Tim Cunningham on the Differences of Cycling Abroad and in the UK
My wife and I have lived abroad since 1991, returning to Llandudno in 2006. We have lived and worked in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Qatar and Italy. During the 15 years we were overseas we cycled extensively. This included a long-distance tour of southern Europe in the late summer and autumn of 1995, when we cycled from northern Spain round the Iberian coast, along the southern French coast, the length of Corsica and Sardinia, across Italy and then the northern Peloponnese in Greece back to our base in Athens, where we lived. We covered about 4000km in five months.
We also cycle shorter distances! I have always tried to use my bike for commuting to and from work. Since
Tim and son Huw determined the traffic will not prevent them shopping in Llandudno
our children have been born (they are now 11 and 8), we have included them in our sports and lifestyle interests which include cycling and water sports. When we lived in Italy, we made use of cycleways and bridleways to get around, although the culture there is very different toward cyclists. So many people cycle and for so many different reasons - from the Giro d'Italia wanabee to the lady doing her shopping. I was fortunate to be the Director (Headteacher) of a group of international schools in Italy, and my work took me to different cities. I lived in Como and regularly visited our other schools in Milan, Monza and Bologna. I estimate that bikes outnumber motor scooters by about 10 to 1 and motor scooters outnumber cars by about the same ratio in Bologna. All Italian cities have an extraordinary number of cyclists and they are given due courtesy and respect and a wide berth by motorists. I guess that most motorists are themselves cyclists at times.
Many might say, "Ah, yes, but they have the weather for it!": to which I would reply that generally winters are colder and summers much hotter than in north Wales. It also rains and snows quite frequently in the winter, but the Italians don't use the weather as an excuse!
While living in Italy our holidays and weekends were spent in the valleys and mountains of Switzerland, where cycling is not just tolerated, it is actively encouraged. The whole country is criss-crossed with a system of cycle lanes which are very well engineered. The valley floors have room for motorways, minor roads, cycleways and footpaths. The towns and villages have clearly marked cycle paths, and where the roadway has to be shared use, the space for the bike is very generous: you get the feeling that 'cars can wait'. Cyclists and pedestrians have to be looked after because they are more vulnerable - speed limits for cars are very low in towns. Consequently, many more people choose cycling as a form of transport (for all kinds of needs) and we were among the tourists who flocked to the area at weekends and holidays.
One of our more memorable weekends involved us cycling the Rhine valley high up near its source at Flims / Laax. My son was only 5 at the time and he covered 25 km in one day as we cycled on superb gravel tracks that wound their way up the valley and back. The Swiss certainly know how to draw in the tourists! Off these tracks cable cars, that normally carry skiers in winter, carried mountain bikers and their bikes. The Alpine Europeans now use their ski slopes as downhill mountain bike 'pistes' during the summer season!
On our return to the UK in September 2006 we were all struck by how cycle-unfriendly the country is. There is an aggressiveness towards cyclists by drivers that one doesn't normally see anywhere else. Whereas I realise Sustrans and the CTC are pushing the interests of cyclists and developing a country wide network of cycleways, we are only playing 'catch up' with the rest of Europe (and the same in education, but don't get me started on that!). The debacle over the West Shore - Deganwy shared use path played out in the Weekly News like a British Farce - a comedy of errors which continues to this day with the Deganwy section still unfinished in April 2008 and the Glan Conwy section still 'under discussion'. In keeping with many other areas of life, councillors seem inept and unable to progress our cities, towns and villages into the correct century.
My feeling is that if Conwy county were in Switzerland we would have a completely different traffic system in Llandudno, one that favoured cyclists and pedestrians and made it safer for them.
We would have a network of cycle ways (like the one that runs along Maesdu Road from West Shore allowing students to get to school more safely along that stretch) that all interlinked. The West Shore shared use path would have been built differently: the Swiss engineers would have designed a particular method of ensuring that minimal sand built up on it during windy weather. The current path is un-cyclable most of the year at certain points.
The cabin lift on the Orme would have a bike lift facility to carry you and your bike to the top of the Great Orme, where you could choose from a range of 10 or so tracks to get back down again. Buses in town would have bike racks on the back, so that if you lived in Llandudno and wanted to go to Conwy, you needn't cycle there, you could simply put your bike on the back of the bus. Once in Conwy you would unhitch your bike and off you would go! Oh, and all public transport would be free for under 14s and over 65s - this is what happens in Switzerland.