Why cycling needs to be taken seriously by politicians and planners

I’ve been a cyclist virtually all my life. I started cycling the two miles to school when I was 15, unconcerned even then by the London traffic despite the pleas from my parents. They had given me a Moulton, a precursor of the Brompton with little wheels and Sturmey Archer gears, and though it did not fold up, it was very Swinging London.

For a time in my twenties, I did renounce the pedal bike in favour of far faster two wheelers, the highly strung Japanese motorbikes that had put BSA, Enfield and all those other British marques out of business. However, after a few burn ups on my Kawasaki 350 around the north Circular its tendency to cut out when it reached three figures made me realise that I would be unlikely to reach my thirties if I continued riding that bike. I might have been very skilled at handling it but I was very foolish at ignoring the risks, so I reverted to what were rather insultingly known at the time as pushbikes.

It was a good decision. I have spent these three or four decades using the bike as my main form of travel around London, and it has proved beneficial in so many ways. I see myself not as a cyclist, but a cycle user, someone for whom the bike is a key accessory to both my work and my leisure activities. How else, for example, would I get to three or four meetings in different parts of London in a single day, often cutting things really fine. How else would I keep reasonably fit even in weeks where I don’t manage to get out for a couple of runs? How else would I enjoy the breeze on a spring day in Hyde Park? And all the while I get brownie points for my environmental concern when, in fact, I cycle for all sorts of other reasons.

I have spent these three or four decades using the bike as my main form of travel around London, and it has proved beneficial in so many ways. I see myself not as a cyclist, but as cycle user, someone for whom the bike is a key accessory to both my work and my leisure activities.

Yet, somehow I am in a minority. Most people do not seem to recognise the benefits of cycling. They pooh-pooh the idea that these benefits could be delivered far more widely. Worse, a sizeable minority are actively hostile and need only the slightest excuse to attacks cyclists. Contrast, for example, the different coverage of the single well publicised – and of course tragic – death of a woman pedestrian at the hands of a reckless cyclist with the hundreds of deaths caused annually by drunk drivers.

This needs to be challenged. Cycling is a fantastic missed opportunity. At the time I was braving the roads for the first time, dozens of kids in the UK were being killed by motorists effectively leading to more forceful parents than mine simply banning their kids from cycling on the roads. However, the reaction in the Netherlands, where the same tragedies were taking place on a similar scale, was different. There the parents, especially the mothers, of the children took to the streets. They demanded that their kids should be able to cycle safely. And the government listened. Rather than closing cycle lanes as happened in the UK, they started building more, and ensuring that there were through routes pretty much everywhere, ensuring that kids, as well as their parents, could cycle safely pretty much anywhere.

Labour, and indeed the other political parties, need to start taking cycling seriously. Support for cycling should not be a party political issue, but a no-brainer whose benefits are self-evident. And that’s why today cycling is the norm in the Netherlands for short journeys. The modal share of cycling in some Dutch towns is over 50 per cent. In the UK, the best we can muster is 18 per cent in York and 15 per cent in Cambridge. Overall the figure is a meagre 2 per cent in the UK compared with 27 per cent in the Netherlands nationwide.

Here is the most telling statistic: In the Netherlands, a higher proportion of women over sixty cycle than those in their forties and fifties. That’s because when they retire, they have more time to be able to cycle and their journeys are likely to be shorter. Just imagine how that is improving these people’s health. Being sedentary is the greatest cause of disease among older people.

 

Any money allocated to getting more people cycling would repay itself many times over in terms of health, environmental and social benefits. For a long time politicians have paid lip service to cycling. They say it is a good thing but in the next breath they talk about Lycra louts and cyclists on pavements scaring old ladies. Yet, they make no similar comments about the imperfections of motorists.

Labour, and indeed the other political parties, need to start taking cycling seriously. Support for cycling should not be a party political issue, but a no-brainer whose benefits are self-evident. The policies required are all known to transport planners: safe protected routes for cyclists, reallocation of road space for cyclists, 20 mph speed limits in urban areas, allocating a high proportion of transport money to cycling and so on. Any money allocated to getting more people cycling would repay itself many times over in terms of health, environmental and social benefits.

As a former Parliamentary candidate, and an active member of Labour, I am sometimes embarrassed by the party’s failure to recognise the value of cycling. The policies required are all known to transport planners: safe protected routes for cyclists, reallocation of road space for cyclists, 20 mph speed limits in urban areas, allocating a high proportion of transport money to cycling and so on.

It is time for a new approach which is why I am one of the founders of Labour Cycles. As a former Parliamentary candidate, and an active member of Labour, I am sometimes embarrassed by the party’s failure to recognise the value of cycling. In so many ways it fits in with Labour values. It provides a cheap form of transport; protects people against illness and makes them healthier; is good for the environment; and is a fantastic way of encouraging kids to take exercise. What is there not to like?

This is an edited version of a blogpost on the Alwaysriding website https://www.alwaysriding.co.uk/features/christian-wolmar-cycling/

 

  • Greg Tingey

    Well, we in the London Borough of What the Fuck ( look at the intials) have had a “Mini-Holland” scheme foisted on us by the unspakable Cllr Loakes, which does NOTHING for cyclists ( I’m still one, after 60 years) & simply craps on motorists.
    Result? Increased traffic congstion & pollution – very clever – not.
    REAL improvements for cyclists would be welcome, but that’s not the same as making life hell for locals, using their crs down the streets in which they live ….
    [ NOTE: Cllr Loakes tried to close down all our Museums & Art-galleries not so long since…. ]

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