is not stopping people from taking up cycling.
No, the main reason most people don't ride a bike is because it looks and feels too dangerous. Ask around if you don't believe me.
The comparison of cycling with gardening makes me laugh: "You are more likely to be injured in an hour of gardening than in an hour of cycling." It misses the point in a spectacular way. The problem with this reasoning is that gardening feels safe, people enjoy doing it, and if you have a garden it needs to be done at least occasionally. When cycling feels dangerous people won't enjoy doing it — and it doesn't need to be done, you can just take the car instead, so most people do.
Or maybe it doesn't miss the point. Maybe my desire for cycling to be safe and accessible to all isn't the same as most cycle campaigners, whose goal seems to be to make on-road cycling better for the minority clique of existing on-road cyclists, and to have a bunch of arguments and statistics ready for when somebody questions them about it.
Well I think the CEoGB is on the right track. We shouldn't be concentrating on minor on-road improvements for existing cyclists. We need to focus on what will get more people cycling, and survey after survey points to good quality protected cycle paths. If you want to grow cycling so that it is accessible to anybody of any ability, this is the only way to do it (other than by banning motor vehicles entirely — good luck with that one!). Pushing for Dutch-quality infrastructure hasn't yet been tried, but everything else has.
Cycle campaign groups are usually focussed on local matters, which I can understand but I don't think will bring about real change. It can't do — even cycling-friendly councils are often hampered by central government restrictions. Have you ever wondered why all the road signs and markings look the same, from Land's End to John O'Groats, from the 1950s to today? That's because it was designed and approved in Whitehall and distributed to the regions. If cycling infrastructure is to become successful nationwide, then the change must come from the top.
We need to demand the best from our politicians. We need to focus on the DfT, and other central government bodies, to make the changes required. We need to stop including compromises in our requests. We need to stop settling for second-best solutions. We need to stop trying to reinvent the wheel when the answers to our problems are available in the Netherlands. (They even speak English really well!)
It seems criminal to me that successive governments in the UK have sidelined cycling and walking, along with all the benefits they bring to the whole of society, even those driving cars. It sounds like an exaggeration to say that what the Dutch have installed results in a better quality of life for everybody, but it's the truth. Surely we all want the children of the UK to grow up healthy and happy?
So where does that leave me? For the foreseeable future, on foot, on the bus, or in the tube, and — very occasionally, when everyone else has gone to bed — riding a bike.
Until cycling feels safe, until it's convenient and easy, until I don't have to dice with death — or at the very least, be bullied by black cabs — then you won't get me on a bike more often. The vast majority of people agree with me on this.