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Cycling - encouraging and promoting

A thought came to me recently after discussing cycling routes and facilities with my local Sustrans rep, a brain flash as to what we really need to do to increase cycling numbers.

He was adamant, as is the Sustrans literature, that building traffic free cycle paths is the only solution. I have never been convinced that this is the case, since although I agree that many non-cyclists do say that they will start riding if a dedicated route is available, I see too many people who say they tried cycling but were put off by the long winded and meandering routes, together with the fact they had to get off and cross each and every side road; the standard that seems to be the Sustrans NCN, as well as local routes.

I looked into this a little, and realised that the Sustrans figures that proved the NCN success were based pretty much on the increased usage of the NCN, and not the cycling increase/decrease on surrounding roads. Now call me a cynic, but if you install a brand new route with an automated cycle counter it will register pretty much nobody to start with, increasing weekly as more and more cyclists start to use the route; so of course the route could be proven a success! What is needed, and to date I have not found it, is a corresponding counter on every surrounding route which will enable the tracking of cyclists to find whether the actual number of cyclists in the area is increasing (as claimed), staying static (but using the NCN instead of the roads) or decreasing (thanks to poor cycle facilities and abuse from drivers for not using them). I know for a fact that one section of the NCN near me has stopped many local cyclists from riding in the area, myself included, simply because the new path is too narrow and the road has been similarly narrowed so we get physical and verbal abuse should we dare venture into the motorists space.

I also looked into the usage of the NCN and realised that many people use it to “go for a bicycle ride”. In other words they drive, with their bikes in the car, to a particular location. Examples of this include the camel trail in Cornwall as well as the coast to coast in Northumbria.

Now don’t get me wrong, increasing the number of people cycling is a good thing, but this way isn’t encouraging sustainable transport (Sustran’s published aim) nor is it promoting cycling as a sensible transport option; it is increasing the public’s perception of cycling as purely a leisure pursuit.

I had a further think into this and realised that there is something else that encourages cycling, admittedly also not as a transport option, and that is charity rides. Looking at the three rides which happened recently I was amazed at the number of participants; especially the numbers of new or novice riders. There was the London to Brighton, the London to Southend and also the Foulness Island cycle ride. Thousands of people turned up to these events.

Interestingly these weren’t on dedicated cycle routes; in fact the London to Southend included a section of 60mph main road that I, as a confident cyclist, choose not to ride on out of safety! On that day I saw many new and novice cyclists struggling along that main road in blistering heat and on unsuitable bikes, with no reported incidents.

There is an annual event which does encourage cycling, in many forms, and that is bike week. This includes an annual bike to work day, as well as other activities.

It is my firm belief that in order to increase cycling we therefore don’t need to spend time building a dedicated cycle network, instead we should be building some standalone facilities (in parks for example, or longer distance rides such as the coast to coast) and spend the rest of our time in organising events that encourage people to get on their bikes.

Who fancies joining me on the next “national visit a friend by bike day”?


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Updated 04/11/04