THIS weekend marks a year since the Tour de France took Yorkshire by storm. Or perhaps I should say, since Yorkshire took the Tour de France by storm. Like everyone else, the world’s elite bike riders were stunned by the colour, noise and enthusiasm that greeted the Grand Départ.
The memories of crowds urging the peloton up the Cote de Buttertubs and the sight of people 10 and 20 deep on the side of the road are as vivid today as they were last July.
But what do 200 or so of the world’s best cyclists have to do with people using their bikes for everyday activities, such as cycling to work, school or the shops? And is Yorkshire about to go the way of Copenhagen and Amsterdam by becoming a mecca for cycling?
Sustrans works in schools across Yorkshire, helping children walk, cycle and scoot their journeys. Since the Tour started last year, we’ve seen the number of children cycling in schools where we work almost double.
On top of that, this year’s schools cycling and scooting competition – the “Big Pedal” –saw a 17 per cent increase in the number of journeys by scooter and bike. Clifton Green Primary school in York has been working with Sustrans since September 2014, and they tell us that now 35 per cent of children are cycling to school regularly, compared to 15 per cent before. The school has had to install two new bike sheds to cope with demand.
Clearly there is enthusiasm. But despite this we know too many children and adults are put off cycling for various reasons. We speak to people who would love to ride to work but their employer may not have cycle parking or a shower. In Yorkshire we’ve worked with a number of big employers to address some of these issues and have some great results.
For example, the UTravelActive project has worked with the University of Leeds and other education partners and helped to achieve a 20 per cent increase in cycling over the last 12 months. One in 10 of the university’s 7,000 staff now cycle to work, making use of 2,500 cycle parking places provided on campus and local route improvements.
The biggest concern, though, is safety. Sustrans commissioned research last year that found parents’ biggest concern about their children getting to school is road safety, even greater than stranger danger.
We know from developing the National Cycle Network back in 1995 that when you build routes on traffic-free paths and quieter roads, people are far more likely to use them. And they also benefit the economy; our research published this week found that over the past 20 years the Network has saved the economy over £7bn.
The Network, like the Tour de France, shows that people want to get on their bikes. They just need a safe environment in which to use them. After much lobbying by Parliamentarians of all parties, Sustrans, our supporters and a broad coalition of transport and health organisations, the Government is now pressing ahead with a Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy.
This is a huge step in the right direction but now we need to make sure that what is eventually published by Government details an ambitious plan.
We want to see the Government provide funding for cycling and walking worth at least five per cent of transport spending, and a Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy that contains a long-term vision and targets, in the same way that already exists for our roads and railways.
When one considers what it would mean to have more people cycling local journeys, such as reducing congestion, cutting down emissions and reducing the burden on the NHS through reducing inactivity levels, it’s clear that five per cent is a shrewd investment in all of our futures.
There are often discussions about where the nation’s sudden appetite for cycling has come from. Was it from Beijing in 2008 which saw Team GB’s men and women dominate track cycling? Or perhaps it was the exploits of Mark Cavendish, Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome in the Tour de France?
In many ways these have all been important in making the humble bike front page news. Perhaps it has just reignited our childhood passion for the sense of freedom that you get from pedalling – whether it’s to work as you rush by traffic jams or at the weekend cycling with your children or friends.
Clearly Yorkshire and the rest of the country won’t become Holland or Denmark overnight but with the right plan and investment from government we will set a course to emulate our continental European neighbours.
Paul Osborne is regional director of Sustrans, the charity behind the National Cycle Network.