When folk talk about 'the cycling revolution' and the growth of cycling in the UK, they’re not talking about the amazing haul of gold medals we’ve just seen at the Olympics – awesome as that is.
They’re not even talking about the fact that at weekends, millions of people choose to go for a nice bike ride when once they would have jumped in a car …they’re generally talking about the veritable army of folk who don high viz and helmets and commute to work on a bike. Yes, 'bike to work' is a real thing now.
It’s only a few years ago when such behaviour was 'a bit weird' and those that did it considered to be odd balls, but that’s actually hard to imagine now, kind of like that time before mobile phones. (Seriously, how did we cope??)
Well, to cut a long story short, in the 1960s we fell in love with cars, and as the UK got a bit richer, bikes just weren’t cool any more. As more cars took to the roads, they became seen as less safe, and the humble bike days looked numbered.
As it happens this wasn’t even an especially British thing, either, it happens across the world as nations get richer. For example in China, between 1995 and 2005, China's once famous bike fleet declined by 35%, from 670m to 435m.
Most countries do reverse this the trend however and you’ll often hear about Holland or Copenhagen as a cycling utopia as they were amongst of the first countries to make efforts to change.
Of course, we probably can’t do without cars, but there’s little doubt using them less would be a huge benefit. The fumes they produce are a serious health concern for us all - outdoor air pollution is contributing to about 40,000 early deaths a year in the UK. Oh and then there’s the rising obesity in the UK and a host of other factors to consider – all of which can be linked to the 'over reliance on cars' so there little wonder that governments and local authorities now put so much effort into getting more folk on bikes.
A huge amount of our travel, as a nation, is commuting to work so when the government launched its cycle to work scheme (which gave a real financial incentive to using a bike) it had a big take up. This alongside other great initiatives such as British Cycling’s Sky Rides have given a real kick start to the UK’s cycling revolution.
It was, in fact, going on one of these Sky Rides that got me starting to cycle regularly. It was the first time I dared to cycle into central London and after realising that I could get to my favourite pub quicker than on the tube (without having to get into someone else’s sweaty arm pit) I was smitten and a few months later I sold my knackered VW Golf and got myself a better bike … It’s a journey that thousands of others have no doubt travelled too.
Towpaths, of course, do have their part to play in the cycling revolution also, which is one of the many reasons that Canal & River Trust has worked with others local authorises to improve them for cyclists alongside everyone else (video). There’s no doubt that canals offer some of the best routes in the country and if you’re lucky you’ve got one on your commute. I’ll wager by best cycling cap it’s your favourite part of the day if it is!
But towpaths can only do so much and now that real change is with us, it’s time for the highway authorities to step up too. Roads, especially those around canals, now need to be made safer and more attractive for cyclists, or the cycling revolution will begin to wane whilst our towpaths will continue to bear the burden, as we have already seen on the Regents Canal in London.
This is why we’ve produced the Better Towpaths for Everyone policy, which at its heart sets out the need for alternative routes off canals too. The Trust does what it can to work with others to make them a reality.
Considering this, whilst those on bikes will always be welcome on canals, everyone needs to recognise towpaths are a limited space and use their common sense. This is why we run the Share the Space, Drop your Pace campaign – it’s up to everyone to look out for each other and be mindful on towpaths. Put simply - towpaths aren’t the place for riding fast. If you do wake up late for work and you’re in a hurry you’ll need to take another route – towpaths are for gentle commutes only.
It’s cycle to work day on the 14 September - get peddling!
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