Dr Bike and Mr Cyclist

LeicesterStation-300x224The yin and yang of cycle campaigning manifests itself in many ways. A Jeckyll and Hyde existence, extolling the simple virtues of cycles on one hand, complaining bitterly about the reality of using one on many of today’s roads on the other. Watching delightful flicks of high modal share on foreign shores at night, while donning protective equipment to battle alone during the day.

And when we’re not bouncing from one extreme to the other we’re arguing about how the gap between the two can be bridged. Next stop Leicester.

Itself a city of contrasts – a soft, car free and car restricted centre, surrounded by a hard, car-centric shell – this unofficial cycling city is the debating venue for building that bridge.

Billed as “Building Cycling Cultures“, this 2 day event is the first in a series of conferences about reaching that elusive prize last witnessed in Britain before I was born – mass cycling.

LeicesterMagazine-224x300Sunday morning started with breakfast and a choice of rides. We chose the architecture tour which was excellent. Visiting the many sites of interest we covered the “pedestrianised” centre, the traffic restricted sections, the river path and parks, and the ring road and gyratory.

Later that afternoon Brigitte did a workshop which discussed a less confrontational approach to putting bikes first than is normally associated with critical mass. We experienced a variation on this style of en masse riding that morning on the dual carriageways of the ringroad. A form of what’s termed vehicular cycling taken to a point where, depending on the size of the group, you take up the space of a car or a bus. I see there’s a similar “Bike Train” for commuters running in Brighton.


Back at the Phoenix media centre it was straight onto lunch. Breakfast, ride, lunch, this is how cycling conferences should be!

New York is seeing a renaissance in cycling at the moment, mostly centred around the provision of bike lanes. Keynote speaker Jon Orcutt, Policy Director at New York’s Department of Transportation, gave an insight into running one of the biggest cities in the world.

LeicesterNYBikeLane-300x203Gangs of workers are out everyday on the streets refreshing lines and pouring concrete. This continuous process means that altering a gang’s worksheets to paint in a bike lane or pour barriers between cars and people can be very quick. The growing mileage of segregated infrastructure NY style is what’s responsible for the increases in cycling.

A picture of toddlers riding in one of the green lanes indicates the change in attitudes to the streets.

ICF’s Caroline from Sheffield featured in Roger Geffen’s presentation, highlighting the work being done by CTC Cycle Champions up and down the country. Leicester Cycle Champion Elizabeth Barner’s “Inclusive Cycling” workshop looked at inequality and exclusion, not just in terms of participation but in what’s offered and what’s deemed success.

I think many of the negative attitudes to cycling and disability can be broken down by disabled cycling, and I guess that probably holds for the other marginalised sections in our society.

LeicesterFixed-224x300Dave Horton pointed out that the exclusive identity of our cycle cultures has been and still is valuable. But wouldn’t it be great if these were vibrant subcultures within a mainstream cycling culture of mass participation?

And so to the raison d’etre of this event. Already well covered in the national press and in the cycling press, Dave Horton is one member of a research group working on a project called Understanding Walking and Cycling. The project is still ongoing but preliminary results from surveys, interviews and “walk/ride/live alongs” have given a clear insight into why people are not going to take up cycling in large numbers in the prevailing conditions.

Given the problems green campaigners are facing globally, things don’t look good for the environment; it appears local transport habits and the associated carbon emissions aren’t going to change without a significant intervention from the government, locally and nationally, to introduce high quality, comprehensive cycle infrastructure.

What’s not to like? Well, much traditional cycle campaigning has rejected segregation as a workable solution in the UK, putting it in sharp contrast to the places where cycling is most popular. The last time this was challenged was when Sustrans began the National Cycle Network.  Since then the good, cyclable, offroad paths are now accepted as part of the cycle network. An outcome that is very much hampered by a lack of investment and for us, a policy of installing barriers!

LeicesterMercx-300x245You need to go back some way to understand how this situation came about. Riding a bike in the UK reached a nadir when I was a boy somewhere around the seventies. Cycling and cyclists were left to fend for themselves, and in response a philosophy was born out of a town in the West of England that required nothing more than skill and self confidence.

The beauty of this philosophy is that it’s cheap and avoids all the problems inherent in planning well for an additional transport mode that includes children and grandparents. The downside is that its success depends largely on ability and personal courage. In theory drivers will accept confident cyclists on busy roads and the more there are the better the motorists will behave – a virtuous circle.

For the enthusiasts the cycling torch continued to burn and the terminal decline in cycling was arrested. The philosophy has been reinforced over the years by the risibly poor standard of infrastructure implemented in the UK, but has never been taken seriously by the majority of parents and their increasingly inactive children.

Thirty or so years later, and bearing in mind some ICF members are unable to negotiate much of today’s heavily trafficked road network, do we need a more inclusive campaign philosophy in 2011?

Dr Dave Horton thinks we do. CTC’s Roger Geffen has summarised the issues. Dr Bike and Mr Cyclist. Where do we go from here?

More discussion required it seems. We began to get below the skin of the debate in the very last session, but a lot more time is needed to explore it fully.

After a beer and a chat with friends, Brigitte and I rode off through Leicester’s soft centre for a carefree meal with a carfree view – living the dream you might say. Just another topsy turvy day in the life of a cycle campaigner.

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