‘Bike Nation’ by Peter Walker

Peter Walker is cycling correspondent for The Guardian and his book is a polemic about what it means to be a nation centred around the bike, instead of the car. It is full of stories, reports, statistics and interviews with leading lights in cities and nations that have transformed and are transforming the way that people live. There is a lot about the Dutch, the Danes, parts of the US and specifically Utrecht (Holland), Odense (Denmark) and Portland, Oregon.

Walker starts with compelling data about the risks to health caused by that largely hidden modern disease – sedentary living and how regular activity (eg by riding a bike) could reduce this.

He makes some interesting and compelling points, backed up by evidence. Proper cycle lanes require physical barriers (eg raised kerbs) between them and the cars, not just painted lines; Boris Johnson’s cycle super-highways in Central London which have caused so much controversy are a good start but here in West Wickham there are some painted cycle spaces beside the main roads which are usually blocked by parked cars and broken glass. Cycling must become a natural day to day activity, undertaken by all ages and as natural as walking; he describes 6 year olds in Holland cycling to school.

There is an interesting chapter on that spiky subject of wearing helmets: Melbourne introduced a cycle share scheme (like the Boris bikes) but helmet wearing is compulsory in Australia, so take-up has been low (this is a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences). Walker ponders how many early deaths have been caused by people not cycling, as compared to injuries saved by the wearing of helmets.

There is a very interesting chapter on how cycling and cyclists are generally viewed in this country. He describes cyclists as an ‘outgroup’ – best explained as the ‘them’ in an us and them situation. So car drivers are seen as the ‘us’ who own the roads and pay road tax while cyclists are seen as ‘them’  – jumping red lights, riding on the pavement, slowing down traffic, generally a nuisance and the (usually) right-wing press reinforces this view with negative stereotypes. My own view is that until car drivers, cyclists and all other road users are viewed as a single group who must share the space and treat each other with respect, cycling in Britain will continue to be seen as an activity outside the mainstream. Cyclists in this country ride road bikes with drop bars, they wear lycra and funny shoes, they wear helmets, they assert themselves on the road and in many respects, regard themselves and behave as outsiders. Visit most European cities however – Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Vienna, Stockholm, etc – and cyclists are ordinary people, of all ages and abilities, riding upright bikes often with shopping baskets, wearing normal clothes and they (almost) never wear helmets.

If I have one criticism, it is that Walker is very good at outlining and illustrating the problem but less good at proposing solutions. I would like to have seen a final chapter with his manifesto – a 10 point plan on precisely how, when and at what cost Britain could become a true Bike Nation; something for the politicians to ponder while they consider the cost of building HS2.


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