I really do hope I am wrong about my next statement: the Giro won’t bring a lasting legacy for cycling. It won’t normalise cycling. It won’t make cycling any more accessible or raise cycling’s modal share. It won’t address the fact that in Belfast male cyclists outnumber female cyclists by 6 to 1.
The Giro will reinforce cycling’s image as male-dominated, fast and furious, hot and sweaty, clad in lycra. Local shops cater very well for this market.
The real game changer -I believe- will be the NSL-run public bike hire, which will have 300 bicycles available from 30 docking stations in the first phase.
The system will roll out in the autumn of 2014 and be operational in the spring of 2015. Once it is up and running people will see cyclists in normal clothes, shopping, sightseeing or using bikes to get to or from work. They won’t have helmets or hi-viz.
For the first time in Belfast people will see “fietsers”, bicycle users, in great numbers. And seeing people using bikes casually will, I hope, encourage more people to dust off their bikes, pump up the tyres and use their bicycle for day to day transport.
And then these new bicycle users discover that their road racing bike isn’t up to the job of commuting, shopping and taking children to school. It lacks any kind of commuting necessity: lights, hub dynamo, an integral lock, a stand, mudguards, a luggage rack with straps, an enclosed chain, a comfy saddle or swept back handle bars. All included when you buy the bike. They want something like this:
And if they have children they might want one of these:
But then they find buying one of these great machines is almost impossible in Northern Ireland. We went to Greenaer in Dublin, after trying one out in Amsterdam.
Belfast is crying out for a shop that sells normal bikes. Or an existing shop to take the plunge and cater for these new bicycle users. I’d like to see a shop that isn’t into carbon fibre, energy gels or lycra. I’d love to talk to a salesperson who isn’t fussed that including a lock will add a couple of gram to the overall weight; who isn’t surprised you cycle your new bike home; and knows not to take off the wheel to fix a puncture. A bike shop that sells practical rain gear.
Every silver lining…
The main problems I foresee with the Scheme are:
Taxis being allowed into bus lanes. In the absence of decent cycling infrastructure Belfast cyclists must make do with bus lanes. The relative safety the bus lanes offer will be shattered as this video from Dublin shows.
The lack of cycling infrastructure. I already mentioned making do with bus lanes. I posted the following a while back. How do similar sized Belfast and Utrecht compare with regards to cycling infrastructure. It’s actually embarrassing. Belfast city councillors, DRD staff from the cycling unit, “cycling” minister Danny Kennedy need to go to Utrecht and see how it’s done properly.
Finally, will the hire scheme address the gender imbalance? Evidence from London says it won’t significantly alter. In London 4/5ths of Boris Bike users are male. Nigreenways tackles the issue of cycling equality, or lack of it.
Addressing road safety by building cycle tracks separated from motor transport, countering cycling’s MAMIL reputation and changing cycling from a leisure activity to a form of every day transport will be far bigger factors in persuading women to use bicycles. And increase numbers of bicycle users overall.
It is somewhat ironic that women do not use bicycles these days, because it was the bicycle that gave women in the late 1800s the freedom to travel and spread radical ideas like emancipation and universal suffrage.
Utrecht doesn’t have a Bike Hire Scheme but Seville does. And having also constructed 80 miles of cycle tracks the number of cycle journeys in the Spanish city went from 5000 to 72000 a day; an increase in modal share from 0.5 to ~7%. One worries that Spain’s new helmet laws will dent these figures, but many municipalities including Seville have chosen to ignore mandatory helmets and merely recommend their use.
As a major tourist destination Belfast is ideally placed to repeat Seville’s succesful scheme, provided DRD’s plans for a city-wide network of cycle lanes and paths are realised.