Londoners have a very big problem.
The astronomically high cost of buying or renting a home often miles from where they work and the cost of travel increasingly force more and more people of all ages to cycle to work and at speed along busy roads. This is not recreational cycling, and they make a virtue out of necessity and promote it. Cyclists then become a danger to themselves and others, especially to blind pedestrians.
Newcastle could not be more different in every respect.
Local councillors in Newcastle have allowed themselves to be persuaded to promote it here. They are told that “Less than 1,000 cyclists” currently use Gosforth High Street daily, and that this should increase to 3,000 to 4,000 return journeys a day if they invest in cycle lanes, red lines and a road junction improvement that would remove half of a public car park.
A very much more honest starting point would have been “less than 100 cyclists” a day. A recent professional survey counted 70 or so cyclists riding along the High Street and returning the same day. And their projections are widely out of line with a National Cycling to Work Census from 2001 to 2011 published by the Office for National Statistics.
They have also allowed an endorsement of their plans by less than 5% of the 13,000 people consulted to provide a mandate for their plans when more opposed them than supported them.
And when they receive complaints about the impact of reducing the size of a car park especially in the evenings, they propose that cars should be allowed to park on the main relatively narrow arterial road through Gosforth - in many cases some distance away from the shops, restaurants and the communal facilities afforded to the 78 organisations that use Trinity Church for their activities.
The residential area immediately adjoining the shopping centre was built before houses had garages. Empty parking spaces are already hard to find, and especially so in the evenings.
Apart from being a waste of money, the policy will cause widespread inconvenience and threaten the viability of a very good local shopping centre on Gosforth High Street and the jobs and livelihoods of the many people employed there. It could lose the city millions of pounds in business rates.
But all of this, at its root, is yet another prime example of an over-powerful London-based lobby and the political elite there thinking that what they want for themselves is right for everyone else when it may well not be.
I am not even sure they have got it right for themselves. They are going to create cycle Super-Highways, but they forget that the cyclists will then spill out into all the little side streets and clog them up. They won’t just stick to the Super Highways and then suddenly disappear.
They also conveniently ignore health as well as safety - the toxic fumes cyclists have to breathe in every day.
Look around towns and cities, and the countryside too. The intermittent cycle lanes are as unappetising as bits of spaghetti in a bowl of cold macaroni.
Nobody in this story smells of roses.
Not the populist Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, whose legitimate concern for the safety of cyclists in London said “Let’s make Britain a cycling country.”
Not Nick Clegg, who has tweeted that he wants to see the number of cyclists double by 2020 and, as Deputy Prime Minister, may have been behind the £214m Ambitions Grants to UK cities to try to bring this about.
Not the Times newspaper that campaigns for cycle lanes but never suggests that cyclists have responsibilities like other road users - in particular in relation to insurance.
Not the powerful flat earth cycling lobby that puts it about that London and the other great cities in the UK should be like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where half the population cycle to work, when these cities could not be more different.
And not, in other words, only Newcastle’s Labour controlled local authority spending money on the roads without due care and attention, as the Labour Party has a way of doing, and the neighbouring local authority in Gateshead doing exactly the same thing in Low Fell.
I can understand Newcastle’s unwillingness to turn down a £5.7m grant to promote cycling in their city. Money has its own persuasive language.
On the other hand if there had been a Greater Tyne Authority and if it had been given that amount of money without strings attached, in an age of austerity would they have spent it as Newcastle is currently trying to do?
Would it have totally ignored the fact that there was absolutely no significant local enthusiasm for the spend?
Listening to the cycle lobby and a gaggle of professors in academia, you would think that the only way to keep fit and combat obesity was on two wheels.
But what about jogging, swimming, hiking, dancing, pilates, mountain climbing, health clubs and gyms, martial arts, yoga, and just plain walking. Eating the right food would help too.
Listening to the cycle lobby, you would think that they are fighting pollution and saving the planet, when all they do is slow down vehicles in narrow lanes in town and country and increase the amount of carbon monoxide pumped into the atmosphere.
Bristol, named as Britain’s “First Cycling City”, has already allocated substantial funds to cycling, part of its spend being £2.3m on 13,000 signs introducing a speed limit of 20mph across the city.
But the recent growth in cycling has gone hand in hand with a 15% jump in the number of cars on the road (from 165,334 in 2001 to 190,530 in 2011), effectively forcing ever-increasing numbers of people to compete for the same road space and creating conflict and casualties. The number of cyclists injured or killed on the roads of North Somerset has risen by 30% in the last 10 years. Could there be an element of road rage here?
Don’t ask the RAC. They write that “the RAC’s stance on the cyclist and motorist issue is one of neutrality as we recognise that many cyclists are also motorists.”
Cyclists clog up the roads where there are no cycle lanes. They are a danger to themselves and a danger to others, especially to blind pedestrians. It is all one way. They assert their right to be there, but they don’t want a legal responsibility to have insurance like other road users and they disobey the Highway Code at will – for example by frequently cycling through red lights.
In their vision statement the Newcastle local authority envisages a time when one in eight road users in Newcastle over journeys up to five miles will be by cycle. Recently some activists said that there should be cycle lanes on the Tyne Bridge. They should take a look at the cars travelling nose-to-tail in the mile long tailbacks on the multi-lane roads leading to the Tyne Bridge in rush hour. They should stand on the bridge between 7am and 9.30am and between 4pm and 6.30pm and envisage it. It would make more sense to provide a catapult or a zip wire.
Their projections for Gosforth, and also their more recent ones for central Newcastle, fly in the face of national cycling to work statistics for 2001 to 2011.
Cyclists should stop thinking that everyone else should share their enthusiasm for cycling and, worse still, penalise them if they don’t.
Planners should give a good deal more thought in Newcastle and elsewhere to this matter. Yes indeed promote the legitimate needs of cyclists with safer routes, but don’t compromise the interests and the safety of the silent majority, the many others who have different needs altogether; they also have rights that need protecting.
Planners should also factor in the weather, the contours of the landscape, and the fact that many of our narrow twisting urban and rural roads were constructed B.C. (Before the cycle).
And as important as anything else, they should do what planners often fail to do. They should factor in the real fly in ointment, human fallibility - in this case the unguarded or reckless moment from driver, pedestrian….or cyclist.
I hope that the Local Government Ombudsman will inject some plain common sense into spending our money.
- Alan Share is a member and recent chairman of Tyneside Decorative & Fine Arts Society, which meets in Trinity Church. He is the chairman of Philip Cussins House, Residential Care Home in Gosforth. Before he retired he was managing director of SCS and a director of British Shops & Stores Association.