Are our cities safe for cycling?

This is an article by Drew Kearney.
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It’s tough on the streets for cyclists, but Drew Kearney would welcome a live and let live attitude.

A volley of verbal abuse, near-death experiences, covered head to toe in dirt and this is without the British weather. No, I’m not talking about the referee of a Liverpool – Man Utd match. This is the average commute for a city cyclist.

Let’s take Plymouth as an example. Is cycling possible within an urban area?

The City Council wants its staff to ride their bikes into work and ditch their cars. What happens on the cold, wet and windy days? Is there an alternative in place for those cyclists to use public transport?

ABB1435 sustrans 2 Sustrans, ‘the UK’s leading sustainable transport charity,’ maintains over 284 miles of the National Cycle Network in Devon with 105 miles being traffic free. The national route number 27 runs all the way from the Plymouth Barbican and Dockyard to Ilfracombe in the north of the county.

“People use our routes on their day-to-day journeys whether that’s going to work, going to the shops, going to school, or whatever it might be, so we’re always looking to improve networks into and around towns” says Adrian Roper, Sustrans’ South West Regional Director.

This means that when you’re in the city you’re no more than three miles away from a dedicated cycle track and much closer to the road cycle paths. There’s no excuse not to get on your bikes, if you pardon the pun, when the paths are so easily accessible to everyone. You may be thinking that you have to be fit to cope with the hills in the UK. I’m not going to lie to you, some fitness is required, but the more you cycle, the fitter you become.

“One of the things we do try and do, is to make sure that we do provide routes that are as flat as possible and that’s the reason we often use old railway lines and tow paths,” says Roper.

As we all know, trying to move around a city at rush hour is pointless, every journey takes twice as long, using a lot more fuel and making everyone stressed. It’s no wonder there are more cases of road rage year on year. So why aren’t people using the two wheeled alternative? Feeling the breeze on your face, seeing the landscape from a different view and getting fitter in the process… If you’re a pessimist this could easily turn to feeling the icy wind on your fingers, breathing in smog from the congestion and getting hot and sweaty for something that you don’t enjoy.

Most people wax lyrical over how good cycling and public transport are for the environment. But do they know the real hazards of riding a bike? Firstly, in a bike helmet, everybody looks stupid and there are no exceptions to this, no matter who you are. Then you have the kids, giving you their advice on how to ride properly, deliberately trying to annoy you. Car drivers, annoyed at the thought of you getting anywhere faster than them, block your path, stopping you darting past. Tired muscles screaming to stop. Then in winter, the howling gales, showers and mud-covered roads.

Devon averages out to be the 8th highest county in England. This means there are a lot of hills to contend with. The highest point in Plymouth is higher than anywhere in the whole of Essex. It isn’t any wonder the car looks to be the better option.

It’s other traffic that causes the biggest problem for cyclists. In much the same way that motorcyclists have to constantly look out for cars, a cyclist’s journey is no less full of danger. Cars will beep if you pull away from the lights early. This isn’t just a matter of being cheeky though, it’s a matter of survival. There are cyclists everyday who have to put up with drivers coming too close, being clipped and being knocked off. That’s why cyclists take the jump start at traffic lights. It’s scary having a one and a half tonne car bearing down on you. The bus lanes provide some sanctuary from other vehicles, but obviously when a bus passes you less than a metre away, it’s much worse.

Roundabouts are particularly frightful as any learner driver could tell you. I have often been forced to skid to a stop, when drivers just haven’t seen me coming, leading to many expletives.

“Car drivers just don’t seem to see cyclists. I wear a bright yellow top, I have a bright helmet and lights on and do the best I can to be seen, but nobody seems to notice. Lights and visible clothing is a must,” says Tom Gruitt a regular cycling commuter.

The city council are fully aware that not all of the cycle lanes in, out and around Plymouth link up.

“Routes maybe on road, off road, advisable side routes, any road that’s got a low traffic speed; it doesn’t have to have any infrastructure on it to be cited as a suitable cycle route,” says Suzanne Keith, Road Safety Officer at Plymouth City Council.

There are hubs around Plymouth, with the aim of integrating different forms of sustainable transport.

“Integrated transport is something that we would encourage and interchanges like the George Junction are designed to help people travel by more than one sustainable mode. For example, at the George there are cycle lockers and showers which cyclists can use,” says Suzanne Keith.

There has always been this problem of where to store bikes; there are currently two separate locations of lockers, with another planned for Bretonside. There are also over 10 stand locations in the city centre for locking a bike to and a new one on Charles St. even though cycling is prohibited in the pedestrianised areas.

The council does have a cycling strategy which it has been working on fulfilling, from 2006 to 2011. The plan has many aims, but the most important is: “To maximise the role of cycling as a transport mode, in order to reduce the number of private cars, ease congestion, and to help improve air quality and aid accessibility”.

Don’t think that it’s just the council making these decisions. They regularly ask cyclists about existing routes and improvements that need to be made. This is all with the aim of making Plymouth more user-friendly to bike riders. This is in conjunction with regular meetings with the cycle forum.

Plymouth is fully geared up for new cyclists to start taking to the roads and the hills are nothing but a small annoyance. The only problem left now, is for the rest of the country to move into line and all road users to become more aware of the other people on the road. This applies to motorists, pedestrians and cyclists alike. When a motorist sees a cyclist at rush hour speeding past, there’s no need to cause an accident. Car drivers shouldn’t be jealous, they need ride to work as well, so they know the feeling of getting somewhere on time.

Photo credit: David Young, Sustrans

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