When The Times was running its cycle safety campaign at the beginning of February did you notice a rush of new customers? There’s nothing like a "you will die if you do this" message to drum up custom.
Naturally, it’s deemed to be wonderful that a mainstream national newspaper could ‘promote’ cycling over a number of days, including extensive web coverage and a fair few front covers. It was ground-breaking stuff, for sure.
But what will be the eventual outcome, the distillation of all this effort? Lots of shiny new people eager to get out on bicycles, or would-be newbies scared witless, promising to themselves they’ll start cycling when the Government has spent the £10bn necessary to create a 20,000 mile network of separated cycle paths? Such a network can be built. It took 40 years in the Netherlands. If you can wait 40 years for these new customers, you’ll be quids in.
Mind you, as The Times also devoted space to showing would-be cyclists that they require armour to go cycling no doubt your February sales stats may reveal you did a roaring trade in face masks, helmets and downhill pads. Popping down to the shops on a bike needs a lot of kit nowadays: "In Britain, going out to cycle is a little like preparing for battle. There is body armour and helmets to consider, Lycra and face masks to squeeze into,” was from a piece headlined ‘Reasons to take to your bike’.
The Tories are said to have welcomed The Times campaign; Labour called for a Cycling Summit and Julian Huppert, the LibDem MP for Cambridge, secured a three hour debate on cycling in Parliament.
All well and good but if politicians think cycling is so incredibly dangerous will they clamp down on the source of the danger (motor vehicles), or will they “protect” vulnerable road users by forcing them to wear helmets, making it compulsory to sport hi-viz jackets and restrict the use of bicycles to cycle paths that, largely, don’t exist and when they do exist are currently as about much use as chocolate tea-pots?
Naturally, the easy option, the option that would be supported by the majority of voters, is the latter.
But it’s not just cyclists that need protecting from speeding traffic, it’s pedestrians and all other road users, too, including motorists.
If MPs want to do something for cyclists, brilliant. But if that thing doesn’t involve a massive clamping down on motorised traffic it will come to naught. And if MPs say they’ve seen the light on the Cyclepath to Damascus, that’s fantastic, but I won’t be convinced until I see the colour of their money.
And we’ve been here before. In the mid-1990s both Labour and the Conservatives seemed to be fighting over who could be the most cycle-friendly. But bugger all got done. All the promises, all the pledges, they all got broken. Beware politicians who promise they’ll make conditions in this country better for cyclists.
The Times may have kick-started a debate on cycle safety – an issue dear to my heart – but dangerising cycling will have scared many off their bikes. Now, thundering trucks passing within inches also scares people off bikes, but will UK politicians take a long-term view on the transport problems we face and do what really needs to be done, and that’s restrain motorised traffic?
If cycle tracks are built (and built to standard) will space be taken from cars and trucks or taken from pedestrians? At the moment, it’s the latter but for any real progress to be made it needs to be the former.
It will take politicians with balls of steel to go against the wishes of the motorised majority. And by dangerising cycling – and walking – we run the risk of making more people take to cars, adding to this majority. This is not good for health, the environment, city mobility, or the bicycle trade.
Tomorrow, via a video, Norman Baker, the minister for cycling and walking, will tell a parliamentary reception for the Summer of Cycling campaign that The Times’ campaign has been an eye-opener but that there should now be more focus on the "joy of cycling." Such a focus does not detract from the message that cyclists – and pedestrians – deserve safer streets but it stresses that cycling is not some sort of hair-shirt "alternative" form of transport. Cycling has many key benefits, including speed through cities and, yes, there’s the sheer pleasure of doing it.
Cycling is not a gladiatorial sport. Deaths are rare. One is too many, naturally, but scaring people off bikes is bad for the nation’s health. As is well documented, the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks by a factor of twenty to one.
We mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.