Wheels of change
Anybody in the centre of Edinburgh on one particular bright Saturday last month would have found themselves deafened by the ringing of bike bells.
Up to 3,000 people took part in Pedal on Parliament, cycling from the Meadows to Holyrood – and it served as a huge rallying call, demonstrating that the demands of bike owners are no longer the preserve of a small band of environmentalists.
But campaigners say that while reducing carbon emissions, getting people exercising and stopping traffic congestion are now key drivers for government and local councils to increase cycling rates, there are still barriers putting people off from taking it up.
Two years ago the Scottish Government launched its Cycling Action Plan with the bold aim that 10 per cent of all journeys by 2020 would be made by bike.
There are many groups within this country dedicated to encouraging cycle use and other forms of sustainable transport. Their calls include more cycle lanes, better training for all road users – not just those on the bikes – and safety improvements to help Scotland meet this target.
It comes at a time when cycling in Scotland and the UK is arguably at an all-time high. Scotland is gearing up to hold the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in two years’ time, complete with a new 2,000-seat velodrome for the city, and the GB cycling team will be expecting another haul of medals at the London Olympics, with Sir Chris Hoy hoping again to lead the line.
In particular, lobby groups and cycling charities want to see spending on cycling increased at both central and local-government level, both for capital projects and yearly revenue funding.
Sustrans Scotland is a charity that co-funds money for cycling projects across the country with local authorities. It chiefly concerns itself with infrastructure, such as cycle lanes, rather than ‘softer’ measures, but says both are needed, jointly, to increase cycling numbers.
It estimates that there were 40 million trips on the National Cycling Network in 2010 – 44 per cent up on the previous year – and is due to report on the 2011 figures later this year.
But national director John Lauder said there was a marked difference from council to council on how much time and money has been investing in cycling.
Sustrans has been given £24.5m by the Scottish Government for the next three years for capital projects. This is then supposed to be match-funded by councils.
But, he said, ringfenced money for councils through the, ‘Cycling, Walking, Safer Streets’ fund, has not risen, and councils were often hesitant to dedicate money from elsewhere in their budgets to make up any shortfall. He told Holyrood: “There is a small minority of local authorities where there is just no interest and no commitment and councillors simply don’t see cycling and walking as a priority for them.” He added: “You can move from one authority boundary into another and you will be able to tell what the level of interest there is. It’s not difficult to see. Some have completely dropped off the radar.
“But others are forging ahead and doing great things and you can see the number of pupils who are walking or going to school by bike. I would identify Edinburgh, East Lothian, Moray, Highland, Argyll and Bute, they are finding additional funds beyond ‘Cycling Walking Safer Streets’ and I would argue that the provision for cycling and walking in those areas is better than others.” Sustrans has previously released a report, which looked at the UK compared to other countries in Northern Europe such as Norway, Denmark and Finland.
He said: “One of the key things we found was that in those countries there was real leadership on the ground, particularly at local-authority level. You had politicians say, ‘I’m going to make a difference and I will get more people walking and cycling.’ Where you have that, you do see a real change.
“The picture in Scotland is improving, but it’s patchy. It’s not coordinated enough, there’s not enough leadership from senior councillors in all but a few local authorities. At the same time, we need to see the minister, Keith Brown, continuing the leadership that he has been showing. He needs to have a dialogue with local authorities, because he has set a target through the Cycling Action Plan for Scotland of 10 per cent of trips by bike by 2020.
“But that won’t be delivered unless local authorities move ahead and really galvanise themselves and their staff to get the real benefits out of an environment that encourages people to cycle more often.” According to Transport Scotland figures, there were 298 million kms travelled by bike across the country in 2010 – just 0.69 per cent of the 43,488 million km of total journeys.
The Scottish Household Survey shows that 34.9 per cent of people own at least one bike, although this varies from place to place; only 23.2 per cent of people in Glasgow have access to a bike, compared to 49.6 per cent of people in Moray.
Edinburgh City Council, which has been praised on many sides for its approach to cycling, has earmarked 5 per cent of its transport lead the line. budget for cycling measures, but even that falls short of the 10 per cent which Sustrans and others say needs to be spent.
In Glasgow, plans have being considered to extend a bridge over the M8 for cyclists. In Aberdeen, the regional transport partnership, Nestrans, has been considering a scheme similar to the ‘Boris bikes’ scheme introduced in London by mayor, Boris Johnson, which would see bikes available for use across the city.
In addition, some companies, such as Pricewaterhouse Coopers, have seen the benefit of encouraging their staff to cycle to work, providing showers or assistance in buying their bike. As well as a healthier workforce, it can mean city-centre firms have to worry less about the number of parking spaces they provide.
A big problem for cyclists, though, is having to share the road with other traffic, particularly drivers who often seem unaware they are there.
Jon Snow, the Channel 4 news anchor and president of national cycling organisation CTC, which aims to represent all cyclists, whether picking up a bike for fun, sport or getting to work, told a UK parliament committee last month that he wanted to see awareness and treatment of cyclists included in the national driving test for motorists.
Secretary of CTC’s Scottish branch, Donald Urquhart, agreed and said he would like to see drivers regularly take a refresher.
And Green MSP Alison Johnstone has called for cuts in the speed limit to make the roads safer.
Earlier this year her motion to the Scottish Parliament, which included support for more 20mph-zones, cycle path investment and more on-street training for children, won cross-party backing.
She said: “Unfortunately, there have been four fatalities in Edinburgh in the 12 months leading up to March. It is sad, very sad that it has taken that for focus to shift onto cycling.
“Cycling is a real success story, we are seeing more and more people travelling by bike.
“The one thing that puts people off cycling is concerns about safety. Even if that is just a perception, we need to change that perception.” The Scottish Government’s budget for 2011/12 was £16.5m, down from £21.5m the year before. But Lothians cycle campaign SPOKES has said the total public spend across both national and local government has never risen above 1 per cent.
Transport Minister Keith Brown said the SNP Government was investing in schemes to boost cycling figures and is due to meet the organisers of the Pedal on Parliament on Wednesday 31 May to discuss its manifesto.
He said: “As Transport Minister, I will continue to support cycling projects but we must recognise that we’re in this together – all communities and all local authorities who manage their day-to-day business including deciding their own roads and transport budget.
“Since 2007, the Scottish Government has invested over £83m in infrastructure and measures to encourage more active travel, including expansion of the National Cycle Network. The £50m Futures Transport Fund announced in January will enable us to support better public transport, low carbon vehicles and active travel initiatives.
“This will also enhance Transport Scotland’s partnership working with key stakeholders such as Sustrans, Cycling Scotland and local authorities and will contribute directly to the ambitious vision in the Cycling Action Plan for Scotland – [so] that by 2020, 10 per cent of all journeys in Scotland will be by bike.”
There is much more good work to encourage bike use nationwide. Cycling Scotland, another charity, has organised Pedal for Scotland since 1999, which has grown from being a small ride between Glasgow and Edinburgh to become a major event attracting 14,000 riders. It offers instructor and staff training courses and is running the Give Me Cycle Space campaign to encourage more children to use a bike to get to school. It was also part of an inaugural crossparty working group held at the Scottish Parliament in May to improve cycle use.
So the future for cycling is definitely optimistic and Lauder adds: “People say the weather in Scotland is awful and it’s hilly and it’s cold. But it’s wet and cold and windy and hilly in Norway, Switzerland and Denmark and there are huge numbers of people out there riding bikes. There’s no inherent reason why Scotland can’t have very respectable figures. Back in the 1950s there were more people cycling in Scotland than there were in Germany. We just lost that habit.
“We have an unrequited love affair with the motor car. We’re beginning to find a way out of it now, but it’s taken quite a while.”