bike boom. the unexpected resurgence of cycling. carlton reid. island press paperback. 246pp illus. £22.99

"During the German occupation of the Netherlands the private use of automobiles was stamped out, and even more people than usual took to riding bicycles."

bike boom - carlton reid

the fact that great numbers of ordinary people ride bicycles in the netherlands has led the country to be placed on a pedestal; many a town planning committee from all across the world has made the pilgrimage to holland, fascinated to learn why it seems to work in a country which owns no fewer cars per head of population than many other european countries. in fact, according to the dutch government, the netherlands is the only European country with more bicycles than people

carlton reid, despite entitling his latest book bike boom begins his preface by informing us "...despite what you might have assumed from book titles, there is no bike boom right now, nor has there been one in the United Kingdom or the United States since the early 1970s." he continues by explaining that though the media are fond of mentioning that bicycling is apparently booming and that he frequently goes along with this misapprehension, "This book is a 79,000-word reaction to my timidity about not explaining why - despite appearances - bicycling may not actually be booming right now."

if you, like me, were wondering why reid named his book contrary to his stated belief, he informs us on the same page that by acknowledging a boom does not exist, "we can better explore how to go out and create one.

firstly, however, the book's other idiosyncracies. though the netherlands are quite rightly dealt with in great detail, there is scarce mention of any other european countries. though italy's fascination with the bicycle is often portrayed as being predominantly related to bartali, coppi and the giro, et al, vittorio de sica's the bicycle thieves which portrayed the great importance of the bicycle in the post war employment stakes, receives not a mention. nor, according to recollection and the book's expansive index, does italy. the home of le tour is mentioned but once.

secondly, though i garnered the impression that bike boom leaned just a tad towards the north american point of view, page 12 of the book's introduction seemed oddly inexplicable. reid subjectively contends that the british word pavement is nowhere near as descriptive as the american word sidewalk, despite the author hailing from this side of the pond. he compounds this subjectivity by stating "I also use American spelling throughout." it may be a superficial point, but throughout the book i kept wanting to ask "why?"

there is, however, no denying the author's tenacity and ability to research even the more obscure aspects of his narrative. he also has a comforting knack of offering particularly apposite descriptions of things as they appear. "To many people all cyclists are the same, they are the 'other', whether that's the Washington DC, executive who commutes... on her $4,000 gravel bike or the low-paid Hispanic rider on his $130 Walmart bike..." (note the americanisation once more).

the bulk of those aforementioned 79,000 words are quite fascinating. this is not a book that concerns itself with the sporting milieu, but with the historical reasons as to how, despite the huge numbers of cyclists that existed prior to the second world war, the motor car gained ascendancy. in both britain and north america this could almost be summed up simplistically by noting how the motor car became a status symbol almost as quickly as it became the predominant mode of transport. the inference being that those who rode bicycles did so because they were too poor to own a motor car.

but as with everything, simplistic is rarely the whole answer.

in the early part of last century, when the motor car became more affordable and thus more populous on britain's roads, the powers that be, ostensibly concerned with avoiding predicted comings together between cyclists and motor cars, were intent on separating the two by constructing wholly separated bike lanes or cycleways. however, the cycling public, fronted by the cyclists touring club were concerned not only that this conferred a more lowly status upon those who cycled, but that such cycleways rarely connected them with the locations and town centres they wished to visit. the (correct) supposition was that the authorities were intent on keeping the cycling public out of the way of the apparently more important motorist.

"Cyclists, in effect, became scapegoats for the congestion that they didn't cause, a blame game that's still played today."

in a situation that features echoes still resounding to this day, despite a 1935 ministry of transport census that demonstrated 80 percent of vehicular traffic in some english towns consisted of bicycles, british motorists demanded that the majority users of the roads should "step aside for their betters." not unnaturally, the cycling organisations felt that the opposite should be the case. however, policy makers and town planners were more often than not rich motorists. not only did they beg to differ, but effectively held the power to have matters arranged in their own interests.

in a contention that still exists amongst cycling activists today, it has long been stated that were british and american cyclists to be provided with state of the art, connected cycling networks that separated them from speeding motor cars, more would choose the bicycle over the car. reid uses the example of davis county in california where a growing influx of students to the university of california were advised to bring bicycles, not cars. this led to davis becoming the acknowledged bicycle capital of america. nowadays that is no longer the case, but in examining davis, reid cites the state capital, Unlike Sacramento, twelve miles to the west, the flat and sleepy town of Davis still had a cycling culture in the early 1960s..."

that may well be the truth, but reid subsequently fails to mention that sacramento currently has around 32 miles of segregated cycleway (that passes san quentin prison), a pathway that is maintained not only by the city but the state. on a visit in 2012, i rode along the bulk of this route and marvelled to see a team of leaf blowers out on a saturday morning keeping the tarmac clear of anything that might impede the wide range of cyclists making use of this unadulterated freedom from the motor car. davis was influenced by the dutch model, but then so was the english new town of stevenage. in the face of what was being referred to as vehicular cycling, where cyclists were encouraged to ride with the same confidence and authority as those enclosed in their faster-moving metal boxes, stevenage was proclaimed as "...a shining example of how the provision of high-quality, joined-up cycle infrastructure would encourage many to cycle, not just keen cyclists."

stevenage was planned by eric claxton, a man that reid describes as a utility cyclist. approval of the cycle network was given in 1950 and constructed alongside the primary road network. these cycleways were mostly flat and designed to encourage residents of the new town to walk and cycle, completely separated from motorised traffic. caxton had witnessed the high usage of holland's cycle tracks and figured this could be replicated in the uk. "Instead - to Claxton's puzzlement, and eventual horror - residents of Stevenage chose to drive, not cycle, even for journeys of two miles or less."

carlton goes on to explain not only why the experiment at stevenage and indeed at thamesmead failed to replicate the situation in the netherlands. there, cycling is so ubiquitous that it is seen as regular behaviour and probably not something that they're inclined to examine with any expectation of profundity. that is left to the visiting non-dutch. reid also examines why holland succeeded where britain and america quite patently didn't. i could tell you here, but then you'd miss out on the pleasure of reading an incredibly informative, well-written (american spellings notwithstanding) and fascinating publication, in this genre, carlton reid is head and shoulders above any other author; these things matter to him a great deal and it's not really too hard to see why.

even those who are inclined to place the carbon fibre on the roof of their audi or bmw four-wheel-drive suvs should make themselves aware of this historical struggle between two wheels and four. britain's bike boom might not really exist (nor that of north america) and the bradley bubble simply the result of media invention, but as with many a contemporary situation, reality bites. this is the ideal preparation for the revolution when it arrives.

thursday 15 june 2017

twmp ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................