01 March 2008

A Fair Cycle

Written by Published in Issue 8 - Fair Play Read 3263 times

Spring has sprung - or at least the bulbs are coming up - and us less hardy cyclists are oiling our chains ready for eight months of feeling better about ourselves. Cycling has become my way of getting some sport into part of my working day. But I am still in the minority. Why are we being so slow at making our towns and cities more cyclable and walkable? We keep being told about a British obesity crisis, many of our cities' roads are clogged up seven days a week, car exhausts are blamed as a major contributor to breathing-related afflictions, the race for oil is well and truly on, and then there is that behemoth of a story: the world’s very existence as a climatically stable place is being threatened by our carbon emissions.

 

So why are we being so slow? We can't blame the weather, as our more northerly European neighbours have grasped the cycling nettle. In most cases we can't blame the topography, especially since the Swiss are taking to bikes. We can't blame availability or cost: the market is very competitive and cycling shops have opened all over the place.


What is it, then? We're lazy, selfish, half-hearted, obsessed with celebrity (you can't look 'Red Carpet' in a helmet and trouser clips, darling). Ultimately, we are stupid.


I persevere with cycling in London, using the circuitous Grand Union Canal route rather than risk my life on the Harrow Road. Ken Livingstone may have a strong social and environmental agenda, and I welcome the congestion charge and the fantastic improvements in London’s bus services, but cycling has barely got safer and easier (those bendy buses don’t help!).


There are examples on our doorstep that the Hemingway family love to spend long weekends visiting. Copenhagen has become a favourite. Being able to walk around all those human-scale streets full of serendipity and creative start-ups, where we don’t have to wait more than thirty seconds to cross a road, where we are not corralled like sheep into pens in the centre of four-lane city-centre roads, where buses and trains never let us down and where we can cycle two abreast and not come into conflict with pedestrians and where traffic lights give us preference. We're happy to take a winter break in Copenhagen, cycle west, north, east and south in temperatures that are about five degrees colder than London.


Copenhagen introduced pedestrian streets, or Strogets, literally 'strolling streets', in 1962 and many European cities have very successfully followed s uit. We seem to have an obsession in the UK that if we stop the car then our city centres will die as retailers' takings plummet. Why would it happen in the UK when this hasn’t happened in near-Europe? And anyway, if it did deter those stupid enough to put access to cars ahead of liveability in our city centres, then let them go to the Trafford Centre and Bluewater to buy their mass-produced brands, and let our city centres recover from being 'clone towns' and allow small start-ups to 'experiment'. In 1980 we were able to 'experiment' and start our old company Red or Dead in Kensington Market on Kensington High Street for a rent of £18 per week … Kensington Market closed long ago, to be replaced by a succession of faceless chains.


And it's not just those kooky Scandinavians and those cycling-crazy Dutch who have learned how to marry financial success, liveability and environmental thinking. Melbourne and to a lesser extent Perth have reversed their Americanisation and created vibrant, successful, upwardly mobile cities that are a joy to walk, run and cycle around.


Vancouver is a city that regularly tops the league tables on liveability. In the early 90s Vancouver’s planners embarked on a policy to reverse the trend of suburbanisation around a one-dimensional centre by designing liveability into the city centre and by creating substantial parks, cycle routes and promenades. The planners pushed hard for a city centre that was inclusive of families that has resulted in almost 50,000 people moving back into the city centre over the past 18 years, supporting a mixed city-centre community (unlike our one-dimensional, transient city-centre populations in our so-called renaissance cities of Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester). Those pesky and committed planners of Vancouver have demanded that all this city-centre family housing has to be within half a mile of a junior school that can be reached on foot, without having to negotiate major traffic junctions, and when it comes to play spaces Vancouver makes our cities look like the one-dimensional shrines to multiple-brand shopping that they have sadly become.


So why can’t we do it here? Is it because we don’t have enough 'pesky and committed planners'? If that pesky and committed Mr Livingstone, who has won the congestion- charge battle, the battle of Trafalgar (Square) and yet is still struggling to make London with its enviable public transport infrastructure a truly pedestrian and cycle-friendly city, then maybe it is up to us to be more active in engendering change.


The government has its plans for a series of Eco Towns: surely we should start these off by designing them for the cyclist and the pedestrian.

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