Don't Sidetrack the Cyclist
by Patrick Field

British cycle advocates often reflect wistfully on the facilities for, and attitudes to, cycle travel found in the countries of Northern Europe -- the utopias of which we dream. But some riders from those places actually prefer British conditions.

When the threat of mass-motorisation began to loom large in the 1930s, British cyclists, resolute in defending their right to use the highway, were hostile to the idea of segregated 'cycle tracks'. In Northern Europe a guaranteed status for cyclists evolved, a status different to and often less privileged then that of the motorised traveller. In Britain, where there is no such guarantee, the cycle traveller can, given skill and confidence, claim all the rights of a vehicle on the highway. In the 'cycle-friendly' nations of Europe conditions are much better for the less experience or less determined cyclist, but 'vehicular cycling' is sometimes less easy.

In the suburbs of Berlin you will find unaccompanied 12-year-olds on the city's comprehensive network of cycle tracks. These paths usually share the pavement, are narrow, have poor sightlines, and are often blocked by building sites or roadworks. The capable adult cyclist can travel more quickly, with greater safety and less effort, on the highway. Some motorists don't like this, and rather than the tolerance you can win on UK roads, you find a minority of German automobilistas are perversely billigerent toward bike riders who try to share 'their' space on an equal basis. The inappropriateness fo so-called safe cycle routes to the purposeful rider is illustrated by Sustrans' chief engineer, John Grimshaw, who frequently cites people who want to cycle quickly as one of Sustrans' biggest problems.

It's not a choice between quiet routes for cycling and the right to use the highway network that serves all addresses. We want both. In the UK it is very important that conditions for the novice cyclist, and for gentle recreational trips by riders at all levels, improve. We should not allow this to compromise the status of purposeful, vehicular cycling. There will be a globalisation of cycle culture as bicycle travel become the most significant mode of mechanical personal transport. In the UK we have much to learn from nations where cycle travel is more popular, but they can also learn things from us. All roads must be two-way for cycle traffic.


© Patrick Field
Cycling & Mountain Biking Today, December 1995

other stories by P. Field