Cycling has become my way of getting some sport into part pf my working day. But I am still in the minority. Why are we being so slow in at making our towns and cities more cycleable and walkable? We keep being told about a British obesity crisis, many of our cities roads are clogged up 7 days a week, car exhausts are blamed as a major contributor to breathing related afflictions, the race for oil is littered with turmoil, 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 cant blame the weather, as our more northerly European neighbours have grasped cycling. In most cases we cant blame the topography, especially as the Swiss are increasingly taking to bikes. We cant blame availability cost, the market is very competitive and cycling shops have opened all over the place.
So what is it? We’re lazy, selfish, half-hearted, obsessed with celebrity (you cant 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 bus and trains never let us down and where we can cycle two abreast and not come into conflict with pedestrians and where we get traffic lights that give us preference. Were happy to take a winter break in Copenhagen, cycle west, north, east and south in temperatures that are about 5 degrees colder than London.
Copenhagen introduced pedestrian streets, Strogets, literally ”strolling streets” in 1962 and many European cities have very successfully followed suit. 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 by 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 its not just those kooky Scandinavians and those cycling crazy Dutch who have learnt how to marry financial success, liveability and environmental thinking. Melbourne and to a lesser extend 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 90’s 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 for families resulting in almost 50, 000 people moving back into the city centre in the past 18 years resulting in 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 walking, without have 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 being designed for the cyclist and the pedestrian.