Monday, June 6, 2011

cycling–for the strange

Weds/Thurs 1st & 2nd, June: I have been out on my bike this week honest. Various meetings and the like stopped me from working at home so much and I took to the streets on my bike.  Normally I try to leave plenty of time and cycle in reasonably smart clothes to work-type meetings. I love cycling and there are times when I will wear Lycra for comfort on long-distance, although I think I prefer MTB shorts for comfort and practicality really. But cycling in normal clothes is a perfectly reasonable, especially here in the Flatlands where we don’t get a lot of rain (May rainfall, April rainfall- the blip on the 27th of May might also be an inaccuracy).

So for getting around the congested streets of Cambridge (or many other towns for that matter) what could be better. We even have a fair bit of cycle parking available, although there are one of two companies, that I won’t name, that seem not to have cycle parking, at least for visitors. So cycling is cheap (running costs and parking costs), less prone to problems with traffic jams and you can often park closer to your intended destination.

However depending on how it is reported, a recent major academic study looking into why people do or don’t cycle in four English towns has thrown up some interesting issues. As you might expect the Daily Mail has the more extreme headline “Riding bikes is for children and the strange…”. Whilst the Guardian has the more restrained “Britons unmoved by pro-cycling campaigns” along with an article “Universal bike lanes: the only way to mass cycling?”

Why does this matter, well I would imagine that the way spending cuts has hit public transport has created a political hot potato and in my opinion further increase social inequality. The obesity epidemic and the growing health costs associated with it. On the other hand apparently the “Cost of running a car have jumped by 20% in just one year”, fuelled by a increase in, well fuel and insurance. Parking space is also getting scarcer in cities. In Cambridge some parts of the city require parking permits for residents to park in the streets and those permits can apparently be oversold with three permits for every two car parking slots.

So all in all a few bob spent getting people to switch from cars to bikes sounds like a cheap way forward. Although it doesn’t sound it, cheap that is, apparently the coalition has set aside more then £500m to get us to switch to cycling.  The overall national figure for journeys by bike is around 2% compared with the Netherlands of more than 25%. However in the context of the costs of building a motorway the costs are now around £28 million per mile (pdf) and the M25 road widening of a 22 mile stretch are expected to cost £4+ billion (30 year PFI contract). The trouble is a study in the US suggests that “Building More Roads Only Causes More Traffic”.

The study concluded that even training the young to ride safely achieves little while road conditions remain to unfriendly.  Which leads to the conclusion we need universal bike lanes which are respected as such unlike those in the link. Which highlights the other issue, motorists and cyclists do not treat each other with respect. Only this morning I was cycling along the road and a mobility scooter was coming the other way, two very impatient car drivers shot past him forcing me into the kerb.

My own view is that we need more cycle lanes, we also need better ways of teleworking. The link suggests that some employers, such as BT has 15,000 homeworkers out of a total of 92,000 employees and it saves around £6,000 per employee. Think of how much commuting time could be saved and how it would free the streets for those that had to commute to work. The ONS has some almost useful statistics on the commute times of workers. Assuming total employment was around 20 million in 2009 then I estimate that it adds up to around 2,000 working person years lost per year. (But of course I could be wrong.)

The good news for the “Strange” is that a study by the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands indicated that people who switch from driving to cycling gain between 3 and 14 months in life expectancy but lose 0.8  to 40 days due to air pollution and 5-9 days due to traffic pollution.

After my couple of days cycling around Cambridge for work I have learnt several things. There are too many narrow cycle paths, which are terrible when it comes to cycling against the tidal flow – there just isn’t enough room, is dangerous and slows you down.  Which when I saw this Yehuda Moon cartoon made me chuckle at y own grumpiness.  Despite all the yelping by pedestrians about cyclists jumping red lights and not using their bells pedestrians (in Cambridge) can be just as bad.  Cycling down Regent Street, from the Hills Road direction, bicycles can, when the lights permit turn right onto Downing Street. There is a small bike lane. Try it at around 5.30 on a bicycle and you just get swarms of people crossing despite frantic tinging on my bell.

Similarly when heading out along Regent Street towards Park Terrace in order to turn down Park Terrace pedestrians get quite cross when you ting as they swarm across the road.

I did come across a policeman walking in the cycle lane alongside Park Terrace, who when he saw me apologised for being in the cycle lane and of course I said thank you – there is nothing like a bit of courtesy.


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