Wednesday 22 June 2011

Britain's difficult relationship with the bike

Despite a healthy amateur club scene and despite producing a handful of world class cyclists, Britain has not been one of the great cycling nations - unlike France and Belgium, the bicycle has traditionally been viewed here as a toy for younger children (which it is) and a method of transport for teenagers (it's that too) which will be discarded in the natural course of things when the owner reaches seventeen, learns to drive and gets a car instead. We've never had that respect for cycling.

But Britain has gradually has falling in love with the bike over the last decade. Just a few days ago, traffic surveys revealed that bikes now outnumber cars in some of London's busiest commuter streets and flocks of Lycra-clad cyclists can be viewed right around the country. Realising that it's often quicker to get to work by bike than by car has persuaded huge numbers of people to dig out their half-forgotten trusty steeds from the shed, dust it off and get back in the saddle. Ever-increasing fuel prices have convinced others to buy bikes. Then they start to feel the health benefits, and once that happens and your legs become adjusted to cycling, it's only a matter of time before you realise you love to ride your bike.
The modern city bike is light, comfortable, efficient, convenient, virtually maintenance-free and will keep you fit and healthy. On other words, plenty of qualities not usually found in cars and public transport.
The Independent has published figures today showing how bikes are used, by whom and how often. Whilst demonstrating that there are still a lot of people here who don't cycle, they also reveal that a lot of people do - but while there's every reason to believe more will join them, it looks like we've got a way to go before the bike becomes as loved and respected here as it is across the Channel

Interesting figures include the following:

Bike ownership is divided equally between male and female.
44% of households have no bikes (pity for them).
20% have one. 40% of those bikes don't get used.
18% have two.
9% have three.
5% have four.

Southampton and Cardiff are home to the fewest cyclists - just 15% of households own at least one bike. But Southampton loves BMX - 12% of all bikes in the city are BMXs, compared to 5% nationwide. Plymouth is home to many bikes but few cyclists - it doesn't make it into the list of towns and cities with the highest numbers of houses with no bikes, but 52% of those owning bikes don't use them.

However, only 11% of those in Britain who own bikes cycle for 11 or more hours in an average month. Among those who ride their bikes for less than 2 hours per month, 28% say the reason is they don't feel safe in traffic. That rises to 44% in Plymouth - so it looks like Plymouth City Council needs to get its sustainable transport policies sorted. Come on, PCC - your website has a a "Best Performing Council of the Year" logo on it, why is your performance in this area so dismal?

Further east along the south coast, Brighton's Shared Space scheme saw use of motorised transport drop by 93% in New Road. Are you paying attention, Plymouth City Council?
Mountain bikes, despite being heavy and not at all well suited to commuting, are still the most popular style of bike: they account for 45% of bikes in the nation. Men like them more than women, apparently - 53% of male cyclists ride mountain bikes, whereas only 35% of female cyclists opt for them. The Independent puts this down to "the mud factor," but since the vast majority of mountain bikes never come within several metres of mud this seems a bit of an idiotic and even unusually sexist comment for a paper like the Independent. Women aren't afraid of mud, but men are more likely to be attracted to the chunky, macho styling of the mountain bike whereas women tend to have both a better understanding of practicality and egos which do not need to be shored up by chunky tyres and oversized frame tubes so, unless she is a mountain biker, an average woman will opt for a lighter bike more suited to the purposes for which most bikes are used - ie, short trips and recreational jaunts around the local park on a Sunday. On the other hand, it seems to us that these figures are irrelevant anyway because there are mountain bikes and there are bikes that copy mountain bike styling. One is used for mountain biking, a sport which has always had a healthy female following, and will be bought by mountain bikers. The other is used for going to the local shops and park posing and will be bought by people who like the look but who are categorically not mountain bikers and will never go mountain biking. That's an important distinction and it makes a lot of difference.

Folding bikes are not very popular - only 2% of cyclists own them. This is probably because they still suffer image problems dating from those virtually unrideable folding shopper bikes of the 1970s and 1980s which were heavy, poorly designed with awful geometry, had rubbish brakes and tended to rust after a week or two. If more of those people who use bikes for commuting and short trips tried Bromptons - which are fast, practical and very well made indeed - sales for folders would go up immediately.

There are various groups in Britain actively seeking to promote cycling and Boris Johnson, for all his faults, has done an excellent job with his bike hire schemes in the capital. It seems that these efforts are beginning to pay off, which is good news for all of us, but we still have a way to go before the bicycle is as beloved and respected in Britain as it is across the Channel.

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