CYCLING is firmly on the political agenda. Olympic and international success, coupled with increasing safety concerns, have led cities such as Edinburgh to look abroad for lessons on how to make their roads and streets more cycle-friendly.
Compared with Dutch cities, British urban centres generally have very low levels of cycling, despite the fact that most trips within towns and cities are short and thus ideally suited to the bicycle as a mode of transport. Primarily, this is because cycling in Britain is often an intimidating experience. Few parents are willing to let their children cycle to school on roads they have to share with lorries and buses. Nor are many women inclined to cycle across large roundabouts or busy junctions. The few that do venture out on two wheels do so in spite of the conditions, not because of them.
Quite the opposite is true in the Netherlands, where every effort has been made to ensure that cycling is a pleasant, comfortable experience, something that anyone of any age can do, at any speed, in ordinary clothes. Great care is taken to separate cyclists from motor traffic, either in the form of cycle tracks on busier streets, or by reducing traffic on quieter streets. Large junctions are easily negotiated by means of separate traffic signals and separate phases.
Trips by bicycle in the Netherlands are relaxed and easy, even on the busiest urban streets. This is a direct result of Dutch policy – a desire to privilege cycling as a mode of transport, and to make it safe and convenient. The statistics reflect success – very high levels of cycling and continued growth.
There is great potential to apply the same lessons here in Britain, where nearly 40 per cent of all trips under two miles are made by car, and just two per cent are made by bicycle. Shifting some of those car journeys on to bicycles – trips such as the school run, or shopping, or visiting friends – would have tremendous benefits in terms of relieving congestion, improving public health and wellbeing, and the quality of life in our towns and cities.
To achieve this change, we have to do much more than urging people to be more careful on the streets – we have to fundamentally change the way many of those streets are designed. It would be incorrect to say that there is not the space available for these kinds of changes, as Amsterdam has created a safe environment for cycling despite generally having very narrow streets in its city centre. There is more than enough space available in cities like Edinburgh to incorporate the measures that would make cycling a viable option for the elderly, the young and the more nervous, particularly cycle tracks on those streets that carry higher volumes of motor traffic.
Often that space will have to come at the expense of private motor traffic, perhaps by reducing lane widths, taking lanes away, or preventing some residential streets from being used as through routes. But this shouldn’t be seen as a conflict between the bicycle and the car, or simply as a way of making driving more difficult. It should instead be seen as a way of giving the city’s residents an alternative to the car for trips of less than five miles. Think how much easier the school run would be without the hassle and stress of finding places to park; how much simpler it would be if children could cycle to school by themselves. If successfully applied, the city could become even more pleasant, with less noise, quieter streets and a calmer environment. More people on bikes means less congestion, too.
It goes without saying, of course, that Edinburgh is considerably hillier than Amsterdam. That shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction, however. We should still ensure that streets, whether flat or hilly, are pleasant to use by bicycle. To give just one example, cycle tracks on hillier streets would allow people to cycle slowly, without being concerned about holding up traffic. And, of course, every uphill is also a free trip down on the return leg . . .
• Mark Treasure is a spokesman for the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, www.cycling-embassy.org.uk