This is an article I wrote for the Autumn 2015 GMCC newsletter that I thought might be of interest to people who may not have seen it there.
On 16 June this year I finally got round to entering an event that I’d known about for a couple of years but always managed to miss: Bury Clarion’s annual hill-climb challenge. Apart from being a lot of fun (if you like that sort of thing), it was also impressively well attended: this year’s turnout of 79 people was up 12% on last year’s event and a well above a third over 2013, much to the organisers’ delight (and slight dismay at the prospect of a long evening dispatching this unprecedented number of riders up the one-kilometre course at one-minute intervals).
Now, whilst riding a bicycle (or in my case, a tricycle) as fast as you can up a hill in a mini-time trial may not be everyone’s cup of tea, this is indicative of a broader trend. More and more people are (re-)discovering their love of the bicycle and are seeking out events in order to embrace their passion for pedalling. Shortly after the hill-climb event I rode through the Peak District with around 3,000 other riders on more-or-less rickety old bicycles at L’Eroica Britannia; I did a few 13-mile laps on closed roads with some 8,000 riders of all ages and abilities in the Greater Manchester Cycle; in July I cycled through the night from London to the Suffolk coast with an estimated 2,500 similarly romantic souls on the annual Dunwich Dynamo just for the sheer hell of it; and in August I cycled 100 miles on completelyclosed roads in London and Surrey in a field of some 15,000 riders at the Ride London event (selected by random ballot from a colossal 86,000 applicants). So, just counting this selection of five events I personally will have ridden in this season, approximately 28,579 people will have got their rear ends on to a bicycle saddle and gone out for a ride by the end of the summer. Add to that the many other events both in the Greater Manchester region (Skyride Bolton, Manchester to Blackpool; Skyride Manchester and the Manchester 100 to name just a few) and across the country as a whole, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people in the UK will have taken part in at least one cycling event before the year is out.
So what’s this got to with campaigning for better infrastructure? Well, to my mind it is a powerful indicator of a factor that is incredibly difficult to pinpoint, and one that is even harder to convince the powers-that-be of: latent demand, i.e. the number of people who would choose to cycle (more) if only the conditions were safe. What these organised events all have in common is an enhanced feeling of safety when you ride in them, be that by closing the roads (Skyrides, GM Cycle) or the safety-in-numbers effect due to the sheer volume of riders (Dunwich Dynamo, L’Eroica, Manchester-Blackpool). Which is why people like them. And, conversely, it’s why cycling-as-transport levels outside such events are so woefully low. For many people, mixing with motor traffic on the open road simply feels too dangerous, which perpetuates an all-too familiar vicious circle. Time and again we hear the argument that there simply aren’t enough cycle commuters to justify lavish outlay on top-quality cycling provision. In an unhelpful inversion of the “build it and they will come” philosophy successfully adopted by cities around the world that have overhauled their transport networks, many UK planners and politicians are mired in a mindset of “come and we will build it”. Get more people cycling and we’ll think about catering for you.
Well, I’ve got news for you: we’re already here, you’re just looking in the wrong place. If your only measure of cycling demand is derived from observing traffic flows along one of Manchester’s busy arterial routes, of course you will consider cycling to be the preserve of a tiny group of battle-hardened commuters struggling to hold their own in an eternal stream of fast-moving motor vehicles. However, stand at the start line of a mass cycling event and you get a very different picture: a lot of people really like riding bicycles, especially when they feel protected from motorised traffic. That’s your demand right there: the thousands upon thousands of people who will only get on a bike when they feel safe – and in some cases they are even willing to pay for the privilege.
I would therefore argue that the success of events like Skyride is not something we should be proud of, it should be a source of deep shame. We live in a city of almost permanent gridlock, its air thick with vehicle fumes, and barely a day goes by without a news story about the obesity/inactivity epidemic. Yet at the same time we have marginalised the most reliable, most enjoyable, cleanest, healthiest, most efficient form of urban transport to such a degree that the majority of the population will only countenance using it on designated days when motor vehicles are routed elsewhere. We need to keep hold of a vision where the experience of riding safely in a flurry of people on bikes can be an everyday occurrence – after all, it is in many other European cities, and there is much political capital to be exploited by a bold, visionary politician willing to grasp the nettle and face up to the vested interests, the shouty media and public indifference. There are few easy answers to the woes of modern day society, yet the bicycle is a very simple and elegant solution to a raft of very complex issues. Organised cycling events show us that there are a lot of people who would love to cycle more. And more cycling benefits everyone, whether you ride a bike yourself or not.