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Cycling provides a cheap form of transport; protects people against illness and makes them healthier; is good for the environment; and is a fantastic way of encouraging kids to take exercise. What is there not to like?

Christian Wolmar - politician, cyclist, author, broadcaster and journalist

 

I’ve been a cyclist virtually all my life. I started cycling the two miles to school when I was 15, unconcerned even then by the London traffic despite the pleas from my parents. They had given me a Moulton, a precursor of the Brompton with little wheels and Sturmey Archer gears, and though it did not fold up, it was very Swinging London.

For a time in my twenties, I did renounce the pedal bike in favour of far faster two wheelers, the highly strung Japanese motorbikes that had put BSA, Enfield and all those other British marques out of business. However, after a few burn ups on my Kawasaki 350 around the north Circular its tendency to cut out when it reached three figures made me realise that I would be unlikely to reach my thirties if I continued riding that bike. I might have been very skilled at handling it but I was very foolish at ignoring the risks, so I reverted to what were rather insultingly known at the time as pushbikes.

Wolmar rode a Moulton to school in the swinging 60s
When Wolmar briefly fell out of love with the bike, his transport mode of choice was a Japanese Kawasaki motorbike

It was a good decision. I have spent these three or four decades using the bike as my main form of travel around London, and it has proved beneficial in so many ways. I see myself not as a cyclist, but a cycle user, someone for whom the bike is a key accessory to both my work and my leisure activities. How else, for example, would I get to three or four meetings in different parts of London in a single day, often cutting things really fine. How else would I keep reasonably fit even in weeks where I don’t manage to get out for a couple of runs? How else would I enjoy the breeze on a spring day in Hyde Park? And all the while I get brownie points for my environmental concern when, in fact, I cycle for all sorts of other reasons.

I have spent these three or four decades using the bike as my main form of travel around London, and it has proved beneficial in so many ways.

Christian Wolmar: not a cyclist, but a cycle user

I see myself not as a cyclist, but as cycle user, someone for whom the bike is a key accessory to both my work and my leisure activities.

Yet, somehow I am in a minority. Most people do not seem to recognise the benefits of cycling. They pooh-pooh the idea that these benefits could be delivered far more widely. Worse, a sizeable minority are actively hostile and need only the slightest excuse to attacks cyclists. Contrast, for example, the different coverage of the single well publicised – and of course tragic – death of a woman pedestrian at the hands of a reckless cyclist with the hundreds of deaths caused annually by drunk drivers.

This needs to be challenged. Cycling is a fantastic missed opportunity. At the time I was braving the roads for the first time, dozens of kids in the UK were being killed by motorists effectively leading to more forceful parents than mine simply banning their kids from cycling on the roads. However, the reaction in the Netherlands, where the same tragedies were taking place on a similar scale, was different. There the parents, especially the mothers, of the children took to the streets. They demanded that their kids should be able to cycle safely. And the government listened. Rather than closing cycle lanes as happened in the UK, they started building more, and ensuring that there were through routes pretty much everywhere, ensuring that kids, as well as their parents, could cycle safely pretty much anywhere.

Children cycling along a segregated bike path, Netherlands (Flickr image)
Mother with children in a cargo bike, Netherlands (Flickr image)

Labour, and indeed the other political parties, need to start taking cycling seriously. Support for cycling should not be a party political issue, but a no-brainer whose benefits are self-evident.

And that’s why today cycling is the norm in the Netherlands for short journeys. The modal share of cycling in some Dutch towns is over 50 per cent. In the UK, the best we can muster is 18 per cent in York and 15 per cent in Cambridge. Overall the figure is a meagre 2 per cent in the UK compared with 27 per cent in the Netherlands nationwide.

Here is the most telling statistic: In the Netherlands, a higher proportion of women over sixty cycle than those in their forties and fifties. That’s because when they retire, they have more time to be able to cycle and their journeys are likely to be shorter. Just imagine how that is improving these people’s health. Being sedentary is the greatest cause of disease among older people.

Any money allocated to getting more people cycling would repay itself many times over in terms of health, environmental and social benefits.

The Joy of Great Cycling Socks
ReadThe Joy of Great Cycling Socks

In the Netherlands, a higher proportion of women over sixty cycle than those in their forties and fifties... Just imagine how that is improving these people’s health.

For a long time politicians have paid lip service to cycling. They say it is a good thing but in the next breath they talk about Lycra louts and cyclists on pavements scaring old ladies. Yet, they make no similar comments about the imperfections of motorists.

Labour, and indeed the other political parties, need to start taking cycling seriously. Support for cycling should not be a party political issue, but a no-brainer whose benefits are self-evident. The policies required are all known to transport planners: safe protected routes for cyclists, reallocation of road space for cyclists, 20 mph speed limits in urban areas, allocating a high proportion of transport money to cycling and so on. Any money allocated to getting more people cycling would repay itself many times over in terms of health, environmental and social benefits.

As a former Parliamentary candidate, and an active member of Labour, I am sometimes embarrassed by the party’s failure to recognise the value of cycling.

20mph billboard advert - Flickr
Dedicated cycling infrastructure Bristol - Flickr

The policies required are all known to transport planners: safe protected routes for cyclists, reallocation of road space for cyclists, 20 mph speed limits in urban areas, allocating a high proportion of transport money to cycling and so on.

It is time for a new approach which is why I am one of the founders of Labour Cycles. As a former Parliamentary candidate, and an active member of Labour, I am sometimes embarrassed by the party’s failure to recognise the value of cycling. In so many ways it fits in with Labour values. It provides a cheap form of transport; protects people against illness and makes them healthier; is good for the environment; and is a fantastic way of encouraging kids to take exercise. What is there not to like?


Photos from top, L-R where applicable:

Top banner: London Cycling by Tejvan Pettinger
Red Moulton: Moulton Major bicycle by Peter Turvey
Kawasaki: Japanese reliability. British style. by Iain Farrell
Christian Wolmar on a bicycle: photo provided by Christian himself
Children riding along a cycle path: It's easy to cycle whether you're 8 or 80! by Jarrett M
Female cyclist riding a cargo bike with children: Ballenbak by FaceMePLS
Female cyclist on shopping street: Older Cyclist by Michael Coghlan
Older male cyclist: Everyone in Amsterdam Rides Bikes by Michael Coghlan
Female cyclist on a hire scheme bike: IMG_2121 by Roy Symons
20mph billboard banner 20 A Little bit slower, A whole lot better 02 by Sam Saunders
Male cyclist on a segregated bike route: Bike On Baldwin Street by Sam Saunders

Excluding the photos of Christian Wolmar himself, all images are licensed under CC BY 2.0

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About the Rider: Christian Wolmar
Christian Wolmar is a politician, cyclist, author, broadcaster and journalist with a particular interest in transport matters. He is a founding member of Labour Cycles, a group of Labour members and representatives working to ensure that everyone has the ability to be involved in active travel.
@christianwolmar
http://www.christianwolmar.co.uk
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