Let's get the balance right for cycling

Can the history of cycling give us clues about the prospects for self-propelled travel? Speaking to the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport in February, Dr Nicholas Oddy of Glasgow School of Art pointed out that when cyclists are shunted to the side of the road (literally and metaphorically) by motorists, they aren't experiencing anything new '“ it was just as much an issue in the early 1900s, when motor cars first appeared.

Picture: Neil Hanna
Picture: Neil Hanna

With Fort William hosting World Championship Mountain Biking events on Ben Nevis, Perthshire’s Mark Beaumont conquering the world’s most challenging terrain on two wheels, Glentress in the Borders attracting cycling enthusiasts from across Europe, and the gold-medal successes of Sir Chris Hoy commemorated in Glasgow’s spectacular Velodrome, you would be entitled to think cycling is at Scotland’s heart.

The culture of cycling has reached further into the lives of Scottish communities than could ever have been imagined – even just a few years ago. So why is cycling still struggling to be accepted as an everyday travel choice, leaving it fighting for road space, or even just equality of treatment in our towns and cities? Dr Oddy argued that cycling today is portrayed more as a means of exercise than as a convenient and cost-effective form of transport.

That can hardly have been what the early promoters of the bicycle envisaged – or what Kirkpatrick Macmillan had hoped for when he designed his lever-framed cycle in 1839. Contraptions of all shapes and sizes took to the roads in the years that followed, bone-shakers and penny-farthings among them, before “the improved velocipede” was introduced by Thomas McCall of Kilmarnock in 1870.

As Glasgow hosted its great exhibition in 1888, the chain-driven safety bicycle was set to become the “definitive” design, and while bicycles proliferated, so too did the organisations dedicated to their use and enjoyment, none of which (with their club uniforms and race events) really helped to establish the position of cycling as an everyday means of getting from A to B. Similarly, the cost of a bicycle effectively put it out of reach to all but the most affluent.

By the time John Boyd Dunlop patented the pneumatic tyre bicycles had become recognisable as the vehicles we are familiar with today, and cycling was becoming a mainstream activity. As the 20th century approached, it was growing in popularity, even if the motivation might have been to qualify as a traveller on arrival at a suitable tavern beyond city boundaries, thus evading the new licensing laws.

The cycling landscape today supports a diverse number of stakeholder bodies – which continue the work initiated by organisations such as the Scottish Cyclists’ Union, (whose efforts included the erection of the first modern road signs), and the Roads Improvement Organisation (which campaigned for improvements to benefit all road users).

The expansion of industry in the inter-war years, and the focus on defence-related manufacturing during the Second World War, meant that bicycles became ubiquitous – they were commonly viewed as “the working man’s commute”.

The bicycle however was still only viewed as a “stepping-stone” – car ownership was the goal in post-war Scotland, and congestion in our cities, environmental impacts, and the scarcity of road space have done nothing to suppress its allure.

So what is the status of cycling today? The views expressed by the 2015 “Social Entrepreneur of the Year”, who established the Glasgow Bike Station, Gregory Chauvet, help to put cycling in perspective: “It’s a real car culture [in Glasgow]. The mentality is that when you turn 18 you leave your bike behind. Cycling is for kids. If people see you on a bike, they think it’s because you can’t afford a car. People don’t think cyclists belong on the road. When I first started cycling here, people would shout at me because they thought bikes were meant to be on the pavement.”

Referring to the work of his centre, he said: “We try to create new cyclists every day. When people see bikes on the road, they start to realise that it’s faster than driving, it’s cheaper, it’s better. When you start to build a cycling community, people start to feel safe on the roads. Suddenly cycling becomes cool”.

Maybe Edinburgh is pointing the way forward – the capital has a well-established cycling community with campaign groups, blogs and online forums providing information for new riders and pushing for better cycling conditions . In 2012, the City of Edinburgh Council committed 5 per cent of its transport budget to cycling.

Cycling needs to accomplish a particularly difficult balance – to be recognised as an activity which is geared towards fun and fitness, but also as a credible, healthy, and sustainable form of transport, offering positive social impacts, and with an important part to play in Scotland for many years to come.

l Ken Thomson is the chairman of CILT in Scotland. The Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport is a professional institution embracing all transport modes, with 18,000 members across the UK, engaged in the provision of transport services for both passengers and freight, in the management of logistics and the supply chain, in transport planning, and in government and administration.