How can Britain become a ‘great cycling nation’ when cycling is so scary? | Adam becket
There’s a pothole on Bristol Road just north of Nailsea in northern Somerset which I cycled around at around 30mph in June. He casually detonated my two tires; somehow I managed to slip, on my two flats, to a stop. It’s at times like this that your vulnerability as a cyclist becomes evident, and you realize how little there is between you and death: a bit of plastic on your head, a bit of Lycra, your intelligence and skill on the bike.
Britain’s roads are in dire condition because of austerity. According to the RAC, 6% of B and C roads are in need of repair, a proportion that has remained the same over the past five years. It’s bad for cars, but even worse for cyclists riding in the gutter.
One thing that you learn quickly while riding, as I have been doing for over 300 hours this year, is that you have to be careful. Vehicles can appear at any time and will do anything. I was pushed into hedges by two-ton SUVs, nearly boned by hatchbacks, forced to die with death on narrow cycle lanes. It is quite simply accepted that this is what cycling is: taking charge of your life every time you get in the saddle.
I haven’t always been a cyclist with a capital C. I used my bike to go to school, to get to work in London, just to get around. Everything has changed thanks to the pandemic. Suddenly I had nothing more to do and seemingly endless time to explore new places on my bike.
I discovered that cycling was not just something to occupy my time, or even just to keep me in shape; it has benefited my mental health immensely. Last year I cycled 4,039 miles around Southampton, then Bristol; this year i hit 5,000 miles, mostly in the southwest. I’ve been to Wales, Cheddar Gorge and the New Forest on my steed. It really is the best way to explore, to understand the geography of a place. Walking the country lanes, almost in harmony with nature, never gets old. The freedom that comes with my bike also opens my mind. It’s no exaggeration to say that I might not have survived the pandemic without her.
As exciting as it can be, road cycling in the UK is still incredibly perilous, and the pandemic has been shown to have made matters worse. New data from the Ministry of Transport showed 89 cyclists lost their lives on rural roads in 2020, up from 60 the year before.
Britain is dominated by the private car – but it doesn’t have to be. Last year, at the height of the first lockdown, Boris Johnson said he would usher in a ‘golden age’ for cycling: £ 2bn has been pledged, of which £ 250m is part of an “active travel” emergency fund to be used by municipalities to build “a protected area for cycling”. Cycling was so much more enjoyable during those beautiful days of spring and summer 2020, when cycle lanes were temporarily set up on largely deserted roads and active commuting seemed to be a real priority.
By comparison, however, £ 27bn was spent on road construction in the 2020 budget, which includes 50 projects, from a tunnel on the A303 near Stonehenge to a Thames underpass connecting Kent and Essex. While this investment has been revised thanks to the pandemic, it is clear where the Conservative government’s priorities lie.
The truth is, cycling infrastructure is still seen as something to be built on. It is a symbolic gesture towards a greener and healthier country; often as weak as a bicycle painted white on asphalt. These designs offer surprisingly little protection against the roar of the SUV in front of you at 60 mph. I’ve lost track of how many times a driver has attacked me for holding them back or for not stopping – just for having existed. It’s all too common for someone to pass me so close that I wobble, and all I can do is scream curses in the wind. Cyclists are forced to share road space with everyone, and are then mistreated, intimidated and even spat on – as I have been three times this year – just for having the temerity to precariously occupy a tiny part of this shared space.
How can we become a “great cycling nation” as Grant Shapps said in May 2020 when it is so scary to ride a bicycle? It’s fine for me to pontificate on all the benefits of cycling, but without the right arrangements to ride safely, many will never try it. Cycling is not the favorite activity of millions of people in the Netherlands because it is a flat country: it is because there has been constant investment in infrastructure there. According to the 2018 Building the Cycling City book, the Dutch government spends £ 22 per person per year on cycling – 15 times the amount spent in England. The Netherlands has 35,000 km (21,750 miles) of fully separate cycle paths – an infrastructure that separates the motor vehicle from the bicycle, and both from pedestrians at the same time.
We need more people on our bikes. In the interest of the environment, of course, but also in the interest of public health. My pedaling addiction isn’t going to ease anytime soon – I’m addicted now – but cycling needs to be taken seriously if we are to create a better world. Biking is an empowering machine, and it should be safe for everyone to use one on our roads.