While I’m not quite at the stage where I change my mind about Johnson and the Tories, I am slightly heartened to read about the proposed investment in healthy travel and “Ofsted for cycling infrastructure”. If I don’t think about the proposals too much I could almost believe something might really… happen… this… time.
I wrote a couple of months ago about all the column inches that had been filled with the tappety tap tap of journalists transforming our society after Covid-19. And here at the arse end of the pandemic, with the roads filled with cars and pollution back to normal, we finally see the faint twitching of the corpse of British Society (1945-1979), and the kind of joined up thinking that has been sadly lacking in the higher echelons of government of late.
Public health crisis you say? Matters made worse by pre-existing conditions you say? Pre-existing conditions less likely if more people shift their arses and move, you say?
It all seems very hopeful, but just visiting Abroad makes you realise that the UK has problems that can’t be fixed by a promise to invest in safer cycling.
I was in Basel today, just across the border to Switzerland from France. It’s a proper European city, an old town on one side of the wide and green Rhine, and a modern city on the other, complete with bold architectural strokes and a fully integrated public transport infrastructure, in which trams, buses and trains share space with bicycles and, oh, what’s that thing? A car? Oh yes, cars: last, and least.
Even compared with most of France, you can tell you’re in another country. From gnomic road markings to apparently eccentric behaviours and a different font on the road signs, you know you’re somewhere Foreign. You see bikes sharing the road (and pavement) with pedestrians, trams and cars in cities like Strasbourg and Mulhouse, but a place like Belfort? A bit behind. And Paris? Forgeddabahtit.
We went into a multi-storey car park. It was Tuesday, about 10:30 in the morning. In most cities, you’d expect to struggle to find a space. Nope. Why drive when you can take a tram or cycle?
Your first taste of knowing Basel is different comes when you approach a junction and you can’t work out if you have priority. It’s like prices in shops: if you have to ask, you definitely can’t afford it. You don’t know, so you slow down, and then a cyclist just breezes out from the side street right across your path. You notice that cyclists seem very, um, confident. Hardly any of them wear helmets (a sign of cycling confidence: the fewer helmets you see, the safer the cycling). They barely seem to even look at junctions, so sure are they that they have priority. Because of course they do. People who are under their own power ought to have priority over those who can just stick their foot down and have an engine do all the work.
You see cyclists riding alongside trams, with very little road space, but at the same time secure in the knowledge that the tram isn’t going to do anything unpredictable. It’s not even what I’d call segregated, in the way that so many people in the UK want it to be. I’d like it to be segregated in the UK, but it doesn’t have to be, as long as everyone has the right attitude.
There are bikes everywhere, so many bikes. New bikes, old bikes, e-bikes, recumbent bikes, trikes, e-scooters, cargo bikes, bikes pulling trailers, being ridden by everyone from beautiful 20-somethings to grizzled veterans. And they’re lined up everywhere alongside the road, not secured to lampposts, nor cycle racks, just locked to themselves. Nobody seems worried about theft. What?
Ugh. So I see at least
three four major problems in trying to introduce This Kind of Thing to the UK.
- A Distinct Lack of Trams. We used to have them, oh yes. And some places, like Manchester, even put them back. But most places got rid of trams when they got rid of the branch lines of the railway. What was the reason, again? Something something greedy cunts lah-de-dah. Something like that.
- Class. There have already been (not even) post-pandemic objections to temporary cycling measures becoming permanent. No surprise that it’s Tory councillors rolling back the years. The problem with the UK is always that people in cars think they are better than people on bikes and on foot. And people in better cars think they’re even better than everyone else. People driving luxury cars are less likely to stop at zebra crossings, and you know they’d be a lot less likely to give priority to a cyclist. I can’t help but be hyper-aware of this kind of behaviour. I live next to a school. For years, the school has been trying to persuade school run parents that irresponsible parking blocks access to emergency vehicles. But still that white Maserati comes all the way up to the school gates and gets plonked right where it shouldn’t be. Walk? Moi? Have you seen my car? It’s Italian, you know.
- Theft. The UK has a problem with bike theft. As long as some people are happy to buy “second hand” bikes at bargain prices, there’s a market in stolen bikes. And because most people don’t value cycling (see 2), people resist proper security, which (I’m afraid) costs. You cannot get away with a simple cable lock, because those are precisely the locks most targeted by thieves. Manufacturers could help, by incorporating frame locks and even tracking devices. Employers could help, by offering secure sheds and cages; councils could help, by giving over some car parking space to better cycle parking; and everyone could help by replacing their shit cable locks with something Sold Secure. Anything that requires special tools, or more than about 30 seconds to break is going to help. But really: why should people have to think about this stuff when the citizens of Basel obviously don’t? Whisper it: there’s something wrong with us.
- And finally: the weather. We live on a rainy island in the North Atlantic. We have two days of sun, declare a heat wave, rip off our shirts, and get third degree burns. Anyone who commits to cycling as a lifestyle is going to be rudely awakened by wind, rain, flash floods, and more. Of course we’re talking about this wonderful cycling future in the middle of summer. Come November, there’ll be a meeting and everyone bar one hardcore geezer with a dewdrop on the end of his red nose will drive to get to it. I’m personally amazed that the fairing isn’t yet a thing on ebikes at least (see picture above). Any motorcyclist will tell you that even a modest fairing will offer protection from wind and rain while improving aerodynamics. Perfect, I’d have thought, for eking out the range and the battery life of an ebike. But no. Because there’s the other problem: there’s too much of the macho in cycling culture; people are hard.
Green shoots? I don’t want to end on a pessimistic note. Let me instead mention something that is new. Here in France where we stay, they’ve made efforts recently to improve cycling infrastructure. And, thanks in large part to regular visits by the Tour de France, cycling round here is ubiquitous. There’s a little bit too much branded/sponsored lycra, not enough people in ordinary clothes, but you see lots of people on bikes tackling these hills. A lot of them are wiry and obviously very fit older men. And this year, something new: the old men have been joined by old women. I have seen, this year, a lot of much older women out on bikes. Sometimes with their wiry old man, and sometimes on their own. It really is a sight you almost never see in the UK.
Hopeful, no? Do these people feel safe on their bikes? Clearly, safe-r. French motorists are notoriously psychopathic/suicidal, but nobody expects to drive around here and not encounter solo cyclists and group rides. It’s a fact of life. The roads are in much better condition (and much more frequently upgraded) than in the UK, so cyclists face fewer pothole hazards. But they are mostly wearing helmets, so we’re not there yet. When people start leaving their helmets at home, like they do in the Netherlands and Denmark, then we’ll be safe.