The Walking and Cycling group have released an interim report. It makes disappointing reading for those of us who see the bicycle as an essential part of a less energy intensive transport strategy. To sum the report up in a few words; The adult population of the UK just doesn’t get cycling, except as a leisure activity.
I’m trying to work out why? Does the image that we project as cyclists put people off? We are not all Lycra clad and super-fit, but if that is the image we project then it is understandable why the public think that they wont and don’t want to make the grade.
In the Netherlands, which in many ways is the European country that most resembles the United Kingdom, about 25% of all journeys are made by bicycle. In the United Kingdom it is about 2%. So what I want to explore is what makes the Dutch get on their bikes and the British get in their cars.
What are our reasons/excuses for using our cars and not our bikes?
The weather is often given as a reason, it rains a lot in Britain. It does if you live on the Northwest coast of Scotland or in Cumbria, but I refuse to believe that it rains more in the populated areas of Britain than it does in the Netherlands. Even if it does rain more, to quote some one, possibly Billy Connelly “there is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing”
The Netherlands are much flatter than the United Kingdom claim the motorists. I will agree, that for the most part they are, but there are bits of the Netherlands that are far from flat, and large areas of the United Kingdom, such as London that are less than Alpine in their hilliness. Flatness of the countryside is a double-edged sword, as any one why has cycled across the Fens into a head wind will tell you.
In my opinion the biggest obstacle to getting the British on their bikes is a justified fear of the traffic in our cities and towns. I do think that the dangers of cycling in Britain are often overstated, but I cannot pretend that they are non-existent.
Mrs johnm55 loves cycling, put her on her bike out in the countryside, especially on a sunny day with the prospect of lunch at a country pub, and she is in heaven. But she hates cycling in London. She finds the conduct of a significant number of other road users intimidating. They rarely leave a safe distance between her and their vehicle, they overtake at inappropriate times and they are rude and impatient. As a result, when she does use her bike in London she tries to find routes that keep her away from traffic as much as possible. The problem with such routes are that they are usually rough surfaced, tend to take you away from populated areas, are often poorly lit after dark, and often have pedestrians wandering willy-nilly across them. Pedestrians who get upset, and as rude as any motorist, if you ring your bell to warn then that you are coming up behind them. (Possibly they would prefer it if you yelled “get out the #@*!#@!# way you moron.”, but Mrs johnm55 is a very polite woman and would never even think of saying things like that. johnm55 at times takes a different view.)
All this means is that compared to cycling on the road, cycling on traffic free routes, in London, often is a very slow way of getting from A to B.
Now, look at the photo of the Dutch cyclists above, what do you see under their wheels? Correct, a well surfaced (motor) traffic free cycle route. The Netherlands has a has a comprehensive network of traffic free cycle routes which is one reason for the Dutch getting on their bikes. When the cyclist In the Netherlands has to share the road with cars, as they have to, even with a well designed system of cycle routes, The Netherlands has another advantage. In common with most other European countries the Netherlands has what is often known as a law of Strict Liability. The law assumes that unless proven otherwise, if a car collides with a more vulnerable road user (cyclist or pedestrian) then the car driver is at fault. The video gives explains how it works:
Any law similar to the Dutch law is of course anathema to our motoring organisations and Jeremy Clarkson, so there is not a lot of chance of a law like it being passed in this country any time in the near future. Of course a law of strict liability only goes so far. Hopefully it will make drivers slightly more careful around cyclists and pedestrians. It is also comforting to know that your loved ones will be taken care of if you are crushed by a lorry, but it is probably fear of getting crushed by the lorry that stops you getting on your bike in the first place. So we are back to needing effective cycle routes.
London’s developing network of Cycle SuperHighways are a start, but the one I have used CS7 still allows cars to park on it, forcing you out into the main traffic. Car drivers also don’t seem to take all that much notice of the blue bit of the road surface that is for cyclists alone. Driver education might help. Getting more cyclists out on the road would definitely help to make life safer for all cyclists.
Possibly the choice of bikes on sale in the UK doesn’t help either. It is getting better, but if you go into the average bike shop in Britain you will be hard pushed to ride out on a bike that can be ridden wearing a suit. By that I mean a bike with full mud-guards, an effective chain guard, and an upright riding position. Strangely enough his type of bike is known in the UK as a Dutch roadster.
An additional problem is where people keep their bikes when they are not in use. I used to keep all my bikes safely locked up in the shed in my back garden. The five or six minutes it takes to get the bike out of the shed and on to the road, then make sure all the back doors and gates have been re-locked is not a big deal, if I am going out for an all day bike ride. However, if all I am doing is going along to the shops to get some bread and milk, it is easier to take the car. The car sits outside the front of the house, all I have to do is unlock it and jump in.
I overcame this problem by keeping my old bike locked to a strong point at the front of the house. This makes it at least as easy as using the car for short trips.
I was going to insert a mini rant about cycle helmets at this point, but he post is getting a bit long so I’ll save it for later.
To sum up; I feel we need to do the following to encourage more use of the bicycle for transport.
- More and better segregated cycle paths.
- Driver education by carrot and stick.
- Help potential cyclists to use their bikes effectively.
- Find a way of changing the perception that cycling is dangerous (regular cyclists live on average about a year longer than non cyclists)
This study took place in Copenhagen, Denmark over 14.5 years. It found that cycling to work (an average of 3 hours cycling per week) decreased risk of mortality by about 40% compared to a sedentary control group. This study involved 30,000 people. The study took into account age, health status, and socio-economic factors such as education. It also found that older people gained even more from physical activity than younger people.
Next time for the sake of your health and the planet’s health, if you are going to the shops or the pub or to work, and the journey is five miles or less, think about walking or using your bike, it will probably be quicker anyway.