Is cycling a realistic alternative to taking the car?
- 3 December 2012
- From the section England
Like many people I own a bike. For the past year it has been more of a wall decoration in the garage, rather than a means of transport.
I have only ever been a fair-weather leisure cyclist, but on my way to work I see those on two-wheels for whom it is the daily commute.
For tonight's Inside Out programme I got on my bike to experience rush hour through the eyes of a cyclist.
If the British weather weren't enough of a deterrent, the accident statistics don't make great reading.
One hundred and eleven cyclists have been killed on our roads so far this year.
Needless to say I had no intention of adding to the latest statistics that show an 18% rise in the number of cyclists killed or seriously injured in the North East and Cumbria.
The figures for the region comparing 2010 with 2011 are worse than the national average.
I had a high vis jacket, lights, safety helmet and reflective bands on my legs.
Even so, as a two-wheeler you feel very vulnerable when cars are only a matter of inches away in the rush hour.
The route took me along a seven mile journey where there is currently little provision for bikes, so it was me versus the car.
For the most part I was travelling faster than the motorists who were caught up in the usual peak time snarl ups.
I suspect that didn't endear me to some, but I actually found most motorists were courteous at junctions and lights, giving me room and time to cross.
I noticed that sometimes it was difficult to stick to the kerb because drain covers were often below the road surface; it wasn't just bumpy but potentially could have thrown me out of the saddle.
On the odd occasion that cycle lanes appear they often take you right over these hazards.
I also rode through the streets of York which claims to be one of the more bike-friendly cities in the UK. But even here the cycle lanes can be so short and random as to be more hindrance then help.
At one point the dedicated lane was interrupted by official parking bays so you end up zigzagging in and out of the path of the other traffic.
In Newcastle city centre the council have installed a cyclists traffic light.
If you are heading from the City Baths towards Northumberland Street the dedicated light turns green while all other car approaches are held at red.
It sounds great, but if you set off on green and go straight over the junction you are led into head-on conflict with pedestrians whose crossing light is also on green.
It seems we need more joined-up thinking.
There are lots of campaigners arguing we need to follow the example of places like Holland where 60% of journeys are made by bike.
There are also many more cycle ways and there is even a heated one to keep the surface clear in winter.
The UK average for cycle trips is only 2%. The difference can't be explained away by the flatness of the Dutch landscape.
'Them and us'
Cyclists and non-cyclists seem to be at loggerheads.
When we were filming a woman tapped me on the shoulder to ask whether we were doing something about the menace of bike rider on pavements.
I've heard some motorists say cyclists don't pay road tax so should not be on the highway.
Maybe if more of us cycled more regularly it wouldn't be such a 'them and us' situation.
Motorists might have a bit more sympathy if all cyclists followed the highway code.
We've all seen those on two-wheels go through a red light as if it didn't apply to them.
In fact when I was using that special cycle traffic light, I was crossing over when another cyclist flew across my path having run a red.
Similarly my other nearest collision was when I was turning left at some lights when a pedestrian decided to ignore the little red man and tried to cross in front of me as I turned the corner.
The experience did open my eyes and as a motorist I will certainly give cyclists more time and space.
Would I be tempted to use my bike instead of the car?
Well, the experiment taught me I could actually do the distance.
However, the unpredictability of the weather forecast and what may lie ahead on the next stretch of road means until it becomes a pleasure, my bike will be reserved for leisure.