City or Countryside? A Cycling Comparison

River frontage and a cycle path, and only three miles from the city centre!
River frontage and a cycle path, and only three miles from the city centre!

Having spent the last couple of decades or so pedalling the winding lanes and country roads of Middle England, relocation to urban Glasgow was always going to be a radical change.  So, four months along the line, how does cycling in rural Staffordshire compare with negotiating the potholes and road diversions in the UK’s fourth largest city?

In many respects things, particularly hazards, obstacles and attitudes are remarkably, and depressingly, very similar.  While the former Second City of the Empire now lags behind Leeds as the UK’s fourth largest city, it certainly must be in contention as the world’s Capital of Potholes. However, although dangerous holes in the road may be more numerous in Glasgow, they also lie in wait for the unsuspecting cyclist in the countryside – often for years as no one reports them, no one repairs them, or because they are located in places that don’t exist, according to satnavs – widened and deepened by the constant trundling of farm vehicles until the roads resemble open cast coal mines.

While the city’s ‘cycle only boxes’ are routinely exploited by many motorists, even on the showcase A728 on its way past Celtic Park, the Emirates Arena and Police Scotland HQ, priority boxes would immediately become objects of wonder, and derision, should they ever appear in a county town and cycle lanes, in the few places they do exist, are habitually regarded as extra parking spaces.

NCN 75 near Uddingston
NCN 75 near Uddingston

Indeed, the highlight of my final week living in Lichfield was a confrontation with a very large and aggressive Ukip supporter (it was during the final week of the election campaign) who laughed as I tried to pass round his car without getting wiped out by a steady stream of fast traffic, threatened me when I photographed his offending vehicle and warned me about cycling in the future as he ‘wouldn’t want something horrible to happen to me’.  Apparently, he also failed to ingratiate himself with the police officer who cautioned him after I reported the incident.

Dalmarnock Railway Bridge in all its bucolic splendour
Dalmarnock Railway Bridge in all its bucolic splendour

Above all, although Jeremy Clarkson and pals are generally regarded as poster boys for that persecuted and threatened species, middle-aged, middle-class, Middle England man, their misplaced sense of entitlement about the right to park where they want, to drive how and at what speed they want, sadly seems as prevalent among some road users, irrespective of age, class and gender, in urban central Scotland as it does among the Chipping Norton set.

But, overall, my decision to swap the leafy lanes of the Trent Valley for the edgier banks of the Clyde has, overwhelmingly, been to positive effect, especially as far as cycling is concerned.  Whereas trying to travel by bike in and around a car centric, rural village, involved the meticulous planning of a couple of 20-30 mile rides each week, timed to perfection around farming activity, the bus timetable and avoiding, at all costs, the school run, here I cycle every day; in and out of town, to and from the shops, along the tree-lined, cycle-friendly London Road to the excellent libraries in Bridgeton, into Lanarkshire, along to Balloch: and that’s only on NCN 75; so far I haven’t had enough time to venture further afield.

Looking west along the Clyde from NCN 75 at Shawfield
Looking west along the Clyde from NCN 75 at Shawfield

Selecting a new home that fronts on to a cycle path has, so far, resulted in a diverse range of benefits, including losing half a stone, finding resourceful ways of transporting everything from two full sized duvets, to a collection of house plants by bike, and seeing more wildlife – that’s foxes, herons, deer, not just the human residents – than I did in years in the countryside.

What I miss: days when I could go out for a ride without having to pack rain gear.

What I don’t miss: women (apologies to my fellow females), coffee in one hand, phone in the other, spearing their 4x4s through the school run, oblivious to the existence of all other road users. I’m sure they must exist in the city but, so far, I haven’t come across any in Dalmarnock

The river and path at twilight
The river and path at twilight

 

 

 

 

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No One Has a Divine Right to the Road: This “Them and Us” Mentality Has to Stop

Around 75% of adults in the UK hold a current driving licence, according to government statistics.  The same statistics also tell us that 80% of adult cyclists possess a driving licence and 1 in 5 motorists cycle at least once a month.

These figures are interesting, given the ongoing toxicity between some motorists and cyclists, and particularly in the light of yet more depressing examples of this ‘them and us’ mentality emerging over the weekend

A Conservative councillor in Birmingham, apparently, opposes proposed spending on cycling infrastructure because it will only benefit young, fit, white males. Elsewhere in a ‘Comment is Free’ debate on speed limits in the Guardian, a spokesman for a drivers’ organisation bemoans the

Cycliing infrastructure is an important, but not exclusive solution
Cycliing infrastructure is an important, but not exclusive, solution

continuing ‘war on motorists’ and opposes any reduction in the 30mph speed limit because “you need to drive at more than 20mph to overtake some bicycles”.

These points don’t just raise individual issues, but also highlight key problems in making our roads and streets safer and more conducive to all road users at a time when encouraging cycling and walking is central to combatting obesity and improving health and fitness.

While despairing at the inability of an elected representative to understand that it is the very lack of any existing safe cycling infrastructure that often ensures only young, fit males generally have the nerve to risk dangerous city streets on two wheels, it also reinforces the point that only when we can attract a wider cross section of the population on to their bikes, might the regularly antagonistic culture on our streets dissipate. Of course, we will not encourage those sections of society into cycling if they perceive it to be too dangerous, which is certainly the perception (however inaccurate) at present.  Providing more traffic-free bike lanes is one obvious way of making cycling safer.

Some (including fellow cyclists) believe that many of the young, lycra-clad (mainly) men on their lightweight racing machines hold the same competitive, confrontational mindset of many motorists in their high-powered cars and 4x4s and this has been a leading factor in cyclist/motorist antagonism.  Indeed, in London particularly, even a average-speed cyclist can outpace a car and this has led to predictable road rage among frustrated drivers.

But, it’s not quite as simple as this.  As a cyclist, motorist and pedestrian, I find it interesting to analyse my own responses when in different modes: as a pedestrian I curse motorists and cyclists who fail to stop at crossings and traffic lights; as a motorist I despair at pedestrians, usually engrossed in the mobiles, who step out, unthinkingly, in front of me, as well as cyclists without lights in the dark; and as a cyclist, I rage at motorists who regularly try to bully me off the road and entertain themselves by passing with only millimetres to spare. However, I reserve my greatest odium for road users, of all types, who believe their obsession with mobile devices outweighs their obligation (legal or otherwise) to look where they are going.

Better infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians is essential, but is not not a total solution.  As long as we have people such as Brian McDowell, chairman of the Alliance of British Drivers, claiming that parents must keep children off the streets, as they are the preserve of motor vehicles, we have a long way to go in changing attitudes, especially towards the fallacy that excess speed does not influence accidents.

The roads are not the exclusive preserve of one group of users, just because they are more powerful. We all have a right to the roads, but equally, we all have a responsibility to treat other users, particularly the most vulnerable, with care and respect.  This needs to be drummed into everyone from the earliest age possible.

Little things, like copying the Dutch in insisting drivers open car doors with their reverse hand (thereby ensuring they look behind their shoulder and see cyclists overtaking their vehicle), cost nothing and could easily be incorporated into the driving test.  Knowledge and application of the Highway Code – like knowing the correct position for cycling is not in the gutter, or that overtaking bikes, and horses, requires as much space as you would normally allow for another vehicle – should be ongoing and not forgotten as soon as the test is out of the way.  Above all, sentences for those who drive without care, or dangerously, have to be far more stringent and also be consistently enforced. In no other walk of life is it possible to kill, or maim, a fellow human, claim you were unsighted and escape with a derisory punishment.

And, while we’re at it, maybe the following need to be written clearly on the Highway Code as well:

  • There is no such thing as road tax – it was abolished in 1936
  • Vehicle Emissions Duty (VED) is based on emissions
  • VED is not ring fenced for road spending – this comes out of general taxation, so all tax payers contribute, even if they don’t drive

Happily, there are much better role models among the motoring lobby, in particular, the AA’s Edmund King, who proudly describes himself as a motorist and cyclist and actively campaigns for better road safety for all. We need to reject the mindset that sees driving fast and/or aggressively as macho and the only way to counter this is to ride in an equivalent manner.

This ‘them and us’ mentality is as counterproductive and dangerous as the lack of appropriate infrastructure.

 

 

 

 

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Don’t Forget: Cycling Isn’t Just Confined to the Capital

First the deaths and casualties, then the recriminations, followed equally swiftly by the counter accusations and then the die-in at TFL HQ.  No one can now dispute that cycling in London has become a high-profile issue dominating the front pages as well as the specialist publications and bike blogs.

general_DSCF1266

As a cyclist, although no longer pedalling the streets of the capital, I’m grateful to London’s cyclists for keeping the issues of safety and lack of infrastructure in the public eye, but often frustrated that the experiences of cyclists around the country are routinely overlooked.

It is difficult, and essentially pointless, to try to prove that it is any more or less dangerous to cycle in London, compared to everywhere else: although according to national cycling charity CTC, it is twenty times more dangerous to cycle along rural A roads than it is on suburban and urban streets. Statistics show the greater the density of population, the higher the level of casualties, but it is difficult to relate this to the number of people cycling in  particular areas as there is no consistent monitoring of   numbers of cyclists on the roads and trends in cycling uptake tend to be based on estimates.

What cannot be contested is that cyclists across the country experience widely differing conditions, depending on the type of roads they use, terrain and exposure to weather conditions. And the exhilaration of commuting along a coast road or a quiet country byway has to be set aside the difficulties of maintaining road position on narrow lanes, the threat of speeding cars on backroads with little surveillance, or the greater danger of isolation in the event of breakdown, injury or illness.

Some dangers – lack of road space, the chaos of the school run, absence of any cycling infrastructure and failure to enforce regulations where bike lanes do exist, threats from large vehicles (add to buses and lorries a variety of large, unstable and frightening agricultural vehicles)  – are depressingly similar.  And we also have our fair share of SMIDSY, as well as plenty of representatives from the ‘I pay road tax’ tribe.

I miss my old routes from Euston down to Waterloo and from Fulham along the Embankment to the Strand and think of them fondly as I struggle the seven miles along unlit, pot-holed country lanes to and from my local station.  But above all, I miss being part of a growing, diverse, but inclusive and supportive community of cyclists.

Around here in the lanes of Middle England, those of us who cycle as our primary method of transport are commonly regarded as odd (particularly if female), pitied as too poor to own a car and  cursed as irritants who threaten the entitlement of drivers to ‘their’ roads – the peletons of lycra-clad roadies who race through at the weekend are, if anything, more intensely disliked, but are generally not subjected to direct abuse as they tend to hunt in (largely male) packs.

If there are to be any positive outcomes from the recent tragic events in London, then they must lie in the introduction of HGV safety measures and establishment of better cycling infrastructure: initiatives that will also benefit all road users across the country and lead to the establishment of a genuine bicycle culture in the UK. London’s cycling lobby is sufficiently powerful, organised and high profile to successfully campaign for this, with the support of fellow cyclists around the country.

But please don’t forget, cycling is not confined to the capital and each day millions of cyclists throughout the country enjoy the pleasures of their chosen form of transport and the benefits derived from it, which continue to far outweigh, but not eliminate, the dangers. Some conditions we face are specific to our locality, but we all have to contend with unacceptable risks, more prevalent in the UK than elsewhere in western Europe, that can only be solved by a more holistic and inclusive approach to road use.

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If the carnage on our roads was a disease it would be taken seriously and regarded as a national scandal.

If outrage about the recent carnage of cyclists on London’s streets, can be sustained and channelled into a long-term campaign for safer roads, then the deaths of five riders in just over a week may not be in vain.

Sickeningly, if predictably, the ensuing debate has, again, centred on cyclists ignoring red lights or not wearing helmets, or not being sufficiently visible to drivers.  Unfortunately these are only symptoms of the real problem that is repeatedly ignored, or deflected, by those with the power to change, not just the architecture of our roads, but also the culture of those who use them.

Loudest and most repugnant of the reactions has, again, been those of  the capital’s ‘Cycling Major’ Boris Johnson.  This is the man who, on taking office in 2008, cancelled the proposed congestion charge in the west of the city, allowed fares to rise and aggressively prioritised the smoothing of traffic flow as his key transport policy.

Here is the key to the battle for survival  that is now the everyday experience for those using London’s roads and streets.  Johnson’s policies have aggressively increased the number of private cars on the roads – added to the surfeit of heavy vehicles involved in delivering materials to the mass of building sites around the city – while high fares and falling incomes have been two of the most important factors in encouraging more people to cycle commute.

With the increase in bikes and vehicles now colliding head on in the streets of London, the inevitable effect is seen in the rise of casualties on the most vulnerable road users.  Appallingly, 69 pedestrians died on London’s roads last year:  a little-known and tragically ignored statistic.  And all Boris can offer are a few blue-painted stretches of road that many cyclists consider actually increase the risks they face.

These problems are exacerbated, but not confined to London.  The death toll of cyclists and pedestrians on rural roads – and in provincial towns where cyclists are often regarded as dangerous eccentrics – is also shockingly high and in many places around the country it is simply impossible to walk or cycle along ring roads and by passes.

We have to redesign our roads and streets for the benefit of all road users and to ensure the safety of the most vulnerable.  But along with hard design – segregated lanes, low speed limits, car-free zones, more public transport – we also, equally, need to change the prevailing culture of those using our roads.

Too many drivers, and some cyclists, regard their form of transport as a form of entitlement – to go where they like, how fast they like – and, in many cases, see their vehicle as a statement of their power and status.  This culture has to change and, as reasoned debate has not worked, then far more drastic penalties for those breaking the law have to be introduced and enforced.  Cases, such as that recently, where a driver who has killed two cyclists received only a short driving ban, are derisory and will do nothing to improve road safety. Responsibilities, of course, come with rewards and European-style transport infrastructure has to be accompanied by harsh penalties for cyclists, pedestrians and drivers who disobey the law.

If the carnage on our roads was a disease it would be taken seriously and regarded as a national scandal.  We need to start by accepting the roads are there for all road users and not as a circuit for those with the strongest nerve. Until we positively discriminate in favour of the most vulnerable and the most sustainable, Boris’s bluster will remain as ineffective as it is repugnant.

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Welcome, but still not nearly enough

 

Following today’s announcement of  the government’s plans to boost cycling, this is Boot and Bike’s response to our local MP, Michael Fabricant

 

 

Dear Mr Fabricant,

 

I am very happy to read of your government’s very welcome, if belated,

acknowledgement of the need for more investment in provision for

cycling.  Let’s hope this is only the beginning of a more holistic and

pro-active approach that recognises the health, social and

environmental benefits of cycling.

 

However, in order to encourage as many people as possible to start, or

resume, cycling, there also needs to be an equal recognition that the

current unfair benefits that motorised transport enjoys cannot continue

(compare today’s £77m for cycling with the recent £28b for road

building).  In addition, as many recent cases have tragically

illustrated, the law does need to be reviewed to ensure that those

drivers found guilty of causing death and serious injury to cyclists,

pedestrians and other road users are adequately punished.

 

In your own constituency there is much to be done.  As a volunteer

ranger with the Lichfield Sustrans group, I witness, first hand, the

chaotic and inadequate provision for cycling within the city.  For

example, even where there is a cycle lane (Walsall Road) it is arguably

more dangerous to use because of the cars parked illegally along it.

Provision for cyclists (and even more importantly for disabled and

elderly customers) at Trent Valley Station, is as I know you agree,

risible.  There is also no safe and straightforward route from City

Station into the city centre.

 

On a more positive note, it is a delight to cycle from the city (once

past the dangerous junction at Upper/St John’s Street) to Waitrose –

where provision for cycles and their riders is excellent. However, here

in Barton it is very sad to hear friends complain they are not able to

allow their children to cycle to school because of the absence of any

dedicated cycle routes.

 

Over the last few months Sustrans has re-routed NCN 54 away from the

Main Streets in both Barton and Alrewas to avoid as much traffic as

possible, but it is only the creation of dedicated cycle lanes,

separate from other traffic, that will really improve the safety of

cyclists.

 

I hope you will give your support to improving provision for cycling,

both nationally and in your constituency.

 

Yours sincerely,

Jill Phillip

 

You can email your MP about cycling via Sustrans 

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To Park, Or Not To Park?

 

While reluctant to draw any more attention to the latest utterance of that tiresome publicity junkie, Eric Pickles, it is an unfortunate fact that the ‘right to park’ is one issue that generates raised blood pressure in this part of Middle England, even among supposed advocates of sustainable transport.

The right to park?
The right to park?

Mr Pickles’ latest suggestion that motorists should be able to park on double yellow lines for up to 15 minutes has, rightly, been ridiculed, not only by pedestrian and cycling groups, transport experts and safety campaigners, but also several retail spokespeople and even some motoring organisations.

But while this is merely the most recent instalment of Pickles’ unrelenting campaign to remain poster boy for the lazy, selfish, unfit disciples of entitlement and overconsumption in our society, it does raise some interesting, and depressing, insights into the attitude of many towards both car ownership and their ‘right’ to park wherever is most convenient to them.

One of the more heartening set of statistics that has emerged in recent years for those of us trying to improve and encourage sustainable transport throughout the country, has been the fall in overall car ownership.  In particular, the results of the last census in 2011 show a marked increase in the number of car-free households.  Indeed, in Inner London, the majority of households are now car free, while in Glasgow that figure rises to 65%.

But yes, I hear you cry, that’s in the cities where they have buses, trains, the underground – and, in any case, you can’t compare London with anywhere else in the UK.  Life is very different out here in the rest of the country. Too true, and as someone who owns a car, not because I want to, or indeed, enjoy driving it, but because I live in a place with negligible public transport, I am only too conscious of this.

But the point is, as clearly shown by this article  even in Inner London where a majority of households are now car-free, infrastructure and transport policies are still, overwhelmingly, being designed round the needs of private car owners.  So the requirements of pedestrians and cyclists for safe areas to walk, cycle and socialise continue to be subjugated to the demands of motorists, when instead we need far more than even a level field policy to try to redress the current imbalance in favour of private motorised transport.

This is not a war on the motorist.  I am a motorist, but I make no apology for trying to discriminate in favour of the less powerful (and less destructive) pedestrian and cyclist in order to achieve a safer, healthier, more environmentally friendly and more inclusive approach to transport in this country.

Despite what Clarkson and co might try to imply, there is no divine right to own and drive a car. In the UK at the moment, more than 25 per cent of adults do not have access to a private car – mostly for financial reasons, but also because of disability and age-related issues – and the majority of them are excluded from all kinds of employment and leisure activities because of this.

And, in spite of Eric Pickles’ best efforts, there is also no divine right for motorists to park their vehicles in the most convenient places for them.  One man’s (or woman’s) accessible parking spot is another’s obstruction or source of danger.  Parking on pavements and cycle lanes is potentially dangerous and often makes it impossible for those for whom they were designed to use them safely, or indeed at all.

The last thing we need is an escalation of the simmering conflict between motorists and cyclists we already see in some places.  But, if we are serious about trying to emulate the cycling culture of The Netherlands and Scandinavia, then we have to accept that our road space is not big enough to provide safe areas for walking and cycling, while still indulging motorists with the belief that they have a greater claim to the roads, as well as the licence to park wherever is most convenient to them.

The Government could start by belatedly recognising that Eric Pickles is just about the worst mouthpiece possible if it really is serious about trying to improve the nation’s health and fitness (its promise to be the ‘greenest-ever government’ now being totally discredited). Far stricter sentences also need to be introduced and imposed on those who kill and maim other road users through carelessness, inattention and breaking existing laws, such as mobile phone use.

But, above all, those of us who are motorists, but say we are in favour of encouraging more sustainable transport need to put up, or shut up.  We can’t have our cake and eat it.

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Ways to Get More People Cycling, Part Five: You’re Never too Old to Ride a Bike

 

Well, after a brief glimpse of spring a week ago, we’re back to normal February temperatures, made even more bitter by a bitingly raw wind that supposedly is blowing in from the north east, but seems to attack from whatever direction you face.

You're always the right age to cycle
You’re always the right age to cycle

Saturday’s two hours in temperatures peaking at three degrees before flatlining at two, were enough to persuade me to leave the bike in the garage yesterday. For the experts though, Siberian winds present the same type of challenge as acute gradients: Patrick, my bike mechanic assured me with his usual insouciance, that on his 100km morning race the first half hour, as usual, was the worst as, after that, you stop feeling anything anyway.

In truth, once you do get going and, as long as you have chosen the right combination of layers, a brisk, undulating two-hour ride is just about right to work up some heat, but not too lengthy to lose all feeling in toes and fingers. And. I must admit, I did feel pleasantly toasty as I sipped a hot cup of tea and freshly made muffin on my return.

Getting the blood circulating is important, of course, particularly in cold weather and especially for the many regular cyclists who, let’s say, are the other side of middle age. Sure, as you get older, you probably have to pay particular attention to keeping gaps, like those around the small of your back, covered but riding a bike puts far less strain on joints and bones, compared to say running.  And, consequently, is an activity that attracts so many people not in the first flush of youth and one where older participants can more than hold their own with their younger counterparts.

I was reminded of how cycling is such an ideal recreation and mode of travel for older people when I met two septuagenarians eating their sandwiches in the sun (it was about 12 degrees at the time) a week ago. Their solid, expertly packed, Claud Butler tourers displayed bicycling experience and expertise and their conviviality was characteristic of most of the experienced riders I have met on my travels.

Both had impressive sporting pedigrees – he as a former time trialist and she as a club hockey player – and continued to cycle regularly for fitness, mobility and pleasure. Their biggest regret was that now, when they take their grandchildren out on their bikes, they have to restrict them to off-road routes, like the Tissington Trail, as even rural back lanes are too dangerous.

It was fascinating to spend 15 minutes or so listening to their tales of bike touring throughout the UK and Europe from the late 1950s into the 60s and 70s, especially their adventures when taking their children with them.

But listening to their experiences also highlighted just how age and ability inclusive cycling is; how it is as suitable a way of keeping fit for those in their 70s as it is for lycra-clad 20 somethings and how it can provide people of any age with opportunities for greater mobility and social inclusiveness.

And, while it is brilliant to see the UK’s cyclists performing so well again in the   recent World Championships, we need to utilise this legacy to continue to lobby for cycling as an activity for all, of whatever age, class or location.

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Ways to get More of Us Cycling, Part Three: Silk Scarves and Woolly Gloves

Depending on your take on the subject, it’s either crazy, astonishing, predictable or just sad, that one of the reasons most regularly given by women as to why they don’t cycle is their worry about how it will affect their appearance.

From paranoia about helmet hair to distaste about having to gear up like a lycra warrior, there is little doubt that a negative image about how you will look if you cycle is a deterrent for many people who currently do not get on their bikes.

And, given that this image is a particular obstacle predominately (if not exclusively) for women, it is another, important barrier to higher female participation in cycling.

Here, yet again, we compare very unfavourably with our European neighbours in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, where the percentage of female cyclists is much higher. But, although dedicated cycle lanes and more protection from the law undeniably contribute to this, take a look at the people on their bikes in these countries and they will invariably be wearing ‘normal’ clothes. All part of a very different cycling culture of course, but an important facet of it, nevertheless.

Clearly the nature of your cycling and the type of bike you use will determine how you dress: a tweed coat would look as out of place on a carbon fibre racer as lycra would beside the wicker basket on a Pashley. There are, of course, certain safety precautions, such as not having anything flapping loosely around your pedals, or wearing long flowing clothes on a bike with a crossbar, that should be sensibly observed when cycling, but it is nonsense to contend that you can’t cycle in ordinary clothes.

And, given that this is particularly the case for short journeys to work, or school, or to the local shops – the very type of travel we should be encouraging by bike and not car – then persuading more people that you don’t have to dress up like a spaceman to cycle takes on even more importance.

Happily, there has been more focus on this in recent years and a number of retaillers selling adaptable cycle gear – “as at home in the office, as in the saddle” or such like – have sprung up, to the extent we now have the Lauren Lavernes of the world recommending their cycling gear of choice. All very well, and if it encourages more people on to their bikes, even better, but essentially this is still specialist gear and it continues to  conform to the belief that is necessary to wear particular clothes, whether specialist, adaptable or fashionable, before you can feel comfortable about cycling.

That this gear will be, by definition, expensive, compounds the problem and also fits into the growing fashion industry that is now outdoor gear. Indeed  the great outdoors is fast becoming  the new fashion catwalk. Open any magazine devoted to outdoor activity these days and at least half the pages will be devoted to advertising and ‘testing” gear. Of course exposure in the outdoors requires certain warm, waterproof and some specialised kit, and expert advice is  helpful. But the line between advice and the impression that expensive kit is a necessity, is a fine one, and one whose emphasis will, inevitably, conspire against those who cannot afford it.

After years of spending money on all kinds of ugly, smelling, uncomfortable ‘technical gear’, I now unreservedly admit that my mother (who knew nothing about outdoor gear and whose idea of an outdoor expedition was to navigate her way between Harrods and Harvey Nics, but did know her fashion and fabrics) was right all along in her advocacy of natural fabrics. Wool and silk will keep you warmer, or cooler, than any man made fibre and warm when wet.

So, a wool scarf, tied appropriately, will not only look better, but keep you warmer than a polyester buff and wool gloves will, unlike any of their technical equivalents, keep your hands warm even in soaking rain – see my experiences in Arran.

Silk scarves and woolly gloves

As for hair, I don’t intend to become embroiled into a debate about helmets, but if you do see the benefit of wearing a helmet, there is a simple solution to the dreaded ‘helmet hair’. Tie a silk scarf, as a turban, or bandeau, under your helmet and, even if you have thick, voluminous hair like me, it will not flatten. I promise! And before you shriek about the cost of silk scarves, in my experience, old ones that I’ve had for years but no longer wear, have tended to be the best, perhaps because they may have a higher proportion of silk. But have a trawl round your local market, charity and ethnic shops, as well as the internet, where you can pick up lovely, cheap and colourful silk scarves very reasonably – you never know, you may even be able to coordinate the colours with your cycling clothes!

So you can keep warm, or cool, or both and look good on a bike, without spending hundreds of pounds – and it  can be the excuse you needed to sort out all those accessories at the back of your wardrobe.

 

 

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2012: Could it really be the Year of the Bike?

Despite the endless rain and generally miserable weather, the early summer of 2012 has seen some positive developments, as far as cycling is concerned. Indeed, adopting the maxim that there is no such thing as bad publicity, it’s been quite a successful year for the bike, in many ways, so far.

On yer bike

Two massive bike rallies, the London ride and Scotland’s  Pedal On Parliament in April, the effective offensive against Addison Lee cabs and the odious sentiments of its CEO, the brilliant Times’ Cities fit for Cycling initiative, and the ‘Love London, Go Dutch’ campaign  that gave cycling issues such a high profile in the London mayoral, election have all kept cycling, and the need for greater safety for cyclists, in the headlines

Indeed cycling world champion and odds-on favourite to be Britain’s first gold medallist in the London Olympics, Mark Cavendish, has added his voice to the fight for greater protection for cyclists and called on Britain to adopt Dutch-style laws on harsher penalties for drivers

The contrast between the Netherlands – where riding a bike to travel from A to B is regarded as perfectly normal – and the UK – where cyclists are frequently regarded as collateral damage by motorists convinced of their “entitlement” to unrestricted use of our roads – could not be more stark, particularly for those trying to negotiate our crowded city junctions, or narrow country lanes.

A fellow Sustrans volunteer, recently back from a tandem holiday in the Netherlands made the following observations:

  • bicycles everywhere, ridden by all age groups
  • school teachers with bicycles, schoolchildren in tow, each wheeling their bicycle
  •  huge cycle racks at stations; bicycles parked at bus tops; outside shops; everywhere you look!
  • the city of Leiden; the centre was full of people and bicycles but hardly any cars!  It was busy yet so quiet
  • can you believe this: first time we went out – on the tandem – we approached a ‘Toucan’ style crossing.  Though well away from the crossing, I was getting ready to stop and put my foot on the ground – but the car had already stopped!! Cyclists seem to have precedence – cars always let you across first!!  Its another world!
  • well maintained cycle paths too – often 2-way – either side of the roads, with excellent signing
  • most of the bicycles are traditional ‘sit up and beg’ style with all kinds of goods attached front and rear – including children and girlfriends riding on the rear carriers!

It’s the culture that’s so different: cyclists are regarded as vulnerable people who have an equal right to the highway – and it applies to pedestrians as well.

But while more recent reports confirm the benefits of cycling to everything from the environment  to the economy  the lessons we should be learning from the Dutch still appear to be falling on deaf ears. Norman Baker, the Local Transport Minister may claim that: “Right across Government it is accepted that there is a hard-nosed business case for investing in sustainable local transport, and that includes cycling and walking.”

But his colleague, Mike Penning, the Road Safety Minister, refuses to even consider changing the law: “Making a motorist automatically at fault for an accident with a cyclist, unless he or she can prove otherwise, would be unfair where someone is driving entirely responsibly — or when there is an accident where no one is to blame.”

This lack of logic – championing the advantages of cycling on one hand, but refusing to do anything to make it safer for the majority of people – is perhaps most clearly illustrated on the streets of our capital. On the face of it, cycling would appear to be enjoying a renaissance in London  – up 70% in some places, with the so-called Boris bikes proving very popular – but the incidence of cycling injuries has also risen  and the general profile of users of the cycle hire scheme tends to be young, well-off and male.

Boris Johnson clearly enjoys being portrayed as the bicycling mayor, but if his claim to believe the “cyclised city is a civilised city” is to be taken seriously then he has to do much more to achieve this.His attitude to the notorious Elephant and Castle roundabout – the junction that received most complaints in the Times’ campaign – is a case in point. His blasé response that it was perfectly negotiable “if you keep your wits about you,” might attract some deluded lycra-clad thrill seekers, but will do nothing to encourage women, older people, parents and those who haven’t cycled for years to get back on their bikes.

These are ordinary people, the same kind of people who ride their bikes every day in Holland and Scandinavia; the kind of people we need to encourage to start cycling to work, or to the shops and to regard cycling as an ideal form of transport, not just a recreational pursuit.

If we can start to do this, then 2012 really will be a good year for the bike.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Improving safety on its own will not change attitudes towards cycling

 

On your bike

Britain’s cyclists continue to rule the world: well, at least that’s true on the track thanks to the likes of Sir Chris Hoy and company.  But off the track it’s a different story and 2012 has begun with more depressing news for those of us who hazard on to the roads on two wheels.

The Times’ Cities Fit for Cycling Campaign  instigated by the horrific injuries sustained by one of its reporters after she was crushed by a lorry, has spearheaded a string of appalling examples showing the risks cyclists take each time they venture out.  But for every video of a bus swerving into the path of a cyclist, or a length of wire hung across a forest track at neck height, there will be dozens of calls, texts and tweets from infuriated motorists enraged about cyclists jumping lights, or listening to iPods, or riding without lights.  Indeed, a recent phone-in on LBC radio seemed to suggest that most of their contributors consider horrific accidents are no more than cyclists deserve.

Little wonder then, that a Sustrans survey today shows that a majority of people are now put off cycling because it is too dangerous.  Research by the cycling and sustainable travel charity found that 56 per cent of people believe cycling in built up areas is dangerous and 70 per cent seek a 20 mph speed limit in urban areas.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the whole story.  In my experience cycling along rural roads – sometimes even on Sustrans designated routes – is, at times, arguably more dangerous: riding along a quiet, high-hedged, picturesque country lane may seem cycling heaven to the urban rider, but it certainly is not when confronted by a massive 4×4, its driver unaware of its width and unwilling to share any of its god-given road space, or when you are tailed by a filthy agricultural vehicle for miles before it tries overtakes on a blind corner.

And, while more cycle lanes could improve safety in urban areas, they are hardly a feasible proposition across the length and breadth of the country. No, the hard truth is that improving safety for cyclists, will not, on its own, substantially change attitudes towards cycling.

A previous survey into walking and cycling in 2011 found that years of government efforts to promote cycling have had almost no impact on a sceptical population who largely view bikes as either “children’s toys or the preserve of Lycra-clad hobbyists.”

“Many people barely recognise the bicycle as a legitimate mode of transport; it is either a toy for children or a vehicle fit only for the poor and/or strange,” Dave Horton, of Lancaster University, wrote in an interim assessment of the Understanding Walking and Cycling study.

“For them, cycling is a bit embarrassing, they fail to see its purpose, and have no interest in integrating it into their lives, certainly on a regular basis. Depressing reading indeed for anyone hopeful the UK could, one day, have a Dutch-style mass cycling culture.

What is needed is a change in the whole mind set about cycling and indeed walking, so that they are seen as our most natural, obvious and effective means of transport, not just forms of recreation confined to half term at Centre Parks.

The mentality that regards cycling as the preserve of freaks, children and the enemy of the motorist, whose participants deserve any injuries they sustain, is the key factor that must be changed and if it is not, any improvements to safety still will not effect a sizable increase in cycling and walking. Sure, you’re not going to get that mentality to change if safety is not improved, but improvements to safety alone will not lead to mass cycling if we do not change our attitude to those who travel by methods other than by motorised vehicles.

In the UK urban and rural roads are regarded as the territory of the motorist and everyone else – cyclist or pedestrian – is considered an intruder, something that hinders the free flow of motorised traffic. Until that mind set changes, then the needs of cyclists and pedestrians will always take a back seat.

And as we live in Britain, where even sensible initiatives for economic or environmental reasons, like parking restrictions and congestion charges, are regarded as a war on the motorist, don’t hold your breath for a speedy, or a positive outcome.

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