York, a cyclists’ paradise? Er, not quite

Pedal power: still underrated in these parts. Photograph: YorkMix
22 Apr 2013 @ 8.58 am
| Opinion

Pedal power: still underrated in these parts. Photograph: YorkMix
Pedal power: still underrated in these parts. Photograph: YorkMix

A change in the culture is needed if our city is ever to be truly considered a top cycling city, argues Rob Ainsley

York’s credentials as a cycling city were being plugged this week. A Department For Transport report ranks us as third-best for levels of adults on bikes in the country. Cambridge and Oxford occupy the top spots. These cyclists can’t all be students.

Being third-best in the country at something is to be celebrated, I suppose. Especially if it’s not teenage pregnancies or unregistered firearms.

But being third-best at adult cycling in Britain, given our pathetically low standards, is not much of an achievement. It’s like being Third Highest Mountain in Holland, or Third Best Brewery in Saudi Arabia.

Because the general problems of cycling infrastructure and culture that plague British cities are here in York too. At least our cycle paths for example set a glittering example. However, that’s only because of all the broken glass on them. At least those sparkly, reflective shards under the bridges on the Foss Islands route help me navigate at night.

Here as in all the UK, councils routinely introduce terrible, worse-than-useless facilities. Truthfully, they say they “consulted” cyclists and local campaigners over the plans. They omit to say this means “consulted and then ignored”. At Fishergate, for instance, they’re putting in a kerb on the cycle path for utterly bogus health and safety reasons that will make yet another journey that bit more awkward.

The list goes on. The self-defeating introduction of too-narrow cycle lanes on busy roads that make some motorists think the dotted line is a magic force-shield protecting the bike, so they can speed past right up against it. (Yes, Blossom Street, I’m talking about you.) Potholes that bring a tear to my neighbour’s eye, for instance – he used to be a miner, and their size makes him nostalgic.

We need to change how cycling is perceived, unobscured by nonsense about pavement assassins or red-light-jumping terrorists

Lots of us cycle in York. It’s the best, fastest, cheapest, most reliable and most fun way of getting around. But we do in spite of the facilities, not because of.

We are far behind the Netherlands, whose high cycling rates (ten times ours, typically) are not only due to “separate bike lanes”, as many mistakenly believe. You’ll find few in central Amsterdam, for instance – but you’ll find universal permeability (one-way roads being routinely two-way for cyclists).

Facilities are a factor, but so are a less car-centric insurance framework, more people-centric town planning, and the sheer universality of cycling: respect in numbers.

That’s why Cambridge is top cycling city: flatness, students and compactness are part of the reason, but mainly, everyone cycles because everyone cycles, in a neat virtuous circle. It makes the city a delightful, human-scale, friendly place to be.

Our cycling levels are only half Cambridge’s. To get better we need better facilities, but also that tricky thing, a change in culture: how cycling is perceived, unobscured by nonsense about pavement assassins or red-light-jumping terrorists. For the moment, York is far from a cycling paradise.

In fact, the nearest we get to Dutch-style cycling in Britain is actually in Hull. But not because of any facilities there. It’s because of the North Sea Ferries services to Rotterdam.

  • Rob Ainsley’s latest book, Bluff Your Way in Cycling, is out in May, as part of the Bluffer’s Guides series: see bluffers.com
  • And you can read more from Rob at his Real Cycling blog