Andrew Vine: The long ride towards respect on the road

THE bikes are out every evening and weekend now where I live, adults and children alike off for a spin. Nodding acquaintances are made as faces become familiar, a community of sorts united by the fun of getting out and enjoying both the weather and the exercise.

But there’s something else that unites us. We’re mostly sticking to the side roads and residential streets, especially the family groups, taking circuitous routes that keep us away from traffic.

The quiet streets, many with 20mph limits and speed bumps that force drivers to take it easy, feel safer and, in chatting to other cyclists, it’s plain that there is among many a general nervousness about riding the main roads.

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That’s hardly surprising. There is more traffic than ever before, and too many drivers with too little regard for cyclists.

Being tipped into the gutter by one of them a year or two back shook my confidence so badly that it has never fully recovered, to the extent that I treat main roads with extreme caution.

This shared sense of unease about finding a place amidst the traffic was borne out by figures released by the Department of Transport last week, which concluded that the number of cyclists on the road has stayed stubbornly static.

Nationally, it found that only 9.5 per cent of us ride bikes once a week and 15 per cent once a month, a long way short of the Government’s stated aim of doubling cycle use.

The reason cited for the numbers of regular cyclists remaining low was, predictably, concerns about safety. It’s fair to say that the picture in Yorkshire 
is rosier than the national figures 
suggest. The evidence of our eyes, wherever we live in the county, is that there are more people cycling than there used to be.

That is undoubtedly a result of last year’s hosting of the start of the Tour de France. This Sunday marks a year since the beginning of that magical weekend when Le Grand Départ swept exhilaratingly through bunting-bedecked villages, towns and cities, cheered on by millions.

The focus it placed on cycling, coupled with the determination that its legacy should be to get more Yorkshire people on their bikes, has paid dividends. Young and old alike have embraced cycling, turning out once again this year to cheer on the inaugural Tour de Yorkshire.

But a year on from Le Grand Départ, if its legacy is to be truly fulfilled, there needs to be forged a new relationship of mutual tolerance and respect between drivers and cyclists that removes the fear factor from venturing onto main roads on two wheels.

Such a new relationship would also go some way towards tackling the nuisance of cyclists riding on pavements, which although illegal, is now so prevalent that if the police chased everybody doing it they would have little time for anything else.

Riders are taking to the pavements for the same reason that many stick to the side streets – they are worried about safety, and shrug off the ire of pedestrians as a lesser evil than risking a road accident.

We have not yet reached a stage where cycling is such a part of all road users’ DNA that drivers instinctively give riders sufficient space and have the patience to await the chance to pass safely.

Instead, we’re all familiar with the spectacle of motorists gesticulating angrily, or even hurling abuse, as they shave so close by cyclists that the margin between safety and collision can be measured in a few inches.

Cyclists have their part to play, too. In recent weeks, I witnessed the frustration of a long line of motorists heading into the Dales stuck behind a group of cyclists who decided to bunch into a slow-moving peloton occupying the entire carriageway. It was awkwardness for its own sake that raised the likelihood of an accident by tempting drivers into risky manoeuvres.

Militancy on the part of either group as to whose rights are paramount gets us nowhere.

This is why an emphasis needs to be placed as much on fostering an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and understanding as it is on exhorting people to get on their bikes.

Yorkshire’s new-found fondness for cycling makes it the ideal place to pioneer such an approach. It won’t happen overnight, but perhaps when the children riding past my home have grown to adulthood, they will venture from the side streets onto the main roads without a second thought.