Britain is on the verge of a cycling revolution as the Government seeks to cut pollution and congestion by encouraging people to switch from four wheels to two. As part of its aim of delivering an integrated transport policy, the Government has set a target of doubling cycle use by 2002 and doubling it again by 2012.
Last year's Transport White Paper underpins this aim, reinforcing the National Cycling Strategy launched in 1996. The White Paper urges local authorities to include pro-cycling measures in their local transport plans when bidding for funds. Measures can include:
Reviews of existing roads and audits for proposed schemes to determine whether they can be made more cycle friendly.
Reallocating road space as cycle lanes.
Introducing priority signalling for cyclists at junctions and roundabouts.
Lower speed limits and traffic calming measures.
Better cycle lane maintenance.
Using planning powers to encourage developers to include cycling facilities in their projects.
Since then the Government has put its money where its mouth is. December's Local Transport Settlement rewarded councils who had included
pro-cycling measures in their funding bids.
But there is still a long way to go. The British are a mass of contradictions when it comes to cycling. Over the last few years bicycle sales have risen consistently, but the number of people taking to the road on two wheels is in decline.
In 1970 bicycle sales were running at 600,000 a year. In the 1990s sales have been more like 2.3M or 2.4M a year. Paradoxically, average distances travelled by bike each year have fallen from 82km in 1975/76 to 61km in 1994/96 according to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.
It would seem that many of us have good intentions to switch from car to bike for some journeys at least, but we never get around to making the change.
Much has to do with cycling's poor image. 'Isn't it dangerous?' is a question often thrown at those who regularly travel on two wheels.
To some extent these fears are justified. Government road accident figures show cycling casualties have risen by around 24% over the last 15 years, despite the decline in kilometres travelled.
But while cycling carries an undeniable risk, the chances of being involved in an accident are still relatively slim. 'Despite the evident grounds for concern about cycling safety and the need to improve it, a fatal accident occurs only once every 17M cycle kilometres and a serious injury only once every 300,000 cycle/ km on public roads,' says research body TRL's recently published document Achieving the aims of the national cycling strategy. Clearly these are distances which even the most committed lycra- clad cyclists are unlikely to achieve in the average lifetime.
Despite the low risk of cycling accidents, the Government and local authorities still need to overcome entrenched safety fears. Cyclists have to concentrate on avoiding cars, lorries, buses and stray pedestrians. This would perhaps be an easier task if they didn't also have to keep an eye out for hazards such as pot holes, poorly reinstated roads, slippery surfacing, puddles caused by bad drainage, debris and even ridges created by re-painted road markings.
Such defects in road surfaces have come in for heavy criticism in the Institute of Highways & Transportation's recent document, Cycle friendly infrastructure: guidelines for planning and design.
The report says poor or inconsiderate road construction and maintenance is a major reason why some consider cycling too risky. It claims: 'Relatively minor defects in road or cycle track surfaces can be a real safety hazard for cyclists, whereas for motorists they may be merely an inconvenience.'
To counter this the Institute has produced its own guidance on the development of cycle friendly infrastructure which includes recommendations on road surfaces, drainage and maintenance.
One problem with existing facilities is that local authorities sometimes build cycle routes and then neglect them. 'There is a need for local authorities to prioritise cycle route networks for maintenance,' says Stuart Reid, campaigns and policy manager of cycle group CTC. He says roads on cycle routes should also be prioritised for de-icing in frost.
Some local authorities also appear to have inadvertently created extra hazards for cyclists with traffic calming measures like chicanes. Chicanes are a popular way of slowing traffic down, but many are poorly designed, reducing the amount of space available to overtake cyclists. Impatient motorists often ignore this and squeeze past anyway, leaving cyclists to wobble in their wake.
Road surface materials can also make cycling difficult or dangerous. Some towns have done a lot to exclude motor vehicles from central shopping areas, but in the process have made life difficult for cyclists. Restoring old fashioned cobble stones may improve the look of town centres, but they are incredibly uncomfortable to ride on and become slippery when wet.
Ironically the perception that cycling is dangerous has led to some local authorities ignoring it altogether. TRL research shows that in 1997 only half of England's 62 local authorities considered cyclists when designing calming schemes aimed at reducing motor traffic.
Transport 2000 assistant director Lynne Sloman says this could be because many councils have trouble reconciling the need to encourage cycling with Government targets for reducing road accidents. She says councils are sometimes frightened to improve cycling facilities in case it results in higher accident levels.
Some councils have already started to address this problem by designing traffic calming measures with cyclists in mind. In Kent one local authority has narrowed the main carriageway and introduced a cycle lane which is cushioned from the traffic by hatched markings intermittently reinforced by small traffic islands. This segregates road space reallocated to bikes from the rest of the traffic and keeps motor vehicle speeds in check.
Cities like York have also managed to increase cycle use by incorporating pro-cycling measures into their transport plans. An extensive cycling network has been introduced and a Safe Routes to Schools initiative is being pioneered.
But safety fears are not the only barrier to cycling. Many poeple are put off because there is nowhere to lock up bikes. Others are discouraged because many employers and public buildings fail to provide shower and change facilities - a problem during hot or wet weather.
Tackling these issues on their own could help the Government achieve its targets for higher cycling use according to TRL. Its research indicates that 'around 20% of people would be willing to cycle to work if conditions were improved. Even if this is a little optimistic, it seems reasonable to conclude ... that a doubling of cycle commuting by the year 2002 and quadrupling by the year 2012 would be possible.'