Insight: Big hills to climb en route to cycling paradise

‘I would like to be able to cycle with my kids without having to think about it – no need to plan a route, so it is a natural choice on every journey. It should be easier to cycle short journeys than drive.”

Cyclists at the McLennan Arch at Glasgow Green park where the Pedal for Scotland begins. Picture: Roddy Scott/Pedal for Scotland

That will be the dream of many Scots, fearful of traffic dangers and yearning for a network of segregated or off-road bike lanes – but it’s also the ambition of Keith Irving, chief executive of the official development body Cycling Scotland, over the next decade.

Irving is among those spearheading the hoped-for transformation in the country’s cycling landscape, buoyed by a doubling in Scottish Government spending, and for whom progress is finally coming.

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The vision comes as the biggest cycling event north of the border is about to make the most radical change in its 20 year history, to get even more people riding.

Next Sunday will be the final 45-mile Pedal for Scotland Classic Challenge, an annual cycle between Glasgow and Edinburgh that is expected to attract more than 7,000 participants.

Since 1999, 113,000 people have ridden between Scotland’s largest cities in an event that has grown from a few hundred participants. It was launched by the Scottish Cycling Development Project and taken over by its Cycling Scotland successor in 2003.

A major attraction has been the route being held on closed roads over the past decade as numbers have swelled, making for a safer and more attractive environment for families and the less confident. Brian Curtis, one of the first event’s organisers, recalled the lack of official encouragement. He said: “Although the police were notified, their standard response was to advise against organising this type of ride.”

Despite this, experts said such events had been inspirational. Lee Muir, a senior project officer in active travel development at Glasgow Caledonian University, said: “With more infrastructure and high-profile events like the Women’s Tour of Scotland, the visibility of cycling is on the rise. It appears more accessible and the internet is alive with people going ‘I could do Pedal for Scotland’.”

However, in a move seeking to attract wider involvement, the event will next year be replaced by shorter, free rides, which are expected to be piloted in Falkirk and Arbroath before being spread across Scotland.

For Jackie Westerman, who is taking part for the third year, it’s been a challenging but much looked-forward-to date in her diary.

The 47-year-old housing association worker from Machrihanish said: “The first year was tough – the website says the hills aren’t too bad, but they are! It also says that two weeks’ training should be plenty, but it’s not. You need to have a level of fitness or I don’t think it would be very enjoyable.”

But she added: “The camaraderie is lovely, it’s a very friendly event, there is no-one trying to push past you to get a personal best and everyone chats on the hills to help you up.”

Westerman also said everyday cycling had improved: “The roads are much better, potholes are slowly being filled in, and drivers are in general more courteous. Whether that’s because so many cyclists have cameras in their helmets, I don’t know. But there are still so many people in a hurry and I’ve had a few near misses.”

Eddie Chan, from Inverkeithing, is among many attracted to the event by the chance to raise money for charity. Doing his first one for Macmillan Cancer Support after his mother died of cancer, Chan, 43, will take part for the tenth time this year with family and friends for Jersey Hospice Care because of his brother’s cancer.

He said: “It has been really satisfying. It’s a great day out and cycling on closed roads makes so much difference.”

Laura Gorman, 43, a freelance TV editor, who will be riding with her 13-year-old son next Sunday, said: “I thought it would be a good challenge and it’s great fun, a really nice atmosphere.”

However, she said her cycle commute between Newton Mearns and Govan could be a “bit hairy” because of traffic and potholes.

She said: “Buses can be scary because their wing mirrors are at head height and they don’t always give you enough room.”

Aberdeen-based Robin Smith, who has just turned 80, has notched up two rides, having returned to cycling decades after being a keen racer in his teens and 20s.

Encouraged by his daughter, the retired oil and gas project manager first got back in the saddle five years ago. He said: “I felt totally at ease with it after a few minutes.”

Smith said of his first Pedal for Scotland: “I was amazed at how easy I found it. I struggled a bit on the hills and had to get off a couple of times, which I didn’t like. This year might be tougher.”

But the veteran rider said busy roads had limited his cycling. He said: “Traffic is the big thing that has changed over the years. We thought roads were busy in the 1950s and 60s, but compared with today it was absolutely nothing. I’ve been a bit apprehensive about when and where I go out.”

Lee Craigie, a former professional mountain biker who was appointed as the Scottish Government’s first active nation commissioner in December, said others felt that acutely.

She said: “Many communities face barriers to travelling actively [walking and cycling] and I know how desperately people want to break them down.

“Parents want to let their kids cycle to school but feel they can’t because there’s not a safe route. It’s like that for my sister in Knightswood [northwest Glasgow].”

Craigie said segregated cycling routes were needed in such areas since the poorest districts were often afflicted by the greatest pollution and safety risks from busy roads.

She said: “We are still a car-driven nation and spending is very much around trunk roads. Maybe I’m being naive and impatient, but I want things to be happening faster.”

Craigie said she detected some changes among policy mandarins. “There’s more money than ever for cycling and walking, and a genuine understanding that it ticks all the boxes across all portfolios – health, environment, social justice, economy.”

But she added: “There’s quite a lot of fear about the change. It’s quite a culture shift and people are upset at the idea cars should not be allowed into city centres – that seems to rock their world a bit.”

The doubling of funding for cycling and walking to £80m a year has triggered plans for new segregated routes, including in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Arbroath, Perth and Inverness, some of which will see dual carriageways narrowed.

Among the latest to be completed are cycle lanes on a widened pavement in Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street, giving the road a continental feel. Meanwhile, the South City Way from Queen’s Park is due to be finished next year as the latest segregated route into the city centre, and it is expected to set a new standard in design.

Grace Martin, director of developers Sustrans Scotland, which is involved in many of the schemes, said there had been “immense” progress since Pedal for Scotland started.

She said: “If the Scottish Government is to reach its goals to tackle transport emissions and improve public health, it is vital we make it just as attractive, safe and easy for people across Scotland to embrace cycling for their short, everyday journeys – not just for an annual day out. Every town and city should have a number of safe, continuous, protected routes that make walking, cycling and wheeling an easy option for people of all ages and abilities.”

Cycling Scotland’s Irving said: “Things have definitely changed for the better since the first Pedal for Scotland, but there is a long way to go.

“The number of adults cycling has at least doubled since then and there are now more people cycling than playing football.

“But there is a climate emergency and a public health crisis from growing obesity – and these issues existed in 1999.”

Irving said continuing the growth depended on more dedicated cycle lanes, training for every child and easier access to bikes.

The official Bikeability training scheme covered more than 43,000 youngsters in the year to March. On-road training has spread to every school in some areas from a previously low take-up – such as in the Western Isles, where it was just 5 per cent two years ago. Overall cycling to primary schools has increased from 3.7 per cent to 5.2 per cent since 2010.

“Bike buses”, where groups of children cycle to school with adults, are being developed in places such as Edinburgh, with up to 100 on the run to James Gillespie’s primary in Marchmont. Ewen Maclean, of organisers Blackford Safe Routes, said: “I am hopeful this will become a bigger phenomenon and become so commonplace drivers immediately recognise what they are and how to behave.”

The secondary school cycling rate of 1.3 per cent has hardly changed since 2010 but some, like Millburn Academy in Inverness are trailblazing, with 80 pupils – 7 per cent – riding to classes.

Active nation commissioner Craigie said: “Cycling to secondary school is seen as not cool because it’s not the norm, but if the streets were safe and everyone was doing it, it would be.”

But she said there was a key to keeping children cycling into their teens: “Don’t frame it a physical exercise, but an adventure with friends. They want autonomy and not to have to depend on adults to get about. If they can strike out on their own with their mates, the whole world is going to open up to them.”

Edinburgh has led the way in Scotland’s cycling development, which accounts for 10 per cent of the city council’s transport budget. It said 7.5 per cent of residents commuted by bike and 9 per cent almost daily – far higher than the Scottish average. Transport vice-convener Karen Doran said: “We’re constantly setting the standard for active travel provision in Scotland, from our ambitious plans to transform the city centre, prioritising travel on foot or bike, to our game-changing move to become Scotland’s first 20mph city to create safer, more relaxed streets.”

Dave du Feu, of Spokes, the Lothian cycle campaign, said the rest of Scotland was at last following the capital’s lead. He said: “Edinburgh’s achievement is all the more substantial for having been largely based on its own capital funding. In the last couple of years there has been a huge rise in infrastructure planning and the beginnings of implementation – from an extremely low base – in many Scottish councils, notably the larger ones, Glasgow being a prime example.”

But Sally Hinchcliffe, an organiser of the annual Pedal on Parliament mass lobby of Holyrood, said: “Progress is proving painfully slow, and for most local authorities, it seems the car remains king, with cycling and walking having to be squeezed in around the edges. With a climate emergency looming, we don’t have the luxury of another 20 years to keep making the incremental changes we’re seeing now.”

Glasgow City Council sustainability and carbon reduction convener Anna Richardson said the doubling of cycling in the city centre over the past decade “provides solid proof it is on the rise and our investment in cycling infrastructure is paying dividends”.

Suzanne Forup, head of development in Scotland for campaigners Cycling UK said: “It’s great to see more people cycling for leisure in Scotland, many of whom have been inspired by events like Pedal for Scotland. The number of people cycling for everyday journeys, however, remains low.”

To increase access to bikes, mass public hire schemes have been launched in cities such as Glasgow, Edinburgh and Stirling, with community-based versions springing up across Scotland.

Stirling’s scheme was supplemented by electric bikes in June with the other two due to follow this autumn, which Irving hailed as a “potential game changer” for making cycling easier, particularly for older people. Their electric motor provides “pedal assist” that enables effortless riding up to 15.5mph.

In a Scotland first, the Energy Saving Trust has offered free month-long ebike trials. More than 650 people have taken part, with the scheme so popular it has been extended to a second year. The trust has also provided 560 four-year interest-free loans to buy ebikes, 85 of them from the trials.

London-based Volt Bikes, which supplies the cycles, which cost from £1,350, said it had been a big hit. James Metcalfe, a director, said: “So many people across Scotland want to try them out. A lot have then just gone out and bought their own.

“I have watched thousands of people get on an ebike for the first time and I very rarely find anything other than a positive reaction.”