The increasing popularity of cycling in the UK is going to produce some interesting challenges for all concerned. Imagine, possibly thousands of new cyclists taking to the roads of our towns and cities every month, each individual with his or her quite steep learning curve as they acquire the new skill, learn rules of the road that they may not have been aware of before and come to terms with the changes in their daily way of life. It may be assumed that the majority of the newcomers will be adopting cycling for commuting to work or similar, as it is commuters who stand to make the biggest savings in fuel costs by leaving the car at home. The first couple of weeks will be hard work for those who are not fit already through some sporting activity. Then the benefits will start to be felt in the form of improving fitness, the loss of unwanted inches and a pound or two in weight. Even after two weeks the saving in fuel costs could make a decent dent in the cost of the bike – and that is only the beginning.
Other road users are involved as well and it is important that they understand what is happening and what we cyclists are hoping to achieve. It needs to be understood that cyclists are not trying to drive motorists off the road and neither are we trying to win any special privileges. The current increasing popularity of cyclists is actually being driven by motorists – ie. those motorists who are finding it worthwhile to leave the car at home and take to the bicycle instead. Most cyclists are merely interested in ensuring that there will be adequate provision for our growing numbers in line with current best practice. Far from harming the interests of motorists, improvements for cyclists should mean improvements for other road users as well.
I assume (being a simple soul) that local highway and planning authorities are continually at work seeking to improve road layouts and traffic conditions and that they have been aware of trends in cycling for some time already. Presumably local authorities will want to prioritise cycle provision for commuters first as they will be the ones who cycle on several days per week and quite likely at peak traffic times. So first we need good routes from residential areas to city/town centres and to other commercial areas where large numbers of actual or potential cyclists are employed. Then we need routes which form concentric circles around town and city centres, connecting commuting routes and enabling cross city cycling.
A lot of provision for cycling can be created at very little cost. Often, all that will be needed is some paint and possibly road signs. A reasonable first step would be to make sure that existing provision is clearly marked and signposted in accordance with official regulations and adequately publicised to the local population and on the web.
There is a lot more space for cycle lanes, on and off road, than might be thought at first. There are plenty of wide roads which have space for a cycle lane along each side of the carriageway. Then there are under-used, or even virtually unused, pavements (sidewalks to our American friends), often along both sides of a road, which could be shared with pedestrians – or even one of them taken over by cyclists. And there is no reason why off-road cycle lanes shouldn’t cater for cycling in both directions. Out of town there are miles of roads with grass verges (again, often on both sides) so no lack of space there.
I know this is all an oversimplification but it is a starting point and a great deal can be done at relatively little cost. I am hoping that those UK towns and cities that are not on The Governments new list of cycling demonstration towns will not regard that as an excuse to do nothing until further notice. I think that interest in cycling will continue to increase, as will the cost of motor fuel which is probably the major factor driving this trend at present. However, having taken up or returned to cycling, lots of people really will discover other benefits including improved health and fitness – and they will also discover (or rediscover) that it is actually FUN.
So action is needed by local authorities across the country NOW, not some years down the line when the demo towns have started to show results. The demo town idea was not that clever anyway. If we need demo towns they are sitting there waiting for us – they are called Copenhagen and Amsterdam (see the links on the right of this page) – and you would think that our MPs and councillors around the country would be busting a gut to organise their free outings to those cities at the taxpayers expense – for the purposes of research you understand. Perhaps they are.
The other thing that a lot more MPs, councillors, planning and highway authority officials etc. should do is get out of their cars and on to bikes and find out at first hand just what is feels like to be on two human-powered wheels in their local traffic. My guess is that they would soon start, enthusiastically, producing great ideas about improvements for cyclists – and let’s not forget that improvements for cyclists will bring about improvements for all road users.