Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Cycling should be dull

" (Government) policy is not to make cycling safer but to encourage more people to be brave." The author, Janice Turner writing for the Times, puts her finger on one of the greater truths of public policy and cycling, which every city and every New Mobility activist will do well to bear in mind. In her words: "Cycling. . . should be banal. Because it is safe"
Cycling should be dull, not an extreme sport

- Janice Turner, The Times, London, UK

"We must overthrow the cult of the car and the Lycra-clad vanguard of aggressive men, if more of us are to take to our bikes"

Source: Cycling should be dull, not an extreme sport

I cycled to the Treasury on Tuesday to interview the Chancellor. All along Horse Guards the railings were plastered in police notices: bicycles chained to them would be removed, detonated possibly, since the fear is bike bombs, which crop up in conflicts from Vietnam through to Ireland and Iraq. In the end, my foldable was carried inside by a kind civil servant, trying not to get oil on his suit.

Cyclists are not welcome visitors to any public offices: Parliament, Portcullis House, Downing Street. You’d think someone would set up a token rack beyond where ministers might be vaporised by bombs. But whatever the political posturing inside, outside it’s still two wheels bad. And one wonders if things will change if/when George Osborne, who every morning can be spied freewheeling through Hyde Park, finally dismounts at the Treasury.

The pedalling Tories — George, Dave and Boris — are often mocked by Labour as poseurs, snapping on green credentials like cycle clips. But they merely reflect their class and generation. In the past two years, with Tube strikes and terror threats, the number of London cyclists has doubled: clustered at every intersection is a mob of professional, affluent, under-40, Georgie-boys.

Indeed, to cycle in Britain today you must embody Tory philosophy: be a rugged fearless individual, wholly responsible for your destiny, battling against the collectivism of bendy buses and the red tape of illogical one-way systems. Norman Tebbit, after all, instructed the jobless to get on their bikes, not the train

The trouble is, to judge by that microcosm of our blue future, the London mayoralty, Tory policy is not to make cycling safer but to encourage more people to be brave. Transport for London bangs on about Boris’s 12 new “cycle superhighways”, which will sweep into the centre from disparate suburbs. Will these routes have barriers so the two-wheeled are finally safe from being squished beneath Land Cruisers? Er, no. For the main part, we will still be playing dodgems with buses and now motorcycles — yes, cheers Boris, for adding veering Vespas to our worries. The mayor’s cycle superhighways, it turns out, are just lines on a map.

And yet last Sunday, from St Paul’s to Buck House, cars were banned from London streets for the mayor’s Skyride. Around 65,000 people gloried in our city, rode beside our pink-cheeked children without, for once, picturing the wobble that would land them under a truck. Oh, if only it were like this every day, we all cried, as if ordinary citizens — oldsters on uprights, little girls on pink Barbie trikes, hipsters in unfeasibly high heels, tweed suits on rusty butcher’s bikes — just getting around safely on two wheels was a fantasy.

Because elsewhere cyclists are just that: a random cross-section of humanity. Not a Lycra-clad male vanguard pumped with aggression and self-righteousness. In Europe’s top three cycling nations — Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands — timorous old people cycle, women as often as men, children bike off unaccompanied to school. Cycling is not a moral manifesto or a carbon offset. It does not require DayGlo or £500 alloy wheels or attitude. Cycling is, as it should be, banal. Because it is safe

Yes, you might say, those countries have always cycled, just like their women have never shaved their armpits: it’s their way, not ours. Actually, a fascinating report, Making Cycling Irresistible, by the American academics John Puchera and Ralph Buehler, reveals that in the early 1950s cycling in Britain and Denmark started tailing off as car ownership increased. Indeed, for some years, we were keener bikers than were the Danes. The difference was, in the mid-1970s, the governments of Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands resolved to stop the car’s dominance of the streets and championed the bike and pedestrian while the British allowed our townscapes to be ground beneath the wheels of the car. And yet these three continental countries own just as many cars per head as we do — the Germans more — it’s just that, unlike us, they aren’t glued into their driving seats.

Now only 1 per cent of our journeys are on bikes, in the Netherlands it is 27 per cent. And the reason is simple: a British cyclist is three times more likely than a Dutch one to die per miles travelled — even though only 3 per cent of Dutch cyclists wear a helmet. In Britain safety is seen as a matter for the individual, not government policy: yet it is highways, not helmets, that save lives.

And with quite extraordinary far-sightedness, these three countries built endless miles of barriered lanes along major roads but, more importantly, in many residential streets cars were slowed to a crawl and compelled to give way to bikes. And to enforce this, the law assumed, unless otherwise proved, that in an accident between a vehicle and a cyclist, the driver was at fault. Last week when that very principle was suggested here by Cycling England, there was a predictable furore about a (snore) Lycra louts’ charter.

But maybe it would make the idiot motorists who pelt down my 20mph street obey the law. Maybe it would have encouraged the left-turning HGV lorries who in London this year killed six female cyclists (women being vulnerable because we tend to ride defensively, hugging the kerb) to check their mirrors. Two fitness instructors, a film producer, a Goldsmiths’ graduate, a City director and an architect: those women were not loutish at all.

The answer to so many intractable modern problems — obesity, urban congestion, global warming — is cycling. What now feels like an extreme sport should be the default mode of transport. But it has dawned on me only recently that the big fat flaw at the heart of democracy is that politicians will never invest in the long term if voters’ initial inconvenience and expense are not rewarded with results before an election. And it will take years and billions to chip away at the cult of the car, to erect multistorey bicycle parks in every mainline station, to build genuinely super highways for bikes through our towns and reverse years of destructive urban planning.

Only when the fear is gone will big jessies stop riding on pavements, maniacs stop charging red lights, the streets be reclaimed from cars, and cycling from angry men with tiny bums. Do the Tories have the cojones to do it? Or is that just padding I see in their cycle shorts?


The author
Janice Turner joined The Times in 2003 from The Guardian, and writes mainly, but not exclusively, on family matters and women's issues. Her column appears on Saturdays.

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