I am delighted to become the patron to the Newcastle Cycling Campaign. As I have long been active in the London Cycling Campaign, and was for a time a board member, I can see how this kind of campaigning is vitally important in improving cycle facilities. There is much to be done and without a strong voice for cyclists, either nothing happens or, which is sometimes worse, the wrong sort of facilities are created which not only is a waste of money, but does nothing to help local people who want to use on their bikes.
I have been up to Newcastle a several times in the past few years. The first time I was invited to give some thoughts on how to improve cycling facilities in the city. The key, I said, was to have an active group to put pressure on the local authorities to improve the situation. Pleasingly, my last visit was to chair the important Love Cycling Go Dutch conference in 2013 which highlighted both the considerable progress made so far and the agenda for the future. The conference did, indeed, show the importance of campaigning as several of the new facilities came about because of local activities and pressure.
Cycling has to be viewed in the wider context. The most important aspect is that increasing the number of cyclists does not just benefit the cyclists themselves. Because cycling is both environmentally friendly and relatively low speed, the presence of lots of cyclists changes the very nature of a town or city. You only have to travel to cities in Britain where cycling is far more embedded in the culture, such as Oxford or York, let alone those places in Europe that are so often cited as beacons of cycling culture, such as Groningen (Newcastle’s twin city) or Copenhagen.
It is vital to remember that places like these did not become cycle-oriented by accident. Very often it was an inspirational figure or group which pushed for cycling to be promoted, often instead of building yet more roads for cars. An interesting recent example, highlighted at the conference, was Sevilla, where in the space of just a few years, model share of cycling has grown tenfold to 7 per cent, thanks to a deliberate and clear policy by the local city administration. There is no reason why in a few years Newcastle could not be transformed in that way.
Cycling is the future; it’s part of the solution to so many issues: congestion, obesity levels, pollution, poor air quality and the overall ‘feel’ of a city. We need to create the conditions so that people can see cycling as a real alternative. Being able to use a bicycle is so much more than just cycling. It’s about a better city, a better fairer more inclusive Newcastle. Change must be brought about quickly and efficiently.
And these changes are best brought about quickly. The example of New York is important here. Rather than waiting for a comprehensive city-wide plan which would have taken years to develop, the transport commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan supported by the mayor Michael Bloomberg, hit upon a ‘paint and plastic’ approach of creating cheap and easy immediate improvements. The idea was that these could be trials and if they proved unsuccessful or unpopular, then the scheme could be reversed. But, in fact, this only happened in one or two cases.
Urgency, therefore, is a keynote. For too long we have all put up with a transport system that is not geared towards providing for vulnerable users such as cyclists and pedestrians. Now we have an opportunity to change that and the Newcastle Cycling Campaign will be in the vanguard of change.
A transcript of Christian summing up the Love Cycling Go Dutch conference in Newcastle in 2013 can be accessed here.