(LDCUC Pedal Power-Issue 29)
A response from Peter Hopkins
I found John Franklin's letter most interesting. Although I am a volunteer Sustrans Ranger (Birstall-Osgathorpe, NCN Route 6), I must confess that Margaret and I have an ambivalent attitude towards off-road cycle paths. They can be very useful and very enjoyable to ride, but the well-known ones are certainly not always the kind of cyclists' linear havens they are popularly supposed to be. So sometimes we use them; sometimes we avoid them. Why ?
Several years ago I had a letter published in the CTC magazine expressing our disquiet at the lack of any code for cycle path riding. Our experiences over several years on such diverse cycleways as the Tissington Trail, Rutland Water, Great Central Way and Bristol-Bath had led us to keep off routes like these at weekends and during popular holiday periods. It was clear that, merely because they were off the public highway, people felt that this somehow made them inherently safe and that there were therefore no rules and no need to signal: it was Do As You Please. In this respect, families were as guilty as the cowboys, if (thankfully) slower. Time and again we came across parties riding abreast across the full width of the path. Whether we were meeting them head-on or trying to pass them, it was impossible to guess how they would react and which way they would go. Some would wobble in mild panic, never would the whole group pull over to the same side, and many youngsters had a hair-raising tendency to change their minds unpredictably at the last moment, suddenly deciding to switch from riding with dad on the left side to mum on the right.
On the tandem, which of course is not so easy to manoeuvre or quick to stop as a solo, this was very unnerving. At busy times we felt far safer on the ordinary roads: here at least there was a well-established code which was generally followed by all road-users, making their behaviour predictable. Ironically, most of the cycleway families would have a car parked at some access point on the route (the "car-borne leisure journeys" of JF's letter); it was only on the cycle path that discipline was abandoned.
And the wayward cyclists are only part of the problem. Dog walkers' charges, understandably off the lead and darting about in excitement, are almost as great a hazard as the cycle-borne swervers and wobblers.
Then there is the lurching toddler, released from his push-chair because the path is away from the road and therefore 'safe', and the elderly couple who show no sign of having heard your bell. In fact, I have long felt that cyclists and pedestrians do not mix well, whether on a linear path or in a shapeless Market Place (mainly, I think, because there has been no tradition of shared paths until fairly recently and therefore no code of practice). I feel rather guilty when I express this view at cyclists' meetings, because there is often an awkward silence in which people look at me reproachfully, more in sorrow than in anger, as if I'm letting the side down! But few pedestrians, I suspect, are enthusiastic about shared use, especially after a few close shaves with yobboes who ride too fast and have no bells.
The result of all this is our present ambivalence towards popular cycleways. There is, I admit, a strong element of selfishness in our approval of them. Being retired, we enjoy the luxury of being able to choose when to use them, and so for our own safety we simply keep to the ordinary roads whenever special cycle routes are likely to be busy. If you are able to do this, there can be nothing more exhilarating than a quiet, totally traffic-free run around Rutland Water on a bright, wintry Tuesday morning in February or along the Tissington Trail on a weekday in mid-May or June. Riding the same routes at popular times is a stressful experience.
The largely utilitarian cycleways (such as Loughborough-Leicester) are less of a problem, because, not being scenic, they are not promoted as tourist routes, and so do not attract large groups of inexperienced cyclists. Their peak flows tend to be during rush-hours and those riding them generally seem to be regulars who know what they are doing (e.g. they usually keep to the left when it is two-way). So, on these, we greatly appreciate now being able to cycle right into the heart of Leicester, Nottingham and Derby. This is the kind of run Margaret and I had not risked for many years; we can now do it very safely because of the new cycleways.
I therefore believe in the creation of cycleways for both leisure and utility, but feel that it is important to establish a Code of Conduct for them (especially Keep Left), perhaps reinforced with signs. The problem of mixing with pedestrians is a difficulty which won't go away, but it should diminish as people become more used to sharing the same space.
However, I also believe, with John Franklin, that there has been a subtle "promotion of fear". John writes "The message has gone out that roads are just too dangerous for cycling, and that cycling is not possible without special routes." And, as if to confirm this, in the Loughborough Echo of 10.12.99, Editor John Rippin writes It is only traffic-free routes that will persuade people like myself to leave the car at home . . . If the Government was serious about trying to get people out of their cars it would have ensured that every yard of the cycle network was well away from traffic if necessary arranging for the construction of elevated routes. If this second sentence is meant seriously, and we must presume that it is in spite of its manifest impracticality, then John Franklin's apprehension is valid. This kind of attitude to cycle paths is the thin end of a wedge to get cyclists off the public highway altogether, and all cycling organisations, local and national, must unite in resisting it.
GREEN TRANSPORT MYTHS EXPLODED - FROM THE FAMILY WHO EXPOSED YORK (PEDAL POWER NO. 23)
NO.2 RUTLAND WATER
Superficially, Rutland Water is in the forefront of encouraging family cycling. It provides a traffic-free circuit and a cycle centre with an assortment of useful trailers for hire. John and I once passed by when we were a mere cycling couple; but since we have been a family it has become just that bit too far away to be within a single day's range.
However, this year we earmarked Rutland for our Easter Tour. This was only a three-day expedition, on the grounds that discretion is the better part of valour, especially when you have a ten-month-old baby in the party. One day cycling out to the Travelodge at Morcott; one day around the Water; one day home.
We joined Rutland Water at Edith Weston. This was supposedly to avoid the muddiest bit, but what we found was still rough going, muddy and puddled. We progressed at a crawl, to avoid causing Isobel too much discomfort or splashing her with mud. Over the dam we had the choice of muddy gravel path or square cobbled surface. It was debatable which was more unrideable. You could not complain about the scenery, but by Whitwell we had had enough, and bottled out onto the A606 into Oakham.
It seemed to me that far from encouraging family cycle transport, a trip round Rutland Water was more likely to reinforce non-cyclists' prejudices that cycling is hard work, slow, muddy and gives you a bruised bottom. Was it a coincidence that there was a toilet every mile and Sophie and I seemed to need them all?
And so of course cycling as a way of actually getting anywhere is out of the question. Maybe this explains why later, eating ice cream in Oakham, we noted that every other car passing through the town had bikes strapped on it. So if you ask me, does Rutland Water promote green transport, I would reply without hesitation: Quite the reverse!
CAR DEPENDENCY RULES OK - OR DOES IT?
A Report on the April Meeting of the Campaign by Ariadne Tampion
A few of us gathered to watch and discuss a video recording of the Panorama programme shown about a year ago. Maybe you remember it?
The picture it painted was a gloomy one for anybody looking forward to a green transport future. A fly-on-the-car-ceiling glimpse into the worlds of the people featured showed total unremitting car dependency. There was the mother of five whose people-mover covered the daily school run at an average of walking pace. The commuter whose two-hour crawl seemed far preferable to him than the risk of sitting next to a garlic eater on public transport. The family of five adults with one car each - the senior male was a surgeon of course. The woman whose car was her pride and joy, lovingly driven on every short journey she could find an excuse for. We witness her in a city centre traffic jam saying: "They should build a bypass, to get all this traffic out of the city centre."
But anybody familiar with Panorama will know that the progamme's makers do like to tell a story. A moment's reflection on these characters revealed them to be self-caricatures. Sure, we recognised elements of all of them in people we knew; but how many people are really so extreme? Indeed, the programme-maker's need to find such self-caricatures in order to tell the desired story can itself be seen as cause for optimism.
Even the young car enthusiasts meeting to strut their motorised stuff were obviously well aware of the issues. They just did not want them to get in the way of their having their kicks. Quite understandable when you pause to think about the example being set them by the older generation.
But for me, as the mother of two young children, the most haunting image was of the school-run mum's two eldest children, articulate girls of maybe twelve and fourteen. The reporter suggested to them that maybe one day they should go to school on a bus. "I wouldn't know where to start. I've never been on a bus before. I don't know where they go." Or a bike. "I'm not fit. I wouldn't get up the hill."
For the child of a car-dependent family, infancy lasts a full seventeen years. Why do human beings have a long childhood? Remember the series by Lord Winston? It is because our social structures and communities are so complex that we need those many years to learn our way around them. Seventeen years of travelling solely by parental car results in a stunting of development as real as that suffered by Chinese girls of years gone by who had their feet bound; or Romanian 'orphans' forced to spend their first six years sitting on their beds. Cars have been around for a century now, but car dependency only for a few decades. Who knows what the outcome will be of this social experiment being carried out on so many of our youngest generation?
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