AC Buzz

The Rebirth of Cycling in England

1950: In the university city of Oxford everybody cycles to work. Photograph: George Pickow/Getty Images(By Carlton Reid) Britain once had a strong cycling culture. It faded. People voted with their wallets and their feet and swapped two wheels for four. The Netherlands, famously, was able to reduce the monochrome encroachment of car culture by also building for people on bicycles.

It helped that the Netherlands was already the top cycling nation in the world by 1911 – the Dutch simply never lost their love for the bicycle.

The installation of the exemplary infrastructure from the mid-1970s onwards was enabled thanks to this national identification with a form of transportation that, for the Dutch, has always been egalitarian and normal but became maligned – and ignored – in much of the rest of the world.

In car-centric Britain planners assumed that cycling was teetering on the edge of extinction, and by omission they would do all they could to hasten this demise. Civil engineer and planner Professor Colin Buchanan wrote a highly-influential 1963 transport report for the government which recommended that nothing be done at all to encourage urban cycling. Buchanan’s Traffic in Towns was used by town planners to bulldoze motorways through British cities.

Leeds, Birmingham, Newcastle and – to a lesser extent – London were brutalised by planners who cherrypicked from Traffic in Towns to build only for motorists. “There [should be] an allocation of movements to pedal cycles,” wrote Professor Buchanan, projecting 47 years in the future, “but it must be admitted that it is a moot point how many cyclists there will be in 2010.”

For Buchanan, providing infrastructure for cyclists was unthinkable: “ … cyclists should not be admitted to primary networks, for obvious reasons of safety and the free flow of vehicular traffic. It would make the design of these roads far too complicated to build ‘cycle tracks’ into them … It would be very expensive, and probably impracticable, to build a completely separate system of tracks for cyclists.”

To be fair to Buchanan and his ilk they were going with the flow. Sales of new cycles had been dropping since the 1950s and reached an all-time low of less than 200,000 by the end of the 1960s (today, 2.5m bicycles are sold each year).

 Made for cars: the Old Market Roundabout in Bristol, England. Photograph: Alamy

Yet something strange happened in 1970 – bicycling bounced back, first in America and then in Britain. Sales of bicycles in America in 1970 doubled almost overnight. Sales in Britain quadrupled in just a few short years. Between 1970 and 1973 there was a blossoming of bicycle culture in America and Britain. The much-loved Richard’s Bicycle Book by the late Richard Ballantine was first published in 1972, joining other pedal-popularising books that seemed to herald bicycling’s new dawn.

Traffic in Towns had been a Penguin bestseller in 1964, selling hundreds of thousands; Richard’s Bicycle Book sold in its millions. Over in the Netherlands the Opec oil crisis of 1973 fuelled a renewed demand for people-powered transport. For a few short months in America and Britain the calls to cull motor car journeys were taken very seriously. After the lifting of the oil embargo the Netherlands carried on designing for bicycles, but car-curbing plans were dropped in America and Britain.

A woman talks on phone while cycling in Amsterdam, a city known for its dedicated bike lanes and the best cycling infrastructure in the world. Photograph: AlamyThe rest, as they say is history, and the divergence between the Netherlands and the rest of the world has led to a gap that will take many years to bridge, if ever the political will could be found. But this ignores the fact that some major global cities outside of the Netherlands did design for bicycles, even in the Dark Ages of Car Culture. Montreal, for instance.

Montreal may only be 11th in the Copenhagenize Report’s index of best cycling cities but it’s one of just four non-European cities to make it into the top 20. It’s also where bike share schemes really took off. The city-owned Bixi bike share scheme was the model for Velib in Paris and Santander Cycles in London. In fact, London’s “Boris” bikes were supplied by Bixi and they are exact facsimiles of the muscular machines first used in Montreal.

Montreal became bicycle-friendly because of people power. A bicycle advocacy group was founded in April 1975 and many of the campaign tactics it employed are still used by advocacy groups around the world today. The first cyclist lie down protest (a leaflet, using black humour, urged “Come die-in with me”) was first used by Montreal’s Le Monde à Bicyclette. This middle-class anarchist-leaning advocacy group was successful in persuading the left-leaning politicians of Montreal to provide for bicycles.

Today, Montreal has 373 miles of bicycle paths, including a two-mile kerb-protected cycle path on De Maisonneuve Boulevard through downtown Montreal. This was built in 2007, replacing a car lane, and was named for Claire Morissette who died in the same year. She was one of the co-founders of Le Monde à Bicyclette (MAB). She was the creative brains of the organisation, said co-founder Robert Silverman. “Bicycle Bob” is now 82, partially blind so not able to cycle any more but he’s still passionate about what he and Morissette were able to achieve as the leaders of MAB. Despite being salaried workers for the organisation they wound it up in 1998. “We’d achieved all our aims,” Silverman told me, “there was nothing else to campaign for.” (It has since been revived.)

 Bicycle path in Montreal, Canada. Photograph: Alamy

I was interviewing Silverman for a book I’m writing. Bike Boom is raising funds – and offering first edition rewards – on Kickstarter right now. I’m interviewing as many of the 1970s cycle advocates as possible. They kept the flame alive and we should recognise that these early cycle advocates didn’t fail. It’s not their fault today we don’t have wall-to-wall Dutch-style cycle infrastructure, that’s the fault of car-centrism…

Source: The Guardian.

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