The pro-bicycle brigade: riding over the facts

Cycling in cities ought to be fun, so why are the pro-bike lobby making it sound like a certain-death ride.

Compared to cycling to work from South London to Silicon Roundabout, cycling around Lake Como in northern Italy might seem to be on a different planet, never mind in a different country. Every twist and turn of the road brings another beautiful scene into view of sun dancing on water and sails, terracotta roofs of the next town in the distance, an olive grove here, a medieval church there – all framed by the stunning mountains.

But anyone who cycles in London will know that it, too, has its views. There is simply nothing to beat the feeling you get when the narrow, crowded streets you’re cycling open suddenly to reveal the Thames. And for a moment as you cycle over the sun-dappled water you could even be back on holiday…

Many proponents of London cycling would not recognise the relaxing and scenic side of a daily commute. For them, to cycle in London is to take your life in your hands. But is it really so dangerous? When Boris Bikes were introduced, some critics predicted many accidents and deaths among the inexperienced, helmetless (possibly inebriated) users. Yet since their launch in July 2010 we’ve only just had the first death.

And although campaigners emphasise the recent growth in deaths of cyclists on the streets of London, it’s still a pretty low figure compared to the number of people who are cycling and the distances they are covering. In fact, taking the long view, cycling in London has never been safer. As Andrew Gilligan pointed out earlier this year: ‘In 2002, there were around 110 million cycle journeys in London, of which 20 ended in death. In 2012, there were around 180 million bike journeys, of which 14 ended in death. That is not carnage, and nor is it growing.’

Today, MPs will be debating how to promote more cycling in Britain. In the lead up to the debate, senior officials and peers took a number of jollies to foreign cities to look at what is being done to encourage cycling elsewhere. But by visiting Amsterdam and Copenhagen they are doing nothing more than finding the answers they want to find. If you visit Amsterdam you’ll of course come home thinking that the best thing to do is shut roads to cars and enact legislation that says motorists are always to blame if they hit a cyclist.

But why not come to Italy? Here road users share that important public space, and the only thing that separates cars and bicycles is civility and common sense. Of course there are points where cyclists need to be re-routed around dangerous sections of road, for example, to avoid some of the tunnels that take traffic around Lake Como; but even then cyclists are not given special treatment, since the scenic paths that have been added are shared with joggers, hikers, dog walkers, picnickers – even climbers.

The key thing is that no one ‘owns’ the shared, public space, and everyone is the better for it.

The reason MPs want the Dutch model rather than the Italian is that in Italy cycling is not a lifestyle choice or an identity – it just is. For the British, cycling is becoming more and more about saving the environment and promoting public health, and less about a simple mode of transport that can be fun, and that people can take or leave as they like. And perhaps the worst aspect of the latest discussions is that no one wants to trust people to share public spaces. Instead, too many seem to feel the need to regulate our day-to-day relationships with each other, on and off our bikes.

Mark Birbeck is convening the session Free Riders at this year’s Battle of Ideas festival, held at the Barbican on the 19 and 20 October.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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