Our Cycling Correspondent Nick Hellen wants more support for bike-riding commuters and suggests we look to Amsterdam for inspiration.
The broadcaster Jeremy Vine – who shuttles between studios on a Brompton bike- recently urged the BBC to rename its Radio 2 Drivetime show because it promotes a form of transport which has made us “asthmatic, fat and angry”.
He put it in stark terms : “Our addiction to the motor vehicle has made our cities traffic sewers. The programme needs a different name for post-car Britain.”
Might he have a point? After all, we’ve tried to tackle sexism, racism and other forms of prejudice and unconscious bias by changing our language. Maybe a neutral phrase (Commuter-time? Time-to-go-home-time?) could nudge us into copying our Dutch neighbours and hop on a bike instead of grabbing the car keys?
Vine is one of the country’s most high profile cycling commuters, but it is hard to imagine that his hair-raising dispatches about the dangers of setting off on two wheels win over many neutrals to the joys of pedalling.
As he doggedly weaves his way to work through crowded streets, he claims he witnesses 30-40 risky incidents each day and that some cyclists feel under so much threat that they get into a “battlefield mentality”.
He himself became embroiled in one road rage incident which ended up in court amidst accusations- which were denied- that a woman driver made gun signs at him.
Although she was jailed, the episode probably made many of us decide that, of all the petty niggles of modern life, driving home from work is something which beats the alternative. (Any takers for Drive-by-shooting-time? I thought not.)
There’s more to this than the usual tribal skirmishes between motorists and the rest. Among cyclists there is an anxious feeling that we have failed to seize our moment and that support is now ebbing away. It may be that cycling really is the answer to our health and environmental problems – yet could be doomed to remain a minority activity.
Consider this. We have urban bike schemes and dedicated cycle super highways yet official government figures show that the average person cycled on 16% fewer occasions than ten years ago.
For the first time in history our professional riders hold all three of the Grand Tour road race titles. The Tour de France was won by the popular Geraint Thomas, the Giro d’Italia by Chris Froome and the Vuelta a España by the young talent Simon Yates. Yet in Britain the culture remains hostile to the amateur road racer.
There were high hopes for a new event called Velo South, a 100 mile ride on closed roads starting out from the Goodwood, the Sussex home of car rallying and due to take place in September. But it was buffeted by legal challenges from protestors who insisted that the roads should be kept open for cars. It was eventually abandoned not because of court action but because of that other enemy of cycling- Britain’s bad weather.
Modern-day cyclists are, by and large, an affluent bunch- unlike their grandparents in the 1950s who rode on two wheels because they couldn’t afford a car. Yet retailers are struggling. While we splash out on carbon frames and fancy gizmos, here in south west London, local bike shops have had a torrid year with many forced to shut. Even the historic Evans Cycles chain, founded in 1921, came a cropper and is now being absorbed into the retail empire of the Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley.
Britain may be on the brink of a post-car future and many of us agree with Jeremy Vine that bikes should play a bigger part in that. But we need to be honest: a lot needs to be done to make cycling more attractive before it can truly provide an alternative. Until then, Drivetime radio shows are here to stay.