Observer journalist Joanna Walters wrote a strong pro-bike polemic in the Observer on Sunday December 22. Entitled ‘Why cyclists have been forced off Britain’s congested roads’, the piece is alarmist and a call for action.
Cycling is declining at such an alarming rate in Britain that a whole generation of children may never experience the health, financial and social benefits it offers.
Schools and councils up and down the country routinely encourage children and adults to get off their bikes rather than onto them, senior government advisers told The Observer yesterday.
Fewer people are using bikes to get to work or school than ever before: on rural roads and for primary school children the level is so low it has officially fallen to ‘zero per cent of trips’ in national statistics.
Overall, only 2 per cent of trips are now taken by bicycle in the UK, compared with 85 per cent by car. In Switzerland, 10 per cent of children cycle to school and that rises to 11 per cent in Germany, 15 per cent in Sweden and 18 per cent in Denmark.
Kevin Mayne, director of national cycling group CTC, said Britain needed a huge boost in cycling to school in order to break the ‘school run’ car culture and develop a generation of active adults that would not suffer the nation’s current rate of 157,000 adult deaths from heart disease a year, 37 per cent of which are attributed to inactivity.
[While] Britain has the lowest overall rate of road deaths in Europe, pedestrians and cyclists are more than twice as likely to be killed in the UK than in the Netherlands or Sweden, where many more cycle and walk.
[Campaigners} say parents should be…worried about their children joining the 10 per cent of 10-year-olds now officially described as obese than about them being knocked off their bikes. Mayne said: ‘Often there is too much fear that cycling is not safe and is part of the culture of parents being afraid to let children out on their own – giving them less of a sense of freedom and adventure as well as the health benefits and environmental education of cycling as a green form of transport.’
As the Government admitted last week that road congestion could worsen by a fifth over the next decade – and then two days later launched a major campaign against ‘couch potatoes’ and child obesity – experts warned that cyclists were becoming an endangered species on Britain’s roads.
But that is not because people in Britain do not want to cycle. Almost half of British households own a bicycle and cycling for leisure is slowly increasing as more off-road tracks are built – but cycling as a form of transport and a way of meeting the Government’s recommendation that we get of 30 minutes of daily exercise is disappearing.
Pro-cycling groups blame not just the 30-year legacy of road-building and car culture, but the reluctance of local and national politicians to give priority to the bicycle on the road, growing antagonism between motorists and cyclists and safety fears. One senior consultant to the Government said: ‘There is a reluctance by politicians to do anything that is seen as anti-car and that translates to building cycle lanes. The commitment in most local authorities is weak compared with towns and cities on the Continent, and nationally the Government does not push things like congestion charging and speed-limit enforce ments that help cyclists,’ he said.
‘Developers and road engineers do not account for walking or cycling until the last minute when they are planning new roads, hospitals, schools or supermarkets, and then the facilities are often token and appalling.’
Cycling campaigners and consultants said that badly designed cycle lanes put in by councils paying lip service to pro-bike policies were at best useless and at worst dangerous.
‘So much of what has been put in for cyclists in this country is truly awful. If you judge the record by miles of cycle lane it sometimes looks good on paper, but often it is just a white line down the middle of the pavement or a tiny green stripe squashed in the gutter that is out of the normal line of sight for a car driver and then stops abruptly as soon as you get to a junction – and in some ways that can be more dangerous,’ said the consultant.
John Grimshaw, chief executive of the Sustrans charity that is building the new National Cycle Network, said some schools had up to 70 per cent of pupils cycling in, while others had none at all.
The Government is putting record levels of funding into cycling and Transport Secretary Alistair Darling has just announced a huge expansion of the ‘safe routes to school’ initiative. But it has only just begun a nationwide assessment of all councils’ performance on cycling to find out why it is still declining.
Where York leads the way as the British city closest to the best in Europe, with special facilities and priority for its thousands of cyclists, Wokingham near Reading was described as ‘typically awful’ and as an area with very few, badly designed provisions.
As the constituency of former Tory Transport Minister John Redwood, Kevin Mayne said Wokingham was typically pro-car and the local MP was more interested in building a road bridge over the railway line to stop queues building up at the level crossing than in doing anything to encourage cycling.
He demonstrated a new cycle ‘path’ close to Wokingham railway station that gave half the narrow pavement to cyclists, but made them give way to other traffic at each tiny side street while the motor traffic soared easily by.
‘They consulted local cyclists, who wanted a lane on the road, but were ignored. There is a cycle lane nearer the town centre, but there is a mile gap between the two, where cyclists are squeezed into the side of this busy A road,’ he said, above the noise of the speeding traffic.
Mayne said the well-used bike rack at the station showed people wanted to cycle, but their numbers were kept down because ‘all the facilities disappear within about half a mile of the centre’.
York is officially recognised as Britain’s top cycling city, where 5 per cent of children cycle to school and 19 per cent of people cycle to work – figures that compare respectably to many of the better Continental cities.
The city was one of the first to appoint a cycling officer more than 10 years ago – and it is not unusual in York to see barristers cycling to court in their suits and police officers on specially adapted bikes as well as the rush-hour hordes.
It has cycle lanes on the roads that have dedicated cleaning teams to clear them of broken glass and on one of the major roundabouts next to a city centre bridge, cyclists have separate turnings to speed them through the lights ahead of the cars.
York bed-and-breakfast proprietor Susan Williams, 61, rode to the city centre shops on her bike from her home two miles away.
‘I used to be a fair-weather cyclist, but I have started going everywhere on my bike all year round. It gives me a real sense of freedom and energy. The traffic in the city centre is just awful, parking is a pain and the buses are not punctual, so I love using my bike – I feel safe in the bike lanes,’ she said.
The Government is so concerned by soaring rates of heart disease and impending gridlock that Transport Minister John Spellar has called in Steven Norris, who as Tory Transport Minister spearheaded the national cycling strategy in 1996. He is heading a task force to examine every council’s record on cycling and will hand out bouquets and brickbats next year to the best and worst performers.
He said last week: ‘There is no excuse for neglecting cycling in this country. But it is as if we are just beginning to emerge, stumbling, into the daylight of the world of the bicycle.’
Cycling groups, industry consultants and government advisers complain that as traffic levels have soared in a nation which has the longest commuting times and the highest car dependence in Europe, people who want to use bikes are increasingly marginalised on the roads.
As cycling declines while congestion and, conversely on clear roads, speeding increases, observers report that a growing number of motorists regard bikes as a nuisance and ignore or actively menace them.
Meanwhile, frustrated cyclists increasingly feel the urge to reassert themselves by jumping red lights, weaving in and out of slow-moving traffic and riding on the kerb – in turn threatening pedestrians and harming the reputation of cyclists.
One senior consultant to Ministers said:
‘The Government simply has not had the balls to get to grips with this because they are afraid of the motoring lobby and now they are off spending billions widening roads again.’ The Government has spectacularly missed its goal to double cycling from the level of 2 per cent of trips in 1996 to 4 per cent by the end of 2002 – the figure is stuck at 2 per cent – while driving, flying, train journeys and even bus use in some areas have increased in a growing economy.
OBSERVER ARTICLE IN FULL
OBSERVER ARTICLE BY CHRIS BOARDMAN