Monthly Archives: September 2012

Is the CTC helping or hindering bike use in the UK?

Update, 22nd October 2012:

The article below has opened up a can of worms, but one which probably needed opening. It also gave the CTC top brass a chance to respond to criticism not just from myself but from many others. You can make up your own mind by reading the comments below.

The “Right to Ride to School” page which sparked this piece has since been changed to clarify the intent, which is to work against schools which attempt to suppress cycling. You can view a screen-grab of the original page here.

Since I wrote this the CTC launched their Cycletopia which looks nice (if a bit childish) and seems like it’s going in the right direction, although on closer inspection the words “segregated” “separate” and “protected” don’t appear anywhere, while “training” does. (Come on, guys, catch up!)

They have also declared their support for quality segregation which is a great headline, although I still believe that the devil is in the detail. (Giving councils an option to do nothing beyond painting lines on the road is not going to boost cycling.)

I’m also pleased to have inspired two bloggers to have written articles in response to this post: David Arditti and Freewheeler, both of whom I respect greatly.

Freewheeler wrote more articles related to the same topic – all of which are well worth reading – which you can find here, here, here, and here.

Another update, 28th October 2012: Joe Dunckley wrote an article about the story of what happened to cycle campaigning in 1996, of which Roger Geffen tells his version in the comments below.

Anyway, you can read the original article below…

You know, I read so much nonsense written about cycling that I often don’t know which blog post to write next. If I could hook up my brain directly to WordPress then you’d find a new post by me every five minutes.

While writing my last post I took a look at the new CTC website, which has been updated recently. One thing that caught my eye was their “Right to Ride to School” page. It’s a good idea – every child should have the right to ride to school in a safe and pleasant environment. But the phrase “Right to Ride” made me a little suspicious, as it usually refers to the right to ride on the road with the cars and vans and lorries, which is a right exercised by almost nobody. I wonder why?

The CTC thinks that the reason 99% of children in the UK don’t cycle to school is because…

  • they don’t know how
  • their parents would rather drive them
  • they don’t have anywhere to keep their bike
  • their school actively discourages this mode of transport

Now, is it me, or is this a perfect example of cycle campaigners ignoring the elephant in the room? Why isn’t “because it looks and feels dangerous” on that list? How about “it’s insane to expect small children to cycle around cars and vans”?

Even the photo they have used looks suspicious – why can’t we see where these children are riding their bikes? Looking at the short height of the kerb in the bottom-left corner of the photo, I wonder if these children are actually riding on a protected cycle path. Has it been cropped to prevent angry emails from vehicular cycling zealots?

The CTC's photo of three young children riding bikes, but it is cropped so we can't see what type of surface they're riding on.

They’re not on the path – are we meant to think they’re riding on the road? John Franklin would be proud!

These aren’t rhetorical questions, I’m genuinely asking why the UK’s biggest and most influential cycling group – “the national cycling charity” no less – insists on sticking to this “Right to Ride” mantra. How about “safe cycling routes to schools” – what’s wrong with that? Why does everything have to be tied in with vehicular cycling? On a page about children riding bikes to school they don’t once mention the fear of motor traffic being the number one reason people consistently give for not cycling.

Instead, they blame the children, they blame the parents (they also blame schools, but quite rightly, as there are schools in the UK which are anti-cycling).

Personally – and tell me if I’m nuts for thinking this – I blame it on a lack of safe, motor traffic-free routes. Can’t the CTC see this?

I realise I’m opening a can of worms here by criticising the CTC – an act which, in some circles, seems akin to publishing cartoons of Mohammed – but here goes. The CTC has been around for over 100 years, and where has cycling in Britain gone under their guidance? A 1% cycle-to-school rate (against 89% in the Netherlands), a mere 3% of people riding once a month for utility (compared to 93% per week in the Netherlands).

What are the CTC for, if not to promote the use of bikes in the UK? I know they can’t be held responsible for the brain disease epidemic that affected town planners throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, but by focussing on the Right to Ride so much they have ignored the one thing that would get more people in the UK cycling: Dutch-style infrastructure. Riding on the road has failed, they’ve had a century to promote it and still nobody wants to do it.

Apparently, some CTC members are pushing for a more pro-infrastructure stance, which I think is great. I really hope the organisation is waking up to the fact that most of its members are hardcore cyclists whose desires and needs are very different to the rest of the population, and that if it wants to grow cycling in the UK then it needs to promote Dutch-quality infrastructure. But having to argue for cycle paths within the CTC must feel a little bit like having joined the Communist party because you believe in equality and fairness but then finding Stalin in charge.


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A Tale of Two Halfords

When I was in the Netherlands recently, I saw lots of Halfords shops. UK readers will be familiar with this brand, as it’s the name of a national chain of everything-for-the-car shops. They also sell a lot of bikes which, in my experience, are usually at the back of the store. (According to their corporate site, they sell one million bikes a year – are these mainly childrens’ bikes, or do they get left in the garage? Where are these millions of cyclists in the UK?)

The branches of Halfords I visited in the Netherlands were a very different affair. The stores were generally smaller than the warehouse-sized UK shops, and the bike-to-car products ratio was reversed — it was mainly a bike shop which also sold car bits. They were very helpful places, with free bike tyre pumps by the door and they even lent me a spanner to tighten the seat on my hire bike, which had become slightly loose. Maybe they have more car-centric stores out-of-town, but the ones I saw were all in the centre of town.

(Halfords in the UK isn’t part of the same company as Halfords in the Netherlands and Belgium, as far as I can tell. I imagine that they were once joined, but it seems they were split some time ago, and now operate independently of each other.)

Inspired by this post and this post I took a look at the bike sections of the two Halfords’ websites. As you might expect, the two sites vary enormously.

The UK Halfords bike page is all dropped handlebars and helmets…

Halfords UK website main cycling page

If you can find one photo of someone not wearing a helmet even vaguely near a bike then you’re doing well! (I did find one, as it happens.)

…whereas the bikes page on  the Dutch Halfords site is mainly about utility, with a large range of practical bike types (although it does have one section called “ATB” – I assume this means All-Terrain Bikes, or something). Note how all the bikes shown, except the ATB one, have at least a rear rack, mudguards and lights.

Halfords NL website main cycling page

Categories: Grannybikes, Child bikes, Electric bikes, Recreational bikes, Mother bikes (with child seats), Folding bikes, City bikes, and ATB.

The most depressing bit about the UK Halfords site, however, has to be their cycle selector tool – you know the kind of thing, where the website asks you questions about what you’re looking for and then makes recommendations which may or may not be of use.

The first question asks whether you are male or female. Not being into bikes, I wouldn’t have thought this made much difference to the type of bike you could ride – after all, both men and women generally have legs, arms and a head, right? Anyway, it’s question 2 which stumped me:

Halfords UK cycle choosing advice page

“What will you be cycling for? Leisure/Fitness, Extreme Fun, Jump & Tricks, or Electric Bike?” But what if I want to pop to the shops?

Ignoring that the fourth option isn’t an answer to the question posed, what do I choose? I don’t want an electric bike, nor do I want to do jumps and/or tricks, I get enough extreme fun crossing the roads here in London, and I don’t want to get fit. I just want to buy a practical bike and use it to get about – go to the shops, that sort of thing. Is that such an unusual desire?

Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and choose the nearest match: Leisure/Fitness. Then you can choose from different terrain types – I chose Urban (as opposed to Rural, or Rocky Terrain), then I chose Non-Portable (i.e. not a folding bike), then Upright (of course!) and the site gives me a choice of “hybrid” bikes, none of which have any storage racks at all, or even mudguards! Completely impractical bikes designed for anything except utility.

Halfords UK bikes results page, with lots of impractical bikes

Wot no mudguards or lights?

To be fair, Halfords UK does have a range of what they call “classic” bikes, which resemble the standard Dutch-style bike, although they’re mostly labelled as “ladies’ bikes” and are treated like some kind of deviant purchase and kept under the counter. I could only find a link for them on the huge menu which appears when you hover over “bikes” at the top of the page (where you’ll also find encouraging phrases such as body armour, hi vis clothing, and hydration packs) – they don’t seem to be mentioned or recommended anywhere else on the site.

I’m not having a go at Halfords UK here – surely they’re just providing what the public wants? But it suggests that utility cycling doesn’t really exist here, and if it does then it’s dwarfed by sports cycling. Perhaps this is why, until recently, cycle campaigning in the UK has been dominated by the Right-to-Ride extremists blind to the needs of others – cycling is seen as a sport first, as an ideology second, and as transport third. (Sometimes the first two are swapped around.)

I don’t know really what point I’m trying to make here, except that looking at bikes on Halfords UK site got me down. Surely they hold a mirror up to our society? Or do they help shape it?

To finish off, I’ll leave you with the image that Halfords UK deem suitable for the top of their “Cycle2Work” page.

Photo of lycra-clad helmetted cyclist on a mountain bike drinking from a cycling water holder. He's riding to work, apparently.


Update: I meant to link to this in the article, but this is the sort of bike they should be selling for practical cycling. I’m sure they would sell them, if we had the infrastructure to ride them on.


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