Are we a 'Great Cycling Nation?'
'A Great Cycling Nation.'
This is what the Transport Secretary Grant Schapps described the UK in May 2020.
At the time, Mr Schapps' comments appeared to accurately portray the country. In Spring-Summer 2020, when the roads were empty during the early days of the pandemic and the bike industry was going through an unprecedented period of sales, it was easy for Boris Johnson to say a 'Golden Age of Cycling' had been well and truly ushered in.
Almost two years has passed since that time, but has the promising picture painted by Mr. Schapps and Johnson changed? To assess this requires a deep dive into the state of British cycling in 2022.
The most obvious difference from 2020 is that the roads are now back to their pre-pandemic levels of busyness, and cycling has somewhat returned to the frantic experience of old - vehicles habitually forcing cyclists into the gutter, dangerously overtaking, driving erratically, swearing at the drop of a hat: this has always been accepted as the lot of British cyclists.
Indeed, the figures for road casualties amongst cyclists (and pedestrians) speak volumes for how dangerous the roads are if you are not surrounded by metal, and it is apparent that the pandemic has made the situation worse. Recently the Department for Transport released figures detailing that 4,290 pedestrians and 4,700 cyclists were killed or seriously injured on Britain’s roads in 2020-2021 (meanwhile 89 cyclists lost their lives on rural roads in 2020, compared with 60 the previous year.)
This has been compounded by the dreadful state of British roads, which, thanks to austerity, are in desperate need of repairs - according to the RAC, 6% of B and C roads in the UK are in such need - a proportion that has remained the same for the past five years. This is bad for cars, but even worse and potentially fatal for cyclists. Moreover, less than one percent of British roads have cycle lanes.
Last year, hopes were raised when £2bn was promised for the promotion of cycling and active travel, and temporary cycle lanes were being installed across the country - it seemed then that this was a genuine priority of the government. However, since then, some of these cycle lanes have disappeared thanks to 'bikelash' and there is still little progress on cycling infrastructure. Comparatively, £27bn was put towards roadbuilding in the 2020 budget.
The problem is that cycling infrastructure is still seen as auxiliary - a faint gesture towards a greener and healthier country. Is this what constitutes a “great cycling nation?” Hardly.
Consistent investment in cycling infrastructure would make it one though. Taking the example of Netherlands, where cycling isn’t the preferred activity for millions because it is a flat country but because the Dutch government spends £22 per person, a year, on cycling - 15 times the amount spent in England - there are 35,000km (21,750 miles) of fully separated cycle lanes.
The ultimate takeaway is that we need more people on bikes, for environmental, social and public health reasons, but this won't happen miraculously of its own accord - certainly not with the weak gestures produced so far - not until Government takes cycling seriously and backs it to the hilt.