This article was published in 2009, in Newsletter 82.
Matt Polaine, one of the Cycling Campaign’s regular contributors to our email discussion list, gives his personal view that the attitude toward cycling is all wrong in Cambridge.
Some of us have experienced other European cycling cultures, and through comment and debate on my (and other) blogs I found an informative comparison between Cambridge and Copenhagen. The posts and debates centre around Health & Safety (H&S) culture in the UK, Cambridge highway engineering through risk-averse design, and British cycling chic – the lack of it. Yes, I wear yellow Lycra too. All these elements are linked to two key factors: educated hazard perception and a common sense approach to risk. This is something our UK H&S culture is rapidly eroding, and I’ll come back to this point.
One of these blogs is ‘copenhagenize.com’. The aim of this blog is to bring Copenhagen bicycle culture to the world. In a few city councils around the globe they speak of ‘Copenhagenizing’ their streets to accommodate bikes. In the Danish capital it’s just a way of life. Copenhagen is already regarded as the best cycling city in the world and Denmark is the second safest place to cycle (after the Netherlands), and those of you out there who need inspiration for cycle advocacy in your towns and cities can find a wealth of info at copenhagenize.com.
Indeed at the presentation launch of Colchester Cycling Town (where I grew up) by John Grimshaw, within the group photo is the chairman of the Colchester Cycling Campaign, who is wearing a Copenhagenize T-shirt no less.
Cycling as chic
What seems to give Copenhagen the edge over the Netherlands is a focus on cycling as stylish, for the informed citizen, that it is a city with a certain kudos, a certain chic. As such the Copenhagenize blog is linked to Copenhagencyclechic blog which makes for an interesting contrast to Cambridge’s view of cycling.
Jekyll and Hyde Cambridge
Cambridge has a Jekyll and Hyde cycling culture with bad UK stereotypes being reinforced daily; taxi and bus drivers forcing cyclists off the roads, motorists parking in mandatory cycle lanes, van drivers shouting and threatening cyclists and police indifference to this hate offloaded onto cyclists. Conversely (and most likely a symptom of such an environment) there is a yob culture associated with two-wheeled pedal vermin. They wear matt black clothing with no lighting at all to disappear into the night like Ninjas, hop on and off pavements cutting through pedestrians at speed, jumping red traffic lights, and riding scrap with virtually no brakes. The universities, town and country clubs all have good following but don’t want to get ‘sucked into’ the whole UK cycling culture debate until a club member gets knocked off. The city has a number of shops selling cycles for upwards of £3,000, so where are they being cycled?
This is a cultural chasm between Cambridge and Copenhagen, so what is going on? Cycling is certainly not chic in Cambridge, it’s more like modal warfare. What is still chic here is one’s ability to drive the most expensive car one’s debt can afford into the city centre and park it there all day. A bike – that’s for students, the poor, and those eco-people.
At the root of the problem is decades of virtually zero cycle infrastructure funding. We know this. However, like positive feedback loops in ecosystem collapse, erosion of one element quickly cascades to another two, then four then eight or more social issues and then the problem gets out of hand. The problems facing Cambridge have got out of hand.
The Cambridge local authorities continue to spend a tiny fraction of their transport budgets on cycle infrastructure, preferring to plough our local and central tax revenues into facilitating private motor traffic flow and Park and Ride bus schemes which suffer, along with all the drivers, from severe congestion across the city. There are exceptions to these descriptions, but they are certainly not in the majority. This is what the public ‘want’, as educated by the motoring section of the Cambridge Evening News. It is not what they ‘need’. Very few residents of Cambridge have any idea what Cambridge could be like if the bicycle was afforded the same respect as it is in Copenhagen. There is a severe education problem in this respect.
Health & Safety misuse
So is this complete lack of high-quality cycle infrastructure the root cause of the chasm between Cambridge and Copenhagen cultures? Almost. I support the new Chairman of the National Trust, Sir Simon Jenkins, on his views of the other major factor that has all but destroyed a positive cycling culture in Cambridge – Health & Safety misuse. I’ve looked through hundreds of images on the Copenhagencyclechic blog and it reminds me a little of where I have cycled in Offenburg, Germany, and reports from David Hembrow’s blog in the Netherlands. In Copenhagen there are men and women cycling around in stylish, smart work clothes that have been designed to cycle in. I couldn’t see any skin-tight bibshorts, specific hi-viz clothing, and not one helmet. No helmets at all. However the bikes all seem to be of high quality, built to last many northern European sub-zero winters and have decent lighting.
There are stores in Copenhagen that sell ‘normal’ clothing designed so that it can also be worn when cycling, almost unheard of here in the UK retail market except for cycle shops, and even then it’s at the sporting end. Not only that, but UK cycle shops are looking more and more like building site safety equipment outlets with all the hi-viz clothing, helmets, reflective stickers, legislation on bells and wheel/pedal reflectors (even on a new £2,000 time trial bike) and constant reminders of how ‘dangerous’ it is to cycle on our roads.
From a lifetime exposure to risk analysis, the UK Health & Safety culture has damaged the freedoms and health of children and adults on bicycles to such a degree that it is my view that this almost complete erosion of educated hazard perception and a common-sense approach to risk is feeding a whole risk-averse, litigation-fearing highway engineering ‘standard’, and I am not alone in thinking this.
Chairman of the National Trust, Sir Simon Jenkins, fired a broadside at the very same UK culture last November. He said,
His words are intended to open a debate on the subject and to encourage views from other voluntary organisations involved in public participation and activity. Perhaps Cambridge Cycling Campaign should write to him offering our support in order to gain mutual strength on this front. The National Trust has much in common with cycling.
Just take a look at all those photos on the Copenhagenize blog and then consider our UK culture. Look at how motor traffic respects cyclists as part of the traffic, unlike here in the UK where we are treated as road vermin blocking motor-traffic progress. Look at all the terrible ‘risks’ cyclists are taking in Copenhagen; wearing scarves, riding with one hand, riding with an umbrella, and sin of sins – no-one wearing a cycle helmet. I ask any H&S Officer, tell me why there isn’t carnage in Copenhagen?
Cambridge County and Cambridge City Councils will not publish any cycling promotional material with cyclists pictured without a helmet. This compounds the problem that cycling in the UK is marketed as a highly hazardous activity with a very real risk of severe injury without protective gear. Indeed without protective gear in this country you face charges of ‘contributory negligence’ – a whole other debate around collision proportionment and HGV mirror legislation – both unique to the UK within the EU. Supporters of helmet wearing cite so many statistics, but look at Copenhagen and the Netherlands. Show me the huge proportionate serious injury and death rates from not wearing helmets in these places of high cycle density and explain it to me. Tell me what benefits our UK Health and Safety Executive brings to cyclists, and our highway engineering mindset. How do these benefit UK cyclists? Why the chasm between Copenhagen and Cambridge? What led to this?
It should be clear to all that through the intent of H&S and risk assessment to ‘protect’ cyclists from UK highway culture, we are sentencing a whole generation to an early death from obesity-related disorders with far worse odds than those of a cycling injury. Of course, misguided H&S officers won’t be around then to be beaten about the head with healthcare bills. I expect their focus is not betterment of society but litigation reduction.
Added to this misguided H&S culture is the curtailing of the freedoms of children – future adults (and highway engineers) – their ability to learn self-reliance, a sense of place and community, an educated hazard perception and a common-sense approach to risk. Our transport culture has stored up decades of social and healthcare problems not to mention a serious style issue for normal cycle commuting. Did I mention before I wear yellow Lycra bib-leggings?
Respect the bicycle mode
The chasm between Cambridge and Copenhagen is there because the Danes respected the benefits of cycling and Cantabrigians didn’t. To close the gap – to Copenhagenize Cambridge – this respect must be restored at every level. This means that local MPs, councillors, planners, engineers, newspaper editors, drivers and workmen need to throw away old entrenched attitudes about cycling and cyclists in Cambridge, and come to terms with the fact that our culture has all but destroyed an essential cultural component of the city. Only combined respect for the mode – not the current stereotype – can Copenhagenize Cambridge. Can this be done?
A healthcare timebomb, choked city, and an indifferent, highly dependent population is not a very pleasant inheritance for our children, along with all the mess of climate change and peak oil. Surely the first step in changing attitudes is to challenge possible futures? Cambridge’s Local Transport Plan has never been clear to me, nor have I seen any believable timeline, but Copenhagen is there, now. A tangible parallel.
Put me down for one Cambridge Cycling Campaign Copenhagenize Cambridge T-shirt. A CCCCC abbreviation!