Friday 30 September 2011

The Cycle Helmet Show, and how the Dutch do it

Here's the video promoting this year's UK Cycle Show: I find it rather sad. But at least they seemed to have slightly softened their image from last year. Obviously the move from London to Birmingham has made them adopt a more relaxed style, as it should.

So to cheer us up after that, here's a video I made on the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain study tour last week, led by David Hembrow. It shows the going-home school run outside some schools in a newish suburb of Assen, in the Netherlands. Helmet? Where? And note the lady with three kids on her bike at 2:36.

This is normal for the Netherlands. We saw similar scenes on this brief trip outside other schools in both Assen and Groningen. This is so unremarkable in the Netherlands that we had difficulty in explaining to the curious youngsters what exactly we were doing and why we were there. Why would we want to photograph them going to and from school on bikes? What's so surprising? It was like Dutch people coming to an English town and filming people getting on and off buses – incomprehensible to them – why would we bother?

David Hembrow assured us that 100% of school children travel to and from school by bike in Assen. One hundred per cent. Well, probably give or take the odd one who can't for health reasons. This is higher than in the big cities, it is true. In Amsterdam the figure is 60%. They go with their parents or they go on their own. They start cycling to school on their own typically from the age of eight. This is a source of worry to the Dutch authorities – but not for the reason that you think. Because the average age at which they started going independently on their bikes used to be six. So the worry is that parents are no longer allowing children to go on their own so young, so that indicates parents no longer believe it is as safe as once they did, rightly or wrongly.

Which is why the authorities in Assen and other Dutch towns are spending even more money to upgrade their cycle infrastructure even further, particularly where schoolchildren use it. Making it even safer, separating it even more effectively from all traffic. The Dutch are constantly working, battling, to increase that vital feeling of subjective safety for all cyclists, young and old. We saw constant evidence of this during our trip. Constant rebuilding, resurfacing, improving. Widening cycle paths, redesigning junctions, moving roads, building bridges, digging tunnels... bloody hell, moving a whole canal sideways to allow good cycle paths on both sides of it. It is phenomenal. Nothing seems to be too much trouble, too much expense, just to allow children to safely and conveniently cycle to and from school. The incredible triple cycle bridge in Groningen is just another example of this.

Works to an existing cycle path to make it yet lovelier – a constant sight travelling around Assen
We think this one is just about wide enough
The Vole cannot believe it – he thinks he is in cycling heaven
David Hembrow checks the thickness of the just-laid tarmac of a cycle path
This is the cycle track for the purpose of building which the canal was moved 2 metres to the left, as seen in this shot. This is the secondary cycle route, adjacent to the road. The wider, primary cycle path along this canal, with no road alongside it, and therefore even higher subjective safety, is on the other side. This path was built and the canal moved  just so that cyclists on this side did not have to cross from one side of the canal and back to use a good-quality path. Note how the road gives way to it (the meaning of the tooth markings).
Back home, the London Cycling Campaign is launching shortly its major campaign for the 2012 mayoral elections in London, Go Dutch. This will be an explicit campaign for London to have the sort of cycle infrastructure you see in these pictures: segregated, completely motor-traffic-free, high-priority, direct cycle tracks alongside roads. I was discussing this last night with a very well-known LCC campaigner. He does not really agree with this campaign theme, though a large majority of the membership (who voted) asked for it. For he believes that the undisputed very high rates of cycling seen in today's Netherlands are not due to the provision of cycle paths and tracks. He believes there is "no evidence" that the building of segregated cycle tracks in the Netherlands ever increased cycling rates. He believes the high rates of cycling are, if I understand him correctly, due to two other factors: 1) that the Netherlands always had a very high cycling rate, and 2) that the town planning in the Netherlands has favoured the bike by reducing the need to travel long distances, as compared with other Western countries.

Now it is certainly true that, throughout the twentieth century, the Netherlands did have a very strong cycling culture. The recent video from the newly-launched Dutch Cycling Embassy does emphasise the decline in Dutch cycling in the mid-20th century, but even so, it is the case that, at its nadir, about 1970, the Dutch cycling modal share never fell below the highest British post-war modal share, experienced in the "golden age" of British cycling in the 1950s, of around 20%. So this does prove that the Dutch never had to rescue their cycling culture from anything like the desperate pit into which the UK's cycling culture has sunk, with its current 1% mode share. This indicates that, in developing the political will in the 1970s and 80s to rejuvenate their cycling culture, to its current 28% national mode share, the Dutch did not have the mountain to climb that UK cycle campaigners currently face.

On the other hand, it does not prove that Dutch cycling would not have collapsed in a comparable way to British cycling had the Dutch not taken the policy decision to reverse the slide in the 1970s. It does not prove that Holland today would not have similar cycling levels to Britain had the Dutch not spent the last 40 years building all this infrastructure that you see in these pictures. The case cannot be proved either way; we cannot re-run history, we cannot do an experiment. But another thing the "history and culture" argument ignores is the fact that the Dutch always had more and better cycle infrastructure – since 1885. So maybe it was always about the cycle paths, plus of course the topography.

It is perhaps the case that, in many or most cases, Dutch town planning has indeed been superior to UK planning, and the need to travel longer distances has thus been limited. Possibly. Though I am not really convinced of this, having seen plenty of standard warehouse shed, industrial and road-based urban sprawl in the vicinity of Assen and Groningen just on this short study tour. Overall, the Dutch environment strikes me as remarkably similarly-planned to the British, and I don't see much evidence that the need to travel has been reduced by Dutch statist planning, compared to other Western counties. And, strangely, another critic of this and similar blogs, one Paul, always makes a claim that Dutch cycle infrastructure provision has actually promoted urban sprawl. Assen, certainly, is a very low-density town with a very high cycling rate (44%). Unlike Groningen, which is much denser and has an even higher rate, it is not a university town. Assen has no visible reason for its high cycling rate apart from the exceptional (even for the Netherlands) quality and quantity of its cycle paths and tracks. And globally, David Hembrow points out that there is no link between population density of cities and cycling rates.

One thing you notice about the Dutch cycle infrastructure, when you experience it, is how easy and pleasant it makes it to cycle rather long distances – certainly longer than the (elsewhere) typically-suggested 6km or 4 mile limit on bike utility. This suggests to me that the Dutch, through the quality of their infrastructure, have actually broken the inverse link my LCC colleague assumes between need to travel longer distances and cycling take-up. Many secondary school children cycle 15–20km to school and back. And the Dutch authorities, now convinced that they have most of the possible sub-10km journeys "in the bike bag", are now working on getting people to use the bike for more of the longer journeys. All this planning for cycling doesn't really look as if it has reduced the need to travel very much. Possibly it has even encouraged more travel. Neither is it difficult to travel by car in the Netherlands.

Urban sprawl at the edge of Assen: main road to the right, cycle track to the left
I don't quite see why some people invest so much intellectual effort in trying to show that the Dutch cycling success is due to anything but the obvious factor. The key difference between the Netherlands and the UK is not planning, it is not distances, it is not need to travel, it is not ease of motoring, it is not motorist behaviour, it is not law, it is not culture, it is not history. It is what you see in these pictures. It is the cycle infrastructure: the vast and comprehensive network of paths, tracks, lanes, bridges and tunnels, that makes everywhere accessible by bike, easily, smoothly and safely. Doubting this is like questioning why Venice has boats rather than cars.

Far from there being "no evidence" that the construction of cycle tracks ever increased cycling, it seems to me that every single video ever placed on YouTube of cycling in the Netherlands in traffic-free space is evidence of this. As is the video I made of the cycle track in Torrington Place, London (which my colleague considers has a "disastrously flawed" design). Now, why would such a canny and frugal people as the Dutch keep on lavishing these vast sums on improving their cycle paths and tracks if it were having no effect? The proposition seems intensely improbable and counter-intuitive. I know, as a physicist, that the counter-intuitive can be correct – you need only look at Einstein's relativity. But you need a lot of evidence to show it. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Rather than my colleague's improbable logical construction, which probably stems from an a priori dislike of cycle tracks, it seems to me that what David Hembrow says must be right: though cycling never came close to dying out in the Netherlands, the Dutch realised that they had to keep spending money on improving the conditions to maintain and develop what they had, against the onslaught of all the other factors in the modern world (cheapness of cars and petrol, the desire for speed and hypermoblity) that caused cycling to nose-dive in other societies.

If you still doubt all this, you need to go and experience it. Saddle up in Holland, and feel it. Don't study the statistics, don't study the history. Just feel how it is for yourself. Experience how safe it feels, how stress-free it feels, how relaxed and wonderful it feels, after cycling in other, less-enlightened nations, and think about how it would affect your travel choices if you lived in that environment, and how you promoted the travel choices of others – your relatives, friends, above all, your children. Think about those mothers and fathers allowing their 8-year old and even younger children to go to school by bike by themselves. Do you really believe they would do that if it were not for the cycle paths? Do you really believe they would do that if it were not for the almost total separation from threatening motor-traffic interactions that Dutch cyclists enjoy wherever they choose to go? I don't. I think the position that the Dutch 28% cycling mode share is not very largely the result of the construction of the segregated cycle infrastructure is manifestly absurd. But perhaps you'll try to persuade me otherwise?

Tuesday 27 September 2011

Cycling in two national parks, and a new embassy

If you have been wondering why there has been more than a two week gap in this blog, it is because the Vole has been going places, firstly on a bike tour in the New Forest, genially hosted by Colin Waters (previously of Harrow Cyclists, and before that, Tower Hamlets Wheelers, but now living in Sway, Hampshire), and, secondly, and more importantly, on the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain study tour in the Netherlands. Of that, there will be much more on here in due course. At the moment I will merely remark that the landscape of Drenthe, the north-eastern province of the Netherlands, where the tour went, is, in its wilder parts, remarkably similar to that of the New Forest. We often think of the Netherlands as a crowded country, the land intensively cultivated if it is not built on, but here, in the "Dutch highlands", the least densely populated part of the Netherlands, there is forest and sandy heathland dominated by gorse and heather. Several National Parks have been established here. Here we can find the hunebedden (Dutch for "giants' beds"), the remains of megalithic burial sites constructed from large stones, where possibly an original surrounding earth mound has been eroded away. These are similar to the dolmens of Britain and Ireland.

Hunebed near Assen, Drenthe
The Drenthe heathland looks very similar to the New Forest, but there is a big difference in how you can access it by bike. You cycle around the New Forest National Park on roads that generally have a 40mph (64kph) speed limit and are full of cars. There is some human and animal traffic calming provided by the cyclists and horses on the roads, but, personally, I would prefer not to be used as traffic calming, and, I suspect, neither would the horses, about 50 of which are killed on the roads each year. The roads are typically narrow, and, as a new development,  often have extra pinch points built into them, where two cars cannot pass each other, but there is no clear priority indicated on the road. These are intended to slow traffic, but, of course, cyclists have not been considered, and these confusing pinch-points pose extra danger for them.

The traffic calming used in the New Forest. Nobody asked the horses if they wanted this dangerous job.
The New Forest is lovely, but, overall, I am afraid I did not find cycling there a very relaxing experience. On one occasion a motorist sounded his horn at our party, overtook on a blind bend with inches to spare, and swore at us, shouting we should be riding in single file – which we were, but clearly not in the precise straight line right at the edge of the road that he would have liked. With the pressures of traffic and the behaviour of motorists, conditions for cycling in the New Forest are certainly far worse now than they were when I cycled there as a boy, living in nearby Christchurch, thirty and more years ago, and they were not fantastic then. The bridle paths in general are not suitable for cycling on with non-mountain bikes. It is not possible, on a normal bike, to get away from heavily-used roads and experience a quiet or really relaxing environment.

The Dutch, of course, have a different approach. They have designated areas of the Drenthe heathland and forest as "quiet areas" where there is no intrusion of traffic. Neither is overflying allowed. The Dutch have decided that peace and silence, or at least, freedom from most human-generated sound, is a valuable natural resource to be conserved in such places, along with the rest of the natural environment. So these areas can only be visited by a substantial walk, or on horseback, or, more practically, by a short bike ride.

Video by David Hembrow demonstrating how quiet it is cycling in a Dutch quiet area 

The quiet area we visited on the first day of the Cycling Embassy study tour with David Hembrow was located in the Drenthe Aa National Park near Assen. It was accessed on the path shown in the photo below, a sandy bridle path with a hard edge for cycling.

Bridle path with hard edge for cycling in the Drenthe Aa national park
The heathland path was in turn was reached from the town on high-quality cycle paths alongside country roads, but generally slightly separated from them, like the one shown below. There was not a great deal of traffic on these roads, but still, the separation from it made a world of difference to the journey. Note that here quite a quiet road has ample cycle paths on both sides of it, separated from it by a substantial grass strip. The road itself is effectively narrowed by the dashed markings, encouraging slower speeds from drivers. Nevertheless, note how slowing traffic is not regarded as enough in the Netherlands. If there is space for separate cycle tracks, they are generally provided as well.

Gasterenseweg, Loon, near Assen. 
Where these roads passed through villages, where separate cycle paths could not be provided due to limited space between the houses, traffic calming, as shown below, plus signs, was used to reduce traffic speeds to the usual Dutch urban limit of 30kph (18.5mph). The speed limit in the villages was re-enforced by a tiled road surface that makes the road a bit noisy to drive on, but which still allows comfortable cycling. Importantly, we found cyclists were never pushed into the traffic calming constrictions. No conflicts between cyclists and motor traffic are created by Dutch traffic-calming measures, in contrast to their UK counterparts. The cycle paths take cyclists round the pinch-points, to merge cyclists into the traffic on the road after it has been calmed. Whereas, in the UK pattern, cyclists are typically forced into the traffic at a point just before it has been calmed. A further important lesson here, applicable to cycle provision in both urban and rural environments, is that, just because there is restricted width on sections of a route, this does not mean that cyclists should not be fully protected where the width is available. But different measures are needed according to the space available.

Traffic calming on the edge of the village of Loon, Assen. This is just south of the road shown above. Cycle paths take cyclists round this obstruction on both sides, and the road beyond is shared.
Elsewhere in the Drente countryside, minor roads that used to be for cars have been converted into cycle-only roads. These look like standard country roads, but for cars they lead nowhere, or only provide access to a few houses. For bikes, they provide high-quality surfaces for fairly long-distance, speedy rural riding, and are connected in with the rest of the cycle path network.

"Bicycle road" near Assen. This leads nowhere for cars and only gives access to a few houses, but for bikes it is a through route
So, using this combination of cycle roads, traffic-calmed roads, and cycle paths, anyone living in Assen, or other towns and village around, can easily visit the forests, heathlands, hunebedden, and quiet areas of the Drenthe Aa National Park by bike, any time they want. For cyclists using this network (which is typical of the Netherlands and not exceptional), threatening interactions with motor traffic have been virtually eliminated. We did not see many others in the national park on the Tuesday evening when we visited, but David Hembrow assured us it becomes quite busy at the weekend, when large numbers of people, including many young children on their own, cycle out to experience the closest the Netherlands gets to a wilderness.

In contrast, I know that very few of the residents of Southampton, Bournemouth, Christchurch, New Milton and Lymington ever visit the New Forest by bike, and, if they chose to do so, they do not experience the kind of relaxed journey the cyclists of Assen enjoy. They mostly visit their local National Park by car, on the fast roads that our local authorities and Highways Agency provide, in so doing, reduce the subjective safety of the few cyclists using those same roads. And these days, those cyclists will virtually never be unaccompanied children. Those days of my youth are gone.

When you cycle through a village in the New Forest, you are restricted to a narrow strip of road not occupied by large numbers of speeding cars. Or, if they are not speeding, you are caught in a traffic jam. Beaulieu, Hants.
We could bring those days back. We could re-create the conditions where large numbers of cyclists from towns and cities are attracted to our wilder natural areas, and can enjoy them free from the threats posed by motor traffic. In doing so we could massively improve the absolute quality of the environment in those areas, by reducing motor traffic levels. But this would require the adoption of very different transport policies: Dutch policies, in short, or something very like them.

To discover what Dutch policies actually are, and how they work out in practice, was the purpose of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain visit. There is no substitute for finding out by going there. And, perhaps, in the past, the Dutch have not been as proactive as they might have been in spreading information about what they have achieved in cycling, and how, with the result that many misunderstandings and myths have grown up amongst the British, and other foreigners, as to what Dutch cycling is all about.

So it is very welcome that the Dutch have just launched their very own Cycling Embassy to spread more widely the expertise they have gained from 40 years of consistent policy of promoting the bike. The concept of a "Cycling Embassy" was pioneered by the Danes, so it is great to see the Dutch, who actually have a rather more successful cycling policy record, now adopting this tactic as well. (The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain is a slightly different concept: we are an embassy to our own people and government, while the Dutch and Danish embassies are from those places.) The first production of the Dutch Cycling Embassy is the video below, which I highly recommend watching. I think it strikes exactly the right note: inspiring, upbeat, clear, factual and professional; Cycling for Everyone indeed shows what the Dutch approach is all about. If you really want "cycling for everyone", believe me, the Dutch can tell you exactly how to do it.

Cycling For Everyone from Dutch Cycling Embassy on Vimeo.

Friday 9 September 2011

Skyride and a launch: the past and the future of London cycling?

This past weekend saw something old and something new for cyclists in the capital. First the new: the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain had its formal launch on Saturday. In pleasant sunshine, on what may prove to be the last summery day of the year, a group of about 40 people with bikes gathered on the south side of Lambeth Bridge to hear a speech by Jim Davis, Chairman of the Embassy, to meet the Head of Public Diplomacy, Press and Culture from the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in London, and to take photographs. A fairly low-key event, it was an opportunity to put some faces to people known only by name or blogging handle, discuss differences of emphasis or perception amongst different campaigners, all of whom agreed that the main solution for cycling has to be better infrastructure, and consider how to take the campaign forward. Here is Jim Davis's speech:
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. Welcome to this launch and picnic for the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain.
We find ourselves in a strange land, where grown men feel that they not only have to put on helmets and body armour but put cameras on it too. Great as a resource, great if you’re Quentin Tarantino but useless if you’re a 10 year old wanting to go to school.
Where something that our grandparents did without question has become so marginalised. So specialised.
Where Councils provide facilities without any real knowledge of what they’re providing for. The end result looks like it was designed by a combination of an Etch-a-Sketch and a litre of vodka.
It doesn’t have to be like this. If we don’t get it right then we shall see more Superhighways that double as car parks at the weekend, more converted pavements bringing cyclists into direct conflict with pedestrians, the elderly and disability groups.
We are proud to have as a guest a representative from the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands [Mr Jan van Weijen – Head of Public Diplomacy, Press and Culture]. The Netherlands is a country that made a change for the better nearly 40 years ago and has also been a particular inspiration to the Cycling Embassy. They’ve made mistakes, they’ve learnt from their mistakes and now 27% of all journeys are made by bicycle. In Britain, it is 2%. Their children can start cycling to school from the age of 8 and in a UNICEF study in 2007 they topped the table for child wellbeing. Britain came 21st. the USA came 20th. Could try harder.
We launch our policies today and they will develop in time with further consultation with other organisations and of course, you.
Have a look at our policies, our Manifesto & Mission Statement. Have a chat with me today. If you share our beliefs then please donate if you can, chat on our forum, even buy the T-Shirt in the new Embassy shop just launched. We shall be posting a Situations Vacant page very shortly to give greater clarity to those that want to help in terms of ideas of expertise.
We want to make riding a bike as easy as riding a bike and we know you do too.
Thank you

Jim makes his speech (photo by Mark Ames)
Some of the people at the launch (photo by Mark Ames)
After that it was off for perhaps the shortest organised bike ride ever, across Lambeth Bridge to Victoria Tower Gardens for a picnic. When we planned this we thought that Lambeth Bridge had the worst cycle lanes in London, but, bizarrely, as if Transport for London had got wind that the bridge was to be exposed to the bright light of publicity across the whole world of cycling, it was resurfaced on Thursday night and the lines were repainted on Friday. The southbound cycle lane is now gone and the northbound no longer quite the worst cycle lane in London. But the bridge remains sandwiched between two profoundly cycle-unfriendly roundabouts, the cycle lane ending before it gets to either of them – pointing up the uselessness of providing cycle facilities in a spot manner ("pepperpotting" as it is also known) rather than as parts of properly worked-out continuous routes. And on the roundabouts (particularly the southern), we did indeed encounter drivers seemingly determined to put an early end to the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain. Fortunately they failed.

First Embassy picnic
And so on to the picnic, which was followed by a ride led by Mark Ames (ibikelondon) along the permitted cycle routes through the Royal Parks as far as the Albert Memorial, where, after more photos, the group dispersed. Some people had come from as far afield as Scotland, Newcastle, and Bristol, emphasising that this is a national campaign, not a London one, and some of them stayed on in London for the Mayor of London's Sky Ride the next day, to distribute Embassy postcards to the throngs of people on bikes at this event.

The Embassy at the Albert Memorial
The weather went rapidly downhill on Sunday, and heavy rain dampened enthusiasm for the Sky Ride, participation in which was down to about 50,000 from 80,000 last year. The Mayor of London's Sky Ride is a concept that was originally suggested by the London Cycling Campaign. It was known as the "London Freewheel" before Boris Johnson sold it off to Sky Sports, who, with British Cycling, put a sporty cycling gloss on it and divorced it further from anything to do with cycling for transport.

In this event, a seven mile circuit of central London streets is given over exclusively to bikes for a few hours once a year, cyclists are dressed up like yellow canaries for no apparent reason except to unwillingly advertise Sky Sports, and a huge number of obstructive barriers is erected around The Mall to prevent anybody from conveniently walking anywhere, enforced by a huge number of paid-for-the-day officious event staff who shout orders at you and tell you what a good time you are having. LCC organises a large number of feeder rides from the suburbs to the Sky Ride, for which it gets paid by TfL, and these tend to attract a lot of new or occasional cyclists, attracted by the prospect of cycling on traffic-free roads. However, a critical point, which shows the lack of real commitment to the concept from the authorities: the routes from the suburbs to the start of the course are not closed to motor traffic. Volunteers are expected to marshal groups of hundreds of beginner cyclists, including small children, through heavy and aggressive London traffic, for distances of 10 miles or more to the start of the traffic-free circuit. In recent years Sky has developed the concept and there have been smaller Sky Rides in other parts of London and elsewhere in the UK.

To my mind, while the Cycling Embassy is the start of a potential new dawn for transport cycling in the UK, the Sky Rides are a symbol of the failed past of UK cycle promotion. Boris Johnson thinks the Sky Rides are "a key part" of his "cycling revolution", but this is tosh. The is no evidence that the Sky Rides make any contribution to a modal shift to cycling in London. If they did, we should see, in the weeks after Sky Ride, a new tranche of cyclists on the streets in their free Sky high-vis tabards. We don't. In my experience, those who come on the Skyrides are either regular cyclists already, or they are those who drive down, take the train up, or take part in the marshalled feeder rides, for their once-a-year experience of cycling in London, to put the bike away afterwards for another year, apart from possible leisure rides in the countryside or abroad. To expect Sky Ride to encourage more people to cycle under everyday London traffic conditions is like expecting the experience of taking a cross-channel ferry to encourage people to swim the channel. It unrealistic, as the conditions are so profoundly different.

The lesson taught by the tens of thousands of people who turn up to the Sky Rides is clear, as others have pointed out before me, but it is one our politicians stubbornly refuse to learn. As the Cycling Embassy keeps saying, there is a massive suppressed demand from people who want to cycle, but will not do so on our streets as they are now. They will cycle if you take the traffic away. I cannot put it better than the text on the back of the Cycling Embassy postcards:
Why can't we see traffic-free cycling every day?
Isn't it nice when there is space for everyone to ride their bikes? Families love events like Sky Rides, but when asked why they don't cycle every day, the answer is clear: it just feels too dangerous.  We can't get rid of cars, but we can start to work towards providing safe, separated cycle tracks designed to be used by all, even the youngest children, away from motor traffic.  Evidence from the Netherlands - the bicycle capital of the world - show that if you provide safe space for cyclists everyone - men, women, old, young, rich, poor - will feel happy choosing to ride their bikes.
We at the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain want to see an end to cyclists being pushed to the margins; we want to see a network of direct, well-designed, separated cycle routes that are safe even for young children to use, so that every ride can be a Sky Ride. 
Sky Ride itself is a waste of time and money. The principle may have been thought up by a cycling organisation, but it is is a failure. It is a sop so that Boris Johnson and other politicians, and business sponsors, can claim they are "promoting cycling", while doing nothing to make everyday cycling safer or more attractive. The Sky Rides re-enforce the leisure ands sports image of cycling in the UK and further divorce it from anything to do with ordinary transport. They promote an image of cycling as an activity to be done wearing helmets and bizarre ugly clothing that no-one wants to wear. They take away volunteer and activist time and energy of dedicated cyclists that could otherwise be spent on lobbying for better conditions. By involving voluntary organisations like the LCC they lock them into a contracted-out government service role that is irrelevant to their true purpose, and again, simply a distraction. They promote corporate entertainment and sports interests that are antithetical to the true healthy spirit of independence and individuality of "just riding a bike". For these reasons the Sky Rides positively work against cycling.

The Sky Rides are a symbol of a non-cycling nation and the Mayor of London's Sky Ride is a symbol and symptom of a non-cycling city. Rather than a one-a-year experience of traffic-free cycling in central London, what all those people who take part really need is traffic-free cycling in their local neighbourhoods 365 days a year. If we had a real cycling city, we would not need Sky Rides, nor feeder rides, nor websites, nor registrations, nor tabards, nor marshals, nor banners, nor gratuitous appearances by cycle racing celebrities, nor PA systems for telling people what a great time they are having on their one day of cycling in the year, nor any of the other caboodle. Everybody would just ride where they liked, when they liked – quietly, happily, normally. There would be no demand for a Sky Ride.

Let's leave Sky Ride. Let's get on with the work that will consign it to the dustbin of history.

The Vole is decorated in Cycling Embassy colours (photo by Alan Perryman)

Friday 2 September 2011

Cycling Embassy of Great Britain launch

Here's a late reminder about the formal launch tomorrow in London of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain. I happen to be on the Management Committee of this not yet very august institution. However, it is rapidly becoming more august, with the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands promising to send a senior representative to the launch, their Head of Public Diplomacy, Press and Culture.

In case you don't yet know what it is, the Cycling Embassy is a new national campaign to get proper cycling infrastructure in Britain on the continental model, with the idea of thus moving Britain towards a mass cycling culture.

The launch takes place on the south side of Lambeth Bridge with a press call against the backdrop of the Houses of Parliament at 12:00 am. (Gather at 11:30). Smart everyday wear please – as this is a campaign for "everyday" cycling people are discouraged from looking like stereotypical cyclists.

There will then be a very short ride across Lambeth Bridge (intended to be a ride on "London's worst cycle lane", but I hear the bridge was resurfaced last night – did the authorities get wind of our plans? – so the lane may have gone or may have been improved), and then a celebratory picnic in Victoria Tower Gardens. Bring food and drink but not glass or alcohol. This should be a good opportunity to network and meet cyclists from round the country who are interested in the infrastructure issue. Later there will be an infrastructure safari around the Royal Parks led by Mark Ames of the ibikelondon blog.

The weather forecast is excellent – it should be warm and sunny – rather better in fact than for Sunday, when it looks like it will rain for the Mayor of London's Skyride. For the Skyride I will be leading a Brent Cyclists ride from Kingsbury Station to St James's Park, starting at 10:00am. All cyclists welcome.

The Vole will be in attendance at both these events, and he recently put together a poster for the Cycling Embassy poster competition. He hopes you like it. And he hopes that the Cycling Embassy launch will signal a bright new dawn for everyday cycling in the UK.