Lesley Riddoch - New truths need peddling about pedalling

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IN THE wake of Jason MacIntyre's death in Fort William, fair weather cyclists across Scotland may be tempted to throw in the towel.

Cycling here is already a triumph of hope over experience with an over-supply of hills, headwinds and rain. The first tottering experience back on a bike can be a shock for adults with childhood cycling memories of long sunny days, endless downhill freewheels, trousers stuffed into socks or skirts tucked into pants. No worries, no responsibilities, no special protective gear, no deadlines for arrival, and – above all – no traffic.

Adult city cycling today appears very different. From the vantage point of a bone-dry car seat, passing cyclists appear to be soaked, slow, and now – liable to serious injury or death. It's time to get cycling reality into perspective.

On a wet day, everything's slightly unpleasant. Walking's a damp experience. Waiting at the bus stop's a cold experience. At least cyclists expecting daily exposure to weather are more likely to have waterproof gear. As the Norwegians say, there is no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.

With average city driving speeds of 25mph, cycling isn't slow. Indeed, chronic congestion means the relative speed of two and four-wheeled vehicles has changed dramatically and that has created un-acknowledged tension. The Kings of the Road drive cars chosen for status, speed, power and maybe sex appeal, while cyclists choose bikes for lightness, toughness, and (in the case of collapsible bikes) ease of deconstruction. Drivers are paying small mortgages to buy cars and watching fuel prices rise with each passing month.

Cyclists pay a couple of hundred quid and let their feet do the rest. And if time is money, queuing drivers are also losing out to weaving cyclists and in the unwritten pecking order of the roads, that feels all wrong.

Drivers pay road tax, and expect priority. In fact, many roads were originally designed for bicycles and horses, and the majority of cyclists are also tax-paying motorists who've left their cars at home, giving more road space to drivers who cannot or will not do the same.

Arguably, with their tiny ecological footprint, driver/cyclists should be asking for tax refunds since the same flat rate is paid whether a car is used once a year or once an hour. But that would be petty – and fanning the flames of a strangely anti-cycling public mood.

No-one gives up an addiction easily and drivers do subliminally realise our addiction to gas-guzzling cars is leading our overweight selves and our spluttering planet absolutely nowhere. But drivers in denial can be hard to handle. And prone to shooting the messenger, or at least making his or her progress through city streets a little more … interesting.

On the one hand, Jason MacIntyre's death was very unusual. That's why it made front-page news everywhere. On the other hand, cyclists are more vulnerable to "acceptable" standards of driving than motorists realise. And there's the rub. In requesting that drivers look twice, always indicate, glance in the rear mirror before opening car doors and endure slow starts at junctions to let cyclists wobble off first – the tail is wagging the dog.

In Scotland, there is no policy guiding this transition. In Groningen, the Netherlands' sixth largest city, there is. Sixteen years ago, traffic congestion led city planners to dig up city-centre motorways. Last year, they built a car-free city centre. Now Groningen, with a population just smaller than Aberdeen, has the highest level of bicycle usage in the West. A commendable 57 per cent of its inhabitants travel by bicycle – compared with just 4 per cent in the UK.

The economic repercussions are astonishing. Since a six-lane motorway was replaced by greenery, pedestrianisation, cycleways and bus lanes, the city has staged a remarkable recovery. Rents are among the highest in the Netherlands, the outflow of population has been reversed and businesses, once in revolt against car restraint, are clamouring for more of it.

As Gerrit van Werven, a senior city planner, put it: "This is not an environmental programme, it is an economic programme. We are boosting jobs and business. It has been proved that planning for the bicycle is cheaper than planning for the car."

A vital threshold has been crossed. Through sheer weight of numbers, the bicycle makes the rules – slowing down traffic and shaping driver behaviour. All across the city, roads are being narrowed or closed to traffic, cycleways are being constructed and new houses built to which the only direct access is by cycle. Out-of-town shopping centres are banned. The aim is to force cars to take longer detours but to provide a "fine mesh" network for cycles, giving them easy access to the city centre.

Like the Netherlands nationally, Groningen is backing bicycles because of fears about car growth. Its ten-year bicycle programme is costing 20 million, but every commuter car it keeps off the road saves at least 170 a year in hidden costs such as noise, pollution, parking and health. New city centre buildings must provide cycle garages. Under the city hall, a nuclear shelter has been turned into a bike park.

"We don't want a good system for bicycles, we want a perfect system", says Mr van Werven. "We want a system for bicycles that is like the German autobahns for cars. We don't ride bicycles because we are poor – people here are richer than in Britain. We ride them because it is fun, it is faster, it is convenient."

And even with Scotland's cycle-unfriendly urban motorways, and dangerously fast A-roads, that's true here too. The best memorial to Jason MacIntyre is for all hesitant cyclists to get on their bikes, reclaim the streets and create safety in numbers – and create a head of steam for radical cycling change.

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