Friday, 11 October 2013

Are you the right kind of cyclist?

Last weekend I gave a talk at the CycleNation conference in Leeds Civic Centre. At this event local cycle campaigners from across the UK gather to catch up and exchange ideas.  I'm not a regular stalwart attendee but have been going intermittently since the early 1990s.  My talk was about cycle infrastructure - surprisingly enough as I'm the world's greatest bore on the subject!  I'd been asked to speak in my capacity as infrastructure adviser to British Cycling.

My talk was billed as a workshop so there was a fair amount of interaction, questions and inputs from the audience. In my final slide I concluded that it was important that infrastructure improvements went hand in hand with other measures to encourage cycle use such as Bikeability training, route mapping, skills training for engineers, publicity, led social rides and events such as Sky Ride.

This latter point seemed to be surprisingly controversial. The opening gambit from a member of the audience being 'I don't see what riding about on closed roads in helmets and hi viz has to do with everyday cycling'. It seems, that in the opinion of at least one campaigner, the thousands of people inspired to turn up to such events are in some way 'less worthy' than others.  On the one hand I can sympathise with this, apart from racing and a few local CTC events I tend to avoid most forms of 'organised cycling'. To me it seems a bit of a waste of money to pay £25 to ride a sportive when you can just go and ride the same roads for free and have money for beer and cakes instead. On the other hand (and this was reinforced by my experience of working with the Cycling Towns for Cycling England and more recently sitting with the LSTF team in Birmingham Council), cycling is an alien and scary concept to many people.  They really do want the reassurance of closed roads and an organised event, and of course most of us get some sort of 'buzz' from taking part in something with lots of other people.  Most of all its a fun day, and the underlying message is that you could have this much fun on a regular basis.  Sky Ride may only yield a small number of new regular commuter cyclists per event, but it is raising the profile of cycling and attracting large numbers of riders in a way that smaller events can't, and for one day a year streets that are normally full of cars are given over to the bicycle, which can't really be a bad thing can it?

Cyclists seem particularly prone to division. We have the various 'national bodies' British Cycling, CTC, Sustrans most prominently, but also the Road Time Trials Council which pre-dates the controversial re-birth of massed start road racing in the UK in the 1950s which eventually led to the formation of British Cycling from the warring factions of the British League of Racing Cyclists and the National Cyclists Union. Families and clubs were split asunder by those who wanted to join the 'League' and be like the continentals, and the modest black-clad secretive British world of early morning time trials. Similarly the Clarion movement offered a socialist alternative to the 'gentleman's club' types in the early CTC. My neighbour, a rabid mountain biker, has a deep suspicion of 'roadies'. Asked whether he'd consider cyclo cross he said, "Really, to me that's just sitting on the fence, you're neither a roadie or a mountain biker!" Cycle campaigners also seem to fall into those who want more people to cycle, and therefore reach out to non/novice cyclists and those who want to make things better for existing cyclists, as well as divisions about what is required to achieve their aims. Obviously we need all types of campaigner, so this shouldn't be seen as a problem.

My own cycling activity since August. What type of cyclist am I? Two weeks cycle camping tour, 6 mile round trip to the railway station most days, 8-10 hours training on local roads, bridleways or extended commute rides each week, racing in the local cyclo cross league and Three Peaks race, doing site visits and travel to meetings as part of my consultancy work and often picking up some shopping on my way home.  This weekend I covered 50 miles on Friday working in London on a site visit, an hour on local bridleways on Saturday and just got in from a 2 hour road ride today (Sunday).  Is any one of these activities really 'better' than others. For most the alternative would be a car trip or sitting around doing something 'sedentary' but then I drive to races so that's arguably an extra car trip, and its one of the few times we actually use a car in our household.

The economic benefits of cycling derive from improved health (around 65% of benefit), reduced pollution, improved air quality and reductions in congestion.  In theory, my recreational cycling has a lower value to the economy (Because I'm only really getting the health benefits) but of course living 1000 ft up in hilly West Yorkshire I wouldn't logically choose to ride my bike for all those utility trips as it is easier and faster to drive.  The bottom line is, I mainly cycle to keep fit enough to be able to enjoy my leisure cycling, but the only time I can do this is by combining it with 'utility' trips.  This seems to be the case for most club riders that I know. They may view themselves primarily as sports cyclists but their training run is often the daily commute.  That's OK, but what about all the money given to National Parks through LSTF and Cycle Ambition? That money is purely for leisure cycling.  Wouldn't it be better spent elsewhere in towns and cities? People only drive into the area, go for a ride on a trail and drive out again.  Well, these people will still be getting some of the health benefits of regular cycling. Work funded by Cycling England found that many of the leisure cyclists surveyed were regular visitors from nearby. Anecdotal evidence from cycle hire/sales firms in national parks also suggests that people make 2 or 3 visits to hire a bike before returning to actually buy a bike on their 3rd or 4th trip.  It was clear from the research that 'occasional' cyclists were becoming more regular cyclists, if not everyday cyclists.  More importantly for rural economies there is a substantial weight of evidence that cyclists generally spend more (compared to car borne visitors who typically park, spend just 20 - 40 minutes in a place and then move on to the next place), supporting local businesses, especially if they prolong their stay overnight, which they will do if there is a network of leisure routes to explore.  Cycling as the sole purpose of a leisure visit, or as a means of access and transport to other attractions in the countryside is therefore important in boosting rural economies and keeping visitors occupied, and therefore not driving their cars.  In short, yes we should be investing in rural leisure cycling because its one of the ways in which people get introduced to more regular cycling and because it contributes to sustainable tourism.

Leeds Civic Centre is the venue where my own paid career as a consultant started. In 1996 I went to a talk at an open evening of the Leeds Cycle Campaign entitled 'Segregation or Integration'. After the talk, the speaker, a former member of the cycle campaign, offered me 6 weeks temporary work to go and help him write a local authority cycling strategy. I took a chance that it might lead to something more and luckily it did!

Unsurprisingly, in 1996 the cycle campaigning world was split. Some people loved the Dutch system and thought this was the way forward. The Danes in particular were embarking on major infrastructure improvements and Safe Routes to School at the time and I worked on a Sustrans pilot project to try to copy this approach in Leeds. Others (the majority in those days) felt that really we needed to remove motor traffic and reduce speeds so that cyclists would feel safe on the roads.  This is the key to 'sustainable safety', reducing traffic danger to make the roads safer for all users.

It is thoroughly depressing that some people still take these 'sides' when its clear (and entirely consistent with Dutch and now Danish experience) that we need to do both. The 'segregation' countries only put cycle tracks where they are needed, and use a variety of measures to manage demand and reduce speeds to enable cyclists to safely share the roads in residential areas, town and city centres.  They also do a lot of promotion and training. The Danes for example ran the successful  'Bikebusters' project where participants were given bicycles, locks, waterproof clothing, training and other support to take away every 'excuse' for not cycling. Even in their flat country with lots of infrastructure they had to work to build the number of cyclists. The 2012 edition of 'Collection of Cycle Concepts' details many other ways in which the Danes use training and promotion to increase cycling.  The Colombians and Brazilians offer the 'Cyclovia' events to turn over the roads to cyclists, skaters and pedestrians on a Sunday. The Dutch offer cycle training to children, and specialist schemes to assist immigrant populations for whom cycling isn't a natural cultural choice.

The important thing is that all measures to increase cycling, whether through traffic reduction, training, mass participation events, inspirational Olympic success or building separate infrastructure help to broaden, strengthen and increase the cycling community. Lets not worry about what kind of cyclist we are, or whether we wear Lycra, Paul Smith, Laura Ashley or tweed. Vive le Difference!

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