It is a measure of how far we have come that there is a cross party Parliamentary inquiry starting today called ‘Get Britain Cycling’. Even though cycling is still very much the choice of everyday transport of a very small minority, this is a significant improvement from when I first started working as a bicycle messenger in the 80s, when only a vanishingly small minority, a barely noticed few, cycled regularly. It is no exaggeration to say that I knew everyone that cycled in north and east London by sight.
Cycling, and the concerns of cyclists, is taken much more seriously by everyone, whereas 20 years ago, we were barely even noticed. Another measure of this is the list of cyclists killed in 2012, published on the Times Cycle Safe campaign page. Up until relatively recently, the death of a cyclist was not covered by the mainstream media at all, ever. For instance, the death of Edward Newstead, killed by a left-turning lorry on Oxford Street in 1992, received no attention, despite a press release from the LCC, and a large memorial ride organised by London bicycle messengers
When I started the Moving Target blog in 2005, it was still the case that the majority of cyclists killed passed without comment or even much notice in the media. This is why I used to receive emails & texts about fatal collisions from witnesses or friends, because it was known that I would publish details, and give some context, particularly if the collision involved a lorry (aka HGV). Now, if a cyclist is killed, it is reported at the very least in the local media, and often in the national media, as in the case of Dan Harris, killed by a bus near the Olympic Park in the summer.
This is not to suggest that people don’t talk a lot of bollocks about cycling. I’m thinking of the Times, and its assertion that sensible shoes were important for safe cycling, or the constant chirrupping about whether cyclists should be using MP3 players, or the revolting ‘under the line’ comments that always get posted on media web-sites after the death of a cyclist is reported, sometimes by other cyclists.
Cycling is big news, and big politics, at least in London. However, even though, depending on how it has been measured, and who measured it, cycling has increased by a factor 2, 3, 4 or 5, we are still only talking about an increase from the barely statistically significant (around 0.5% of all journeys in London in the late 80s) to solidly statistically significant, but cycling rates are still in single figures as a total of all journeys. So even though there are a lot more people cycling than there were 20 years ago, cycling is still not the choice of the overwhelming majority of the population.
How to get Britain cycling? Well, I wouldn’t start from such a low base, given the choice. One thing that isn’t often mentioned when we are advised that we need to ‘go Dutch’ or ‘Copenhagenise’, is that both these cities had cycling rates well above of where London is now, probably around 10% of all trips at the time when national & local policy was changed to emphasis and encourage cycling.
To be honest, I get a little fed up with the constant harping on about Copenhagen or Amsterdam. Both of these cities are much, much smaller than London, and I’m not convinced that you can scale up effectively. The demographics of Copenhagen in the 60s & 70s, when the push towards cycling started to happen are significantly different to London now. The topography, geography and distances are different. Integrated transport, e.g. allowing bikes to be carried on trains, is non-existent in peak times, and, in the case of the train compaines, not likely to change anytime soon.
Whilst there many technical solutions that can be adopted from elsewhere, I am not sure that a simple ‘Go Dutch’ approach is enough. We need to be looking around for examples from urban areas that more closely match London, where cycling rates are significantly above the current national (or London) rate, but still in a large metropolis. Fortunately, such a place does exist, and it is in a large metropolis, and hey, they even speak English. Readers, that place is Hackney, where cycling rates are at around 10%.
If the committee is looking for evidence of how to successfully increase cycling to a significant minority from a statistically insignificant number of journeys, then it could do worse than call for Hackney Cyclists and the London Borough of Hackney.