As a mass peloton of protesters prepares to take pedal power to Holyrood, Claire Black meets the campaigners sensing a gear change in their battle to increase safety and access for cyclists in Scotland
It’s been a big week for cycling in the UK. I managed to get over Edinburgh’s Abbeyhill from the Scottish Parliament without the need for oxygen, in Westminster the Channel 4 news presenter and cycling advocate Jon Snow sat before a House of Commons committee to argue that the country’s roads need to be made safer for those on bikes and in Scotland, in recent days, posters and flyers have been appearing and Twitter has been humming with the hashtag #POP28, as hundreds of people prepare for tomorrow’s Pedal on Parliament.
A mass ride, which starts in the Meadows and ends at Holyrood, Pedal on Parliament is a campaign to show that cycling matters to the people of Scotland and that it can be an “obvious solution to many of Scotland’s ills” including obesity and congestion and poor air quality in our cities. It’s a message that seems to have struck a chord, with thousands of people adding their names to an online petition and high-profile endorsements from Scotland’s best-known two-wheeled enthusiasts, including Sir Chris Hoy, Graeme Obree and Mark Beaumont.
The man who came up with Pedal on Parliament is Dr David Brennan, a Glaswegian commuter cyclist, one of a core group of campaigners who decided that action was required to make cycling safe for all. Spurred on by the death of a cyclist on the route he uses to get to work across Glasgow, Brennan decided that if he ever wanted to be able to take his three kids, aged six, four and two, out on the roads on their bikes then something would have to change.
“It was a hit and run,” Brennan says. “When something like that happens close by it really does hit home. I saw what was going on in London at Westminster and I could see it was having an impact. But that doesn’t really affect cycling up here, it’s a devolved issue really, so I e-mailed a couple of friends and suggested that we try to organise a mass ride.”
A group was formed and key members created an eight-point manifesto to call for, amongst other things, “proper funding for cycling”, a reference to the fact that at the moment less than one per cent of Scotland’s transport budget is allocated to cycling infrastructure. It also demands that Scotland’s roads become more bike-friendly and that slower speeds be enforced on many roads. The campaigners hope that it will be accepted and endorsed by MSPs.
“A lot of campaigns in the past, although well intentioned, focused on trying to get drivers to understand cyclists more and hoping that we could all work together,” says Brennan. “They’ve all pretty much failed.
“I came to the realisation that if I’m going to be able to get my kids on the roads the only way we’re going to be able to do that is by creating the infrastructure that protects them. There are details that we need to work out but if we can start on the infrastructure and get the parliament and politicians behind us there’s a chance that we could be like Amsterdam and Copenhagen. It is possible.”
Sitting in a bustling Edinburgh cafe, another two of the group’s core members, Kim Harding and Sara Dorman, are swapping T-shirts printed with a panda on a bike and making final arrangements for the weekend’s event. Both cyclists in Edinburgh – Dorman delivers her daughter to school by bike – they are buzzing with enthusiasm about what they see as a real surge of interest in making cycling safer and more accessible for everyone. They agree that there are individual points in the Scottish Government’s Cycling Action Plan for Scotland (CAPS), in which the target of having 10 per cent of all journeys in Scotland made by bike by 2020 is set out, which are welcome but stress that it doesn’t “add up”.
“Infrastructure is really important,” says Dorman, “and it’s also about getting the politicians to go beyond just saying ‘we think this is a good thing’ and getting them to put their money where their mouths are. It’s about infrastructure but it’s also about encouragement and support.”
Dorman explains that initiatives such as Lothian and Borders police implementing their “drive safe, cycle safe” scheme as they did at the beginning of April on Edinburgh’s North Bridge, helps too. The focus was drivers who fail to stay out of Advanced Stopping Lane (ASL) boxes at traffic lights and the figures make for grim reading. Of the 106 vehicles stopped for entering ASLs, 32 per cent were black cabs, 50 per cent were private cars and 80 per cent were driven by men.
“The exercise was about education rather than law enforcement, but the fact is that every single one of those drivers could have been subject to fixed penalty tickets,” says Dorman.
According to the police officers who were on patrol, the issue seemed to be one of lack of knowledge, but as Dorman says, “What else could the red boxes with bicycles painted in white be for?
“The vast majority of cyclists are also drivers and, of course, also pedestrians. It’s not about us versus them, it’s about respecting everyone’s space and safety and ability to get around.”
Cycling might once have been a niche issue – a matter that concerned MAMILS (Middle Age Men in Lycra) or the kind of people who see cars as an ideological outrage, or maybe hard-bitten, fixie- riding couriers. Now, though, it is an issue that matters to all of these kinds of people and many more. Pedal on Parliament hope that included in tomorrow’s ride, there will be everyone from bike polo teams and peloton riders to people who are just beginning to cycle, to supporters who will be on foot because at the moment they are too nervous to get on their bike, but they want to.
As a cyclist it’s not unusual to hear people describe you as “brave” when you explain that you use a bike to get around. It’s a depressing view, but one not entirely without foundation. There have been six fatalities in the past year in Scotland involving cyclists. Since 2000 there have been 16 cyclist deaths in the Lothian region. In Edinburgh, Andrew McNicoll, 43, died after an incident on Lanark Road in January and Bryan Simons, 40, was killed two months later in a collision with a taxi in Corstorphine. Scottish Government statistics show that 781 cyclist casualties were recorded in 2010, including 138 serious injuries and seven deaths. According to the Netherlands’ Institute for Road Safety Research (SWOV) the cycle fatality rate per km is more than twice as high in Britain as in the Netherlands. The gap is even larger if you include serious injuries, with 556 cyclists killed or seriously injured for every billion kilometres cycled in the UK, compared to the Netherlands’ 96.
For Harding, the issue is clear: cycle lanes are vital and they should be suitable for all kinds of cyclists – from commuters to children. They should be more than a slick of colour on the Tarmac that cars park on. Even in a metropolis as bustling as New York City, cycle lanes have had a marked impact on cycling safety. The 255 miles of bike lanes added to the city’s 6000 miles of streets in recent years has meant that although cycling in the city has more than doubled during the same period, the number of fatal cycling crashes and serious injuries has declined. The Mayor’s office in the city released a memorandum in March 2011 stating that where protected lanes were installed, “injury crashes for all road users (drivers, pedestrians, cyclists), typically drop by 40 per cent and by more than 50 per cent in some locations.”
In Scotland, there is, it seems, cross-party political support with both a Green Party and SNP motion lodged on the matter of cycling. The campaigners acknowledge that politicians have good intentions when it comes to getting us on our bikes, but what’s lacking is substance. And by substance, they mean money. “The amounts of money that they are talking about investing is a drop in the ocean,” says Brennan. “The SNP motion in the parliament is great in that it shows that they are supporting the aims but what we need is for them to commit to investment in cycling. Without that everything else around about that is window dressing.
“We’re not looking for new money but rather a redistribution of money – you can spend millions on a couple of miles of motorway but if you spent that same amount over five or 10 years that would be enough to transform the whole of Scotland in terms of cycling. It would reduce congestion, it would impact on obesity and heart disease.”
Doran and Harding acknowledge that Edinburgh is doing better than some other Scottish cities, allocating five per cent of its transport budget to cycling. The networks of cycle paths in the city are welcomed too, but both suggest that for these to be really useful they have to join up – connecting to roads safely to allow people to cycle to other parts of the city.
“In Edinburgh the increase in people cycling has gone up markedly,” says Dorman. “What we need to do is get the decision makers to recognise that and create policies that actually reflect that reality.
“What I hope tomorrow’s event is going to show is what an amazingly diverse group of cyclists Edinburgh and Scotland has and just how many people care passionately about cycling. This ride isn’t just for people like us who actually do commute by bike, it’s for the people who want to but don’t feel that they can.”
Pedal on Parliament takes place tomorrow from 2pm. The route begins at the Meadows and ends at the Scottish Parliament. For more information log on to pedalonparliament.org