With the way we travel changed for the foreseeable, Stuart O’Hara looks local and makes the case for finding our two feet on two wheels in the age of the new normal.
As fine a sport as cycling is, this article isn’t about Lycra, doping, yellow jerseys or cowbells. It’s about what might simply be called Riding Your Bike. Getting from A to B, vernacular cycling, Active Transport (Liverpool City Region’s term), or just whizzing around Liverpedlarpool with a bird on your head. There’s a forgotten Mark Ronson single from 2010 called the Bike Song, featuring a lad from The View who briefly clambered out of landfill to sing it, like an indie Stig Of The Dump. That was a good song about bikes. The chorus goes “I’m gonna ride my bike until I get home”, which is the most wholesome sentiment going, relatable to anyone who’s ever gone about on two wheels. On the other hand, Queen’s Bicycle Race is a bad band’s bad song about bikes. That of which we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence.
Getting from A to B on Merseyside has a chequered history, and been dominated by the car – or, rather, the predicted dominance of the car. Post-war reconstruction banked on increased car ownership (pending social mobility that didn’t always come to pass), justifying the dismantling of the tram network in 1957 and complementing the closure of railways which left estates like Norris Green stranded. There were even plans for the M62 to terminate at the Queensway Tunnel – hence The Rocket being junction 4 – and a Ballardian city centre with separate levels for pedestrians and motorists, ne’er the twain meeting. Even the compromised outcomes of these aborted visions were dully car-orientated, with one-way systems and partial street closures which, although they did slow traffic in residential areas, were implemented with social order (and control) in mind. In trying to prevent rat-runs, city centre-adjacent neighbourhoods like Everton, Kensington and Toxteth were neglected as their commercial fortunes faded. Whole communities were uprooted from condemned terraces in the north end and those who weren’t housed in piggeries or the few central new builds were moved to Huyton, Skelmersdale, Kirkby, Maghull – satellites, suburbs, and new towns(™). With a motorway between them and Liverpool, a car was the only way of commuting, or just getting the heck out of Dodge.
It’s a bit better these days. Some of those disused railways have been converted into cycle paths, like the Loop Line, part of the National Cycle Network, under the auspices of Sustrans. It runs between Aintree and Hunt’s Cross, a sort of cycling counterpart to Queens Drive. But it’s wild in parts and, crucially, unlit, meaning it’s not the commuter’s first choice for half the year. In great swathes of the city, cyclists must share the road, facing heavy traffic, poorly maintained surfaces like Kensington and Picton Road, and brutal (the cycling journalist’s adjective of choice) inclines into headwinds – though the weather here is no worse than in cycle-friendly countries such as Denmark and Holland.
Those streets barred to cars partway along their length, in Kensington, for example, are now largely passable by bike. The dock road has segregated cycle lanes, hopefully benefitting entities like IWF, Ten Streets Market and Wired theatre company, and surely implemented with Sound City, the Titanic Hotel and Everton’s dreamed-of Bramley-Moore stadium in mind. But the result of that 20th-century carousel of semi-fulfilled planning is continued dependence on cars (and, to a lesser extent, buses) around a modestly-sized city. Therein lies the insensibility of a car-dominated Merseyside – it’s not huge. According to Liverpool City Region’s Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan (LCWIP), two-thirds of all journeys made here are under 5km. Half of those are taken by car. In May 2019, it says, 2 per cent of journeys were by bike. The LCWIP’s goal is to improve the image of cycling on Merseyside, but the desire to ride was already there in those cycling casually, those thinking about driving less, those teaching their kids how to ride a bike; it’s only in the last decade or so that the infrastructure’s appeared. More could have been done already, but all that can be done now is to look ahead.
So what’s the plan? In 2014 Liverpool City Council pledged to triple the number of cyclists by 2017, a goal of 45,000 people cycling once a week. It isn’t clear if that target was achieved, but there were visibly more cyclists about in 2019, and there seems to have been another spurt during lockdown, but it remains to be seen if that will last. Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram has appointed Simon O’Brien (off Brookside) as a Cycling Commissioner, and their current plan fits into a ‘Connectivity Scheme’ which aims to make walking and cycling the primary modes of city centre transport by 2023, through extensive redevelopment of Lime Street, the Strand, Tithebarn Street, Victoria Street and Moorfields. Note that these are mostly around the business district, though Brownlow Hill – probably the most significant non-student residential area in the centre – is set for wider pavements and bike racks.
It’s a nice gesture, but with the best will in the world, it appears that increased cycling is the means to an end – namely, reduced traffic, lower emissions and a healthier population. There is an argument for not looking a gift horse in the mouth, but why not invest in cycling for cycling’s sake? Not as a discrete activity but just ‘getting on your bike’. As Guardian journalist Peter Walker has argued, ‘cyclist’ is often an identity in a way that ‘driver’ is not. Maybe we need to become the new drivers in that respect.
The blame can’t always be laid squarely at the council’s door though. There is a ‘Car is King’ culture on- and off-road which, being kind, is the inevitable product of a society that’s long been geared toward car use at every level. Being less kind, it’s just plain entitlement. A case in point – pop-up cycle lanes piloted around Liverpool during the relative calm of lockdown, segregated by plastic bollards, have been repeatedly ignored by drivers parking across them. It brings to mind Casey Neistat’s viral video from 2011 in which he gets a $50 fine from the NYPD for not riding in a cycle lane. He then stays unswervingly in his lane, literally crashing into scaffolding, parked vans, and a police car. It’s a bit childish but it makes the point painfully.
Cycling has the potential to be a truly popular mode of transport in every sense of the word. It’s been argued that the invention of the bicycle expanded the gene pool in the late 19th Century, letting people reach the next town or village with ease, no longer limited to starting a family with their neighbours and most distant cousins. Bikes aren’t exactly cheap (and sexism in the marketplace needs calling out more), but running one is far more affordable than a car for a lot of people. You can tinker with a bike in a way you no longer can with most cars due to reliance on onboard computers. Those 60s urban planners could (just about) be forgiven for reading the signs as they did – cars were small, there was ignorance about fossil fuels, and the post-war project was utopian, in an individualist way. It wasn’t so long after, as that project began to sour, that it was plausible for the Prime Minister to have claimed that anyone over the age of 26 riding a bus was a failure (some people need to sit at the front of the top deck more). That forecasting created a negative feedback loop which is still going.
To be clear: this is not a crusade against all motor vehicles. Buses are vital, particularly for those with need of greater mobility and accessibility. In a city with a strong music scene and – yeuch, sorry to use this term – nocturnal economy, there still needs to be access for motor vehicles to load bands in and out, for vans to stock restaurants on Bold Street. But it should be equally safe for couriers and Deliveroo riders to navigate. Influential research conducted by New York City Department of Transport found that independent businesses fared better in districts with segregated cycle lanes. That might be a single piece of data but it opens up a rabbit hole about how cycling can be our means to an end too – the end being getting politicians to listen in terms they understand. And bikes are cool. They will never suffer the stigma other modes of transport have.
On the face of it, competitive cycling’s had a positive influence on your average rider in the 2010s. Moves to ‘clean up’ doping, a string of British Tour de France winners, and 2014’s Grand Départ in Yorkshire have almost certainly contributed to the increase of urban cycling, and not just at rush hour. But the available data isn’t always so useful. Lists of ‘best and worst cities for cycling’ tend to draw on numbers of cyclists and Strava, and though that’s often shared with local authorities, it isn’t always easy to find out who cycles, why, and where to and from. Though we’ve all heard horror stories illustrated by footage of road rage and driving that, merely sloppy to the driver, is potentially lethal to the cyclist, it isn’t easy to track down quantified data about the cyclist’s experience and how safe they feel on the road.
There is hard data about cycling fatalities. Liverpool came bottom in a Walk And Cycle Merseyside (WACM) table of metropolitan boroughs, with 42 deaths per 100,000 of the population (the UK average is 29/100,000) between 2014 and 2018, and Sefton sits only a few places higher. Focusing on fatalities and injuries among child cyclists, the North West fares little better, with St. Helens, Liverpool, Sefton and Wirral in the bottom 10. But it’s hard to parse the data (not every local authority is a metropolitan borough) and put it in context – higher numbers of cyclists may imply a greater risk of injury, but most cycle lanes in Liverpool so far have been painted on, rather than segregated from other traffic. Cyclists can only protect themselves so much. Here’s the rub: should building bike-friendly infrastructure encourage and determine future use, or reflect and improve the current cycling experience?
Syd Barrett’s Bike occupies the god tier of bike songs. It’s a very good song but it’s not really about bikes, a bit like many cycling initiatives at local government level. Similar language appears over and over in plans for improved conditions for cyclists. Pretty utopian, drenched in colourful graphics, with a sense that the only thing stopping better cycling was the lack of a plan. But cycling’s already simple enough. You strap on your helmet, check your lights, and you’re off. But the language of the focus group, the cabinet meeting, or the optimistic item on North West Tonight doesn’t adequately describe the cyclist’s experience. It doesn’t describe the near miss with the cement mixer, the prayer that the dotted line will be enough of a barrier, the polka-dot jersey waiting at the top of Rice Lane or Smithdown when there’s a bus up your arse. There’s a gap between vision and reality, between policy and people, that could be closed if more cyclists were involved in the process. It’s not about picking a far-off date by which to lay more red tarmac; it’s about prioritising the cyclist from here on in. One of the best things about cycling is the freedom – faster than running, with the wind in your hair, it’s as close to flying as you’re gonna get.
Every now and then, ‘before and after bikes’ photos of Amsterdam surface on Twitter’s online trash vortex. The narrow streets familiar from centuries of Dutch painting and stag dos, photographed in the 70s, could be present-day Walton, with cars parked bumper-to-bumper on either side leaving just enough room for a third to crawl through. It seems astonishing that such a car-centric European capital could eventually prioritise the sole, the pedal and half as many wheels. The grass isn’t greener on the other side of the fence – it took 20 years for those changes to take place, but they are proof that there’s no need to accept how things are now. Those holding the purse strings can’t just clap their hands together and say “job done”, whistling off to the next planning application for more student accommodation. Climate change is already happening, cultural change is necessary, and those making the decisions must be persuaded to de-incentivise the car.