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From The Times newspaper, 21st February 2007

Pedal Power

Road proceeds should be invested in repopularising the bicycle

In all the sound and fury about roads in the past few weeks, there can be few groups left that have not had their say, though the arguments of cyclists have quietly glided by. When London’s transport supremos launched the extended congestion charge zone this week, they noted in passing the dramatic increase in cyclists that the capital has seen. In the past five years, the number of people cycling in London has risen by almost 50 per cent. These people are not the mad, bearded loons of popular myth, their coat-tails flapping crazily as they pedal round the Elephant and Castle. The modern cyclist is making an elegant and intelligent response to pollution and traffic congestion.

Salford University photo Roy Spilsbury, CTC Cymru

More than half of all car journeys in London cover distances of less than two miles. The car is a creature comfort, but the experience of a short drive in Central London is not necessarily a comfortable one. Many drivers endure grinding stop-and-start, culminating in fury at not being able to find a parking space. They are short of time. Yet many of those who are unencumbered by children or shopping would save time - and money - by cycling.

On an average journey of four miles in Central London, cycling is the fastest mode of transport. And, fumes and accidents apart, it is much healthier. Regular cycling is said to halve the chances of suffering from heart disease. Campaigners argue that regular cyclists can achieve levels of fitness comparable to those of noncyclists ten years younger. It is a way to reduce stress and demonstrate an environmental conscience at the same time. How modern.

Some pedestrians will dismiss this two-wheeled idealism. They experience cyclists as a menace. Those who ride on pavements, who head in the wrong direction down one-way streets, and who smugly jump traffic lights with no care for others, are certainly stoking contempt for this bespoke form of transport. But the majority should not be tarred with that brush. British cyclists are to be admired for their courage, if not always for their manners.

The risks are daunting. They include aggressive drivers, terrifying junctions, and cycle lanes that stop abruptly with no apology except the word “Ends”. Cyclist fatalities across the UK rose to three a week last year — the only form of transport to show an increase. Cycle lanes need to be better protected from motorists. There would also be safety in numbers. At 2 per cent ridership, London lags far behind cities such as Berlin (10 per cent), Copenhagen (20 per cent) and Amsterdam (28 per cent), where the cyclist numbers influence driver behaviour.

Many British cities suffer particularly badly from 1960s road layouts. But some of those are being reversed. The flow of a gyratory system has been successfully altered in Shoreditch, one notorious London blackspot. Traffic lights and crossings have improved matters at Blackfriars Bridge, the scene of a cyclist death in 2004. But this is not enough. London has a unified transport authority. It must join up the dots. It is unacceptable for the world’s foremost capital city to have a patchwork of cycle routes which peter out timidly on the road to nowhere.

It may seem paradoxical that an intermediate technology is now the future. But it would be churlish not to encourage cycling as the cheap, green answer to so many contemporary troubles. May those who cycle be blessed with clean consciences, stronger arteries and safer journeys.