Get on yer bike

I would have liked to ride my bike to the 2012 Ashden Awards held at the Royal Geographical Society in London. But I live in east London and knew that I would have to wade through a lot of car-filled traffic jams on the way, and decided against it. How many people make similar decisions each day for the same reason?

Tebbit’s statement “Get on yer bike”, which is admittedly overused and actually incorrectly quoted, (see note below) is all fine and well, but, more timid bikers like me will avoid longer rides across the city until some major changes are made so that I don’t have to continuously wind my way through traffic jams.

Boris’ bikes are an important step in the right direction for getting more people on two wheels in London. But it seems that the city still has a lot to learn from the City of Ghent, Belgium, on its active support for cycling, which I recently found out more about at the Ashden Awards.

A rich city during the Middle Ages, by the early 90’s the city faced a falling population and high levels of traffic congestion. A bicycle plan was launched in 1993, and a mobility plan in 1997 included the introduction of a car-free city centre. The results: 19% of commutes in Ghent are on bikes, compared to 12% in 2001. A 2009 survey showed that car use was down by 2% since 2006.

So, how did this change come about I asked Peter Vansevenant, a representative of the city.

1. Political support. Politicians view continued support to biking as essential to their electoral prospects, said Vansevenant. The city’s government subsidises 7,500 rental bikes through its student cycle scheme. University of Ghent students can buy them, due to such subsidies, at “giveaway” prices. And they can even fix their bikes with free advice and support at local bike shops.

2. Cycling infrastructure. “To convince parents to bike with their children we needed segregated bike paths,” Vansevenant said. Separate bike paths, bridges and underpasses ensure biking is “conflict free”. Where this wasn’t possible, the bike rules. For example, a red cycle path in Ghent gave priority to cyclists over cars, which aren’t permitted to overtake bikes on that road. And in some areas cars can only drive slowly, at 20 km.

3. Safe and convenient bike parking spaces

The project has found that theft is an issue at railways, for example, where the bikes are left for longer periods of time. Belgium railways are currently in the process of building indoor facilities for 10,000 bikes to keep them housed more safely.

4. Cycle campaigns promoting the idea of biking as fun have played an important role in ingraining a “cycle culture” in the city. The city has developed  postcards of cool-looking cyclists photographed randomly around the city dressed in their everyday clothes. One woman in the postcard hangs over her handlebars with a bunch of flowers sitting in her front basket. There’s not a stitch of lycra in sight.

He said a similar mind set shift would be necessary for biking to be seriously adopted in many cities in developing countries. His message for them: “Bikes are a smart choice and not a poor man’s vehicle.”

The City of Ghent bike plan originally experienced opposition from shopkeepers worried about losing business. “But we made the streets real public spaces where people can meet, and now business is flourishing  – the number of restaurants and tourism has increased.” Unsurprisingly, he hasn’t heard any recent complaints from any shopkeepers.

While such changes, especially in terms of infrastructure, seem ambitious – even unachievable – perhaps we need to be bolder in our approach. Joanna Yarrow, Founding Director of Beyond Green, said: “If you’re going to achieve sustainability, you need to tackle it from every angle.” She urged everyone to “Raise people’s sights” by citing examples of green cities of the world, such as Copenhagen and Vancouver.

Megacities on the move, a project by Forum for the Future, set out to explore options for ‘sustainable urban mobility.’ This audio slide show takes you through some interesting, and bold, options.

Having spent a few days in London, what did Vansevenant think of cycling in London? “Quite a lot of cyclists in London are cycling among heavy traffic and I don’t think they’re enjoying themselves.” Quite. Boris, are you listening?

Note: Tebbit never actually said the words “Get on yer bike”, but he implied it. “I grew up in the ’30s with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking ’til he found it.”