Councils all over the UK are facing up to the prospect of increasing pedestrian and cycling provision, but with different degrees of success. The UK Government has offered millions to help achieve this, but many councils seem to be very slow in putting any real infrastructure plans into action. With the prospect of changing from a car dominated road system there are always detractors. You don’t need to spend more than a few moments on social media, such as Twitter and localised Facebook groups, to find complaints about possibly ideas that have been put forward. It really can be quite depressing. Local and national media also take delight in stoking the fire of (alleged) hatred between different road user groups, but is this hatred real or it is blown out of proportion?
As someone who avidly campaigns on cycling related issues, the vitriol to which cyclists are often treated no longer shocks, angers, or actually negatively effects me anymore. Fuel on the fire works both ways; sometimes it puts you off, sometimes it spurs you on. But one thing I am beginning to notice is that it’s only the same few, albeit very loud, critics who seem to be doing most of the shouting.
It would appear, and this has recently been back up by wider studies, that the vast majority of people have been enjoying a world with a few less cars, a bit more walking, for some a bit of cycling, and of course having the open spaces to do that. There is proof now that the silent majority support increasing spaces for people, and active transport. The Government is even talking about prescribing cycling to work, or similar exercise, as a way of tackling the UK’s ever growing obesity crisis, something that already puts a significant strain on the NHS.
Sure, the quiet majority don’t want to give up their cars completely, and nobody is suggesting they do, but they are confirming that they have enjoyed getting out into the ‘fresh’ air without the constant smell of car fumes. They like the idea of dining or just sitting outside a cafe, and watching the world go by. They like the idea of multigenerational families being able to enjoy time out and about together walking, or cycling, in safety. As annoying as it might be to the minority that find the idea of a non-car prioritised society abhorrent, the will to change isn’t just coming, it’s already here. But the powers that be, especially local government, needs to acknowledge this, seize the momentum, and rise to the challenge. The anti’ lobby is very noisy, in spite of its size.
A recent poll (June 2020) concluded that over 70% of Londoners supported temporary road closures, and the removal of car parking, to accommodate space for walking, cycling and sitting outside.
Although in the same poll, almost a third of the respondents said they would expect to use their cars more in the future because they did not want to be exposed to the Covid-19 risks associated with public transport. They didn’t see any other options but to revert to using cars, and one of the reasons for this was that they did not feel safe cycling, and sometimes walking, for a number of reasons. Perceived threats to our safety are one of the most action limiting problems that active travel campaigners have to deal with.
It is a sad state of affairs when people feel they have no options, and the daftest thing is that if we increase the provision to get some people out of their cars, those who still drive will be able to do so with less of the stresses, delays, and congestion that they face at the moment. If you take a look at the changes our European neighbours have put in place, such as in central Paris, there is not only a massive rise in cycling but cafes and businesses are also reporting a huge surge in their financial recovery where these provisions have been made. Europe is grabbing this opportunity but the UK is being the slow and “dirty old man” of Europe again.
As well as campaigning for great localised action from the councils, and nationwide schemes of safe paths for all, we can help those that want to give cycling a try find groups that will help them get confident enough to tackle the current system, as deeply floored as it is. This is where Bikeability, WeAreCyclingUK (formerly the CTC), and Breeze rides come in.
No matter how much we want long term safe and ideally segregated provisions, a lot of councils simply don’t believe the demand is really there. Perhaps we can persuade them with our shear numbers – ie. Council Tax payers on bicycles, just being seen in the community as well as writing to their local Councillors and MPs (and MSPs etc. Where applicable).
If we see more people cycling, then more people will consider it a valid form of transportation. It is always good to see people on bicycles on the roads, but also as shoppers, cafe clientele, restaurant goers, etc. If we use our local business, and access them from our bicycles, then we will change attitudes. We all need to show the detractors that they are wrong and that there is not just a need for change, but a desire. The pound is still mighty when it comes to a lot of decisions, and a lot of opinions. We can vote with our purses and wallets.
Covid-19 isn’t going away any time soon, and all respiratory illnesses are made considerably worse by poor air quality. Reducing car use for short journeys lowers congestion and improves air quality. Cycling and walking are great forms of easy and cheap exercise, and this improves our health, mentally and physically, and helps us to keep our weight managed. All of these things take the strain off the NHS.
There has never been a better time to make a real concerted change for the better than we have now, and it’s a time that is fast running out.