July 19, 2013 6:36 pm

How to give bike use a push

Its virtues must be accommodated within an integrated transport system and accompanied by public acceptance of the right of cyclists

A question that troubles me a little – and might trouble others, such as London mayor Boris Johnson, even more – is this: how responsible is it to urge people to take to their bikes on the streets of London, Paris or New York? No one is more persuaded than me of the unique powers of the bike – transportational, ecological, and epidemiological. But the virtues of the bicycle need to be accommodated within an integrated transport system and accompanied by public acceptance of the right of two-wheeled traffic to occupy the carriageway.

That is the case in Amsterdam and Copenhagen and Vienna but not in London, where it seems most drivers regard bicycles as a nuisance and treat cyclists with a shocking and sometimes murderous lack of consideration.

I suspect things are not much better in Paris and New York. There is even the ludicrous idea of making cyclists pay a “road tax”, a fiscal measure that was abandoned in the UK in the 1930s. The inevitable consequence of this hostility is a regrettable attitude of retaliatory anarchy among certain cyclists, which risks turning pedestrians into the victims. Cyclists, of course, should not take to the pavement (except where a pavement incorporates bike lanes) but, if you were a cyclist and had a choice between being crushed by a bus or lorry and riding on the pavement, I expect you would take measures to save your life.

The statistics for deaths and serious injuries among cyclists in Britain, including in London, make dispiriting reading for anyone contemplating putting on their cycle helmet. Annual deaths in the past 10 years in London have fluctuated between 20 and eight; last year’s figure was 14, down two on the previous year’s 16.

Serious injuries, at 657 in 2012 compared with 394 in 2002, have risen in number but fallen slightly in proportion to the number of bike trips made.

As with all statistics, these figures can be spun in different ways. Andrew Gilligan, the journalist and cycling commissioner for London, wrote last year that the number of deaths was too small to draw conclusions from, and emphasised that the trend for serious injuries as a percentage of bike trips is down. But surely for anyone pondering the choice between making a journey by bike or by public transport the conclusion is that the number of deaths and serious injuries among cyclists remains obstinately and unacceptably high.

Much has been made in London of the success of the bike hire scheme initiated by Ken Livingstone, sponsored by Barclays and carried forward by Mayor Johnson – who with his typical chutzpah and political skill has managed to claim most of the credit. But though the “Boris bikes” have been a success, have they enticed any significant number of new cyclists on to the streets? Surely many of those who ride Boris bikes are those who cycle anyway. Regular cyclists represent a small slice of the population, only about 2 per cent by some estimates. By contrast, nearly 30 per cent of Dutch commuters travel by bicycle.

The long-term solution to this intractable problem involves major infrastructure investment (proper cycle lanes rather than the feeble or downright dangerous ones that litter London, often petering out just where they might come in useful) and educational initiatives (teaching drivers, preferably when they take their driving test, about the rights and needs of cyclists). But how about a shorter-term micro-solution? How about something that would get the Slow Lane pedalling more frequently, and not just on return trips to the tennis club?

Enter the e-bike. The “e” stands for electric rather than environmental, though any confusion might not be entirely unwelcome to the manufacturers and marketers of these conveyances. And let me begin with a reservation. For me, part of the attraction of the bicycle is the unadulterated conversion of pedal power into distance travelled, through the use of perfect and simple mechanics (wheels, gears) and with no electronics added.

I can imagine a more purist friend, who takes part in triathlons and swims all year round in the Hampstead ponds, shuddering at the very thought of an electric bike.

For me, though, one trial run on a Dutch-made e-bike was persuasive. The overwhelming sensation, from the moment I pushed on the pedal and the bike surged forward, to a triumphant return leaving Lycra-clad would-be Wigginses in my wake, was of being 16 again.

The elixir of youth is intoxicating, but there was also a feeling of safety. One of the most dangerous moments for any cyclist is pulling away from a set of lights or a junction, especially uphill, which is difficult to execute without wobbling. The e-bike solved that problem for me, instilling the confidence to compete even with the most ill-tempered white van. About 31m e-bikes were sold last year, compared with about 81m cars; this is a transport solution to watch.

harry.eyres@ft.com

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