Apparently – but only if you ignore the dire summer of 2012 – we’re in the middle of a bike boom. No doubt the report for the ‘Get Britain Cycling’ parliamentary inquiry will mention this boom and the cyclists of this sceptre’d isle will be lavished with bicycle infrastructure to keep the boom going.
Sadly, politics doesn’t work like that. Or, at least not for cyclists. Between the years of 1928 and 1938 the number of cyclists in the UK doubled from 5,343,000 to 10,123,000. Now, *that* was a boom. What did the UK Government do for cyclists during that boom? Diddly squat, unless you count 95 miles of crap cycle lanes beside the newly-minted trunk roads of the day. In the 1950s there was another boom: a petrol-powered one. Billions got spent on motorists. Motorists – despite still being a minority on the roads – were well used to being feather-bedded. In the 1930s the motor industry had been especially cosseted because it was expected that car production would be shifted to military vehicle production; bicycle factories, such as the Raleigh plant, were also converted for armaments production but Sturmey Archer gears couldn’t power tanks.
H.R. Watling, director of the British Cycle and Motor-cycle Manufacturers and Traders Union told a parliamentary committee in 1938 that the UK made two million bicycles each year and that there were 15 million bicycles in use. (This trade organisation later split in two, although shared the same building in Coventry; the bicycle half of the organisation is now the Bicycle Association).
The peers on the parliamentary committee asked Watling for his views on ‘cycle tracks’, i.e. bike paths.
“I have no objections to the principle of cycle tracks. We have every objection to the cycle track as at present produced…the provision of a cycle track is, at best, a palliative…The cycle track to-day is of very little value because it is poorly constructed; there is only a small mileage of it, and furthermore, although it is provided for the cyclist yet the track is actually used by various other people, such as perambulators, pedestrians and the like. In other words the cycle track to-day is not sufficiently inviting or sufficiently well constructed to induce the cyclist to use it.”
He could have been speaking at the current inquiry; not a lot has changed.
So, today, what *will* Get Britain Cycling?
Presumed liability won’t Get Britain Cycling. Cycle training won’t Get Britain Cycling. Separated cycle tracks won’t Get Britain Cycling. Subjective safety won’t Get Britain Cycling. Health messages won’t Get Britain Cycling. Better cycle security won’t Get Britain Cycling. Selling more bikes won’t Get Britain Cycling. ‘Go Dutch’ campaigns won’t Get Britain Cycling. 20mph zones won’t Get Britain Cycling. Taming cars won’t Get Britain Cycling. High-level political support for cycling won’t Get Britain Cycling. Millions more cash for cycling won’t Get Britain Cycling.
That is, not on their own. It’s a mix of all of the above, and more. Much more. There’s no simple solution. It’s not just about infrastructure. If it were, Stevenage would be a hot-bed of cycling in the UK. It’s not just about looking at what’s been done in New York, Groningen, Seville, Copenhagen and Chicago. We need to learn from those cities, for sure, but there’s no one-size-fits-all template that works for all cities. And cycling isn’t just about cities. We also need to tame the car in the countryside, too. None of this will be easy, we’re up against more than 100 years of planning for the car. And, let’s face it, the majority of people – including lots of industry executives who read this bike trade website – are glad there’s been this 100 years of planning for the car. People may not be happy to be stuck in their cars but even when given a gold-plated alternative, they may not use it. Inertia is like that.
I gave evidence to ‘Get Britain Cycling’. The evidence I gave has been said, by others, many times before. The evidence others gave has been said many times before. Really, there’s nothing new under the sun. Thing is, words are easy to say, it’s action that counts. Finally, will we get this action?