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Two Wheels To Save The Planet

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There is an almost crushing amount of talk about how to save the environment, people’s health and obesity due to a lack of physical activity. In my time I have been urged to save everything from milk bottle tops to the Amazon forest. But the elephant in the room is that in one stroke we could save our health and the planet very quickly by what we do. I have never been a campaigner nor am I of any political persuasion, but there is one thing that is close to my heart and that is the bicycle.

Whether you’re five or seventy five, cycling is a great way to get around – and a bike even carries your heavy bags. But, but, but…. How cycle friendly are the streets of Cheltenham? Working my way round the Council offices, both in Cheltenham and Gloucester, I found that cycling does not figure in the overall transport policy for our town. It is tucked away in the Intergrated Planning department. I’m not entirely sure what that encompasses. It probably includes car, the roads, the multitude of one-way systems and a host of other things like the width of pavements to accommodate double or treble baby buggies before it gets down to the humble bicycle. ‘There are more bike stands in town now and we’ve extended the Honeybourne Line,’ I was told. Whether that is thanks to the efforts of the very committed Cheltenham & Tewkesbury Cycling Campaign or to the Council I couldn’t say. That’s fine if you only cycle to keep fit, after work or at weekends. But what if you live on the Tewkesbury Road and you work in Pittville or on the Bath Road? To regard cycling mainly as a leisure activity or as a sport is a big mistake. A bike runs on the cheapest energy known to man – the feet. Whether you’re five or seventy five, cycling is easy to do even for the weakest of legs, it cost nothing, you are completely independent – and the bike even carries your heavy bags. The cost of an ordinary bike is also within the reach of even the most modest income. Everyone I spoke to at the Council offices were very committed, but it seems that ideas and suggestions hit the buffers when on get higher up in local politics.

Save the planet, save the people

The bike has long been recognised as a perfect means of transport across Europe. Governments in Holland, France, Belgium and Germany, to name but a few, have understood that it is the perfect way to save resources – a bike causes no noise or air pollution, and it keeps people fit and healthy, thus saving millions on the health care budget.

I looked at urban cycling in other towns and cities. In the Danish city of Copenhagen with 5.3 million inhabitants, a third of the population cycles. On a percentage calculation for Cheltenham this would mean that 4,000 Cheltonians could cycle around town. Copenhagen offers nearly 1000 free bikes on 35 bike stations in the town. This strategy has produced clean air, low noise levels and an active lifestyle.

In central London the introduction of the congestion charge had a dramatic effect. Londoners realised that getting around with a bike was more efficient and quicker than using a the bus or a car. It gave people total independence and was also cost free. Cycling increased by 43%. I cycled in London for 18 years as I always worked in the West End. Even in the bad old ‘70s and ‘80s I felt a lot safer in London than I feel here. London are drivers accept that cyclists have as much right, if not more to be on the road, if they respect the high way code. This doesn’t seem to have sunk in here, as yet. I spent twenty years in Europe. In towns such as Strasbourg, Munich, Ghent, Bruges and Brussels most people use a bicycle as transport. Parents take their smaller kids to school on tag-alongs and tandem bikes to get them used to cycling on the streets. People are trim and fit and there is no sign of obesity, neither in the old nor in the young.

Planning for the future

A couple of years ago there was an opportunity to get a £500,000 grant to turn Cheltenham into a cycling town. Unfortunately Cheltenham’s bid failed. At the time there was much anger and finger pointing among the campaigning cyclists.

So what can be done in our town? For a start cycling lanes have to be widened. The lanes are intermittent, often no more than a few feet long and not worthwhile using. They should be properly linked, otherwise there is no point in having the few that we now have. I spoke with a few bike shops. ‘The cycle lanes are hardly worth using, they’re so bitty and they don’t go where you need to go,’ said one bike seller who himself uses the bike to go to work every day. Last week on the road to Gloucester I found along stretches of cycling lanes. I saw one cyclists. ‘I use the lanes, but most cyclists don’t, he said, ‘because the cars are always on them.’ So why are the lanes in the centre of Cheltenham so wholly inadequate? They are far too narrow; in some streets, such as College Road, they are barely as wide as my handlebar. If I push my elbows out I touch the cars next to me. The car would come to no harm, but I could end up under a car. Cars frequently drive over half the cycling lane. Is it any wonder that people then cycle on the pavements? I’ll put my hand up and say that I do, frequently on my way to work, when I am forced off the road by cars driving within inches of the curb. On my way home I have to use St.Margaret’s Road and Fairview. There are very wide pavements, but almost never any pedestrians. In cities like Munich and Brussels such pavements would be shared by cyclists and pedestrians. All it needs is the drawing of a line of a bike’s width on the curb side.

In 2007 in Cornwall a mentally disturbed man ran down a pensioner on a pavement with a bike which was not his own. He was doing 25 mph. This event was used to forbid the riding of bikes in pedestrian zones. Suddenly all cyclists were considered unbalanced killer cyclist. In the weeks following this story cyclists were shouted at on the Cheltenham High Street and accused of trying to run pedestrians down. The story got more publicity than the many cases of pedestrians killed by drunken drivers every day. Cyclists should not be allowed to wear earphones which prevents them from hearing, and anticipating what the traffic around them is doing. There is a case for limiting cycling in pedestrian zones. There should be a ‘riding wrecklessly or under the influence of alcohol’ offence’. Responsible riders, who use the bike as a daily means of transport and who wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing, should be left alone. I often see teenagers trick-cycling their way around baffled shoppers on the High Street. In Amsterdam and Munich wreckless teens had their bikes confiscated on the spot and their parents had to pay to release the bikes. It was extremely effective and reasonable cyclists were left in peace. The proof of the pudding came from the Cheltenham Town Centre Safer Community team who stated: ‘We have had no reports of incidents of people injured by cyclists so far.’

Everyday cyclists

On my travels around Cheltenham I met postman Jason. ‘The bike is great for getting around if you have heavy bags,’ he said. He also uses his own bike to cycle to and from work everyday. When I met Anne her bike sported a child’s seat at the rear. She used it to take her youngest to nursery school. Her two older children had been on safe bike riding courses. ‘But they are too frightened to cycle on the roads in Cheltenham,’ Anne confessed. Emma was unlocking her bike outside M&S when I spoke with her. ‘Quite honestly,’ she said, ‘I live up the Prestbury Road and I’m always glad when I get home in one piece. I often get squashed into the gutters by drivers. Men with expensive cars are the worst. Your bike only has to hit a bad drain cover and you go over the top.’

Safety first

I cycled in central London and some European cities for twenty years and for six years in Cheltenham. I have never had an accident. I put this down to the fact that I am also a good driver - I always apply the Highway Code when cycling, exactly as if I was driving a car. Safe cycling is not about wearing the fancy gear, but about hazard awareness, the knowledge of the rules of the road and most of all concentration. If young people preparing for the driving test were made to practice the Highway Code on their bikes they would make much better and more considered drivers.

SOME DO’S ...

Always remember the rules of the road. Apply the Highway Code.
Always indicate in plenty of time
Always keep to the right lanes
Always make sure that the pedal nearest the curb is up when you go around a corner; if the pedal is down and your foot catches the curb, you ‘ll come off your bike.
Always respect the priority of other road users, especially at roundabouts. Make eye contact with drivers coming from your right. Be sure that they will give you priority.

Always keep an arm’s length away from parked cars. Drivers have a habit of opening car doors without looking. Crashing into an open door will not damage the car, but may land you under an oncoming vehicle.

... AND DON’TS

Don’t jump traffic lights!
Don’t ever wear earphones or listen to music. Hearing the traffic around you, especially behind you is vital to your safety.
Don’t let drivers push you too near to the curb. Drains and potholes are a hazard, especially in heavy traffic when you are surrounded by impatient drivers.
Don’t ever panic or wobble if a driver impatiently sounds his horn behind you.

And always look confident.