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Driven off the road

SUSAN SWARBRICK learns that cyclists are taking their protest about road conditions to Holyrood

IT’S a little after 8am and the Glasgow rush hour is under way, the roads filling with an unrelenting stream of traffic.

Amid the hubbub of cars, taxis, lorries and buses, I’m on my bike, legs pumping, counting down the miles as I ease closer to work. The air is heavy with fumes, every so often a blast of heat from a passing exhaust hits my legs, bringing respite from the morning chill.

Approaching a junction, the traffic lights change from amber to red. I pull to a stop but the van driver behind me is clearly in a hurry. He hits the accelerator and lurches past, turning sharply.

I see it happen in slow motion. My stomach wrenches as the van passes my right shoulder, a blur of red and white. I hold my breath, adrenalin spiking, bracing for the impact. It misses only by inches.

Heart thudding in my chest, I quickly dismount and pull my bike on to the pavement. A driver in the next lane gives a sympathetic smile. I walk my bike the rest of the way to work. The next day I take the bus.

I’m not alone. Many cyclists – be it daily commuters or leisure riders – have tales of narrow escapes on Scotland’s roads. Not everyone is so lucky.

Two cyclists have already died on Edinburgh’s roads this year. Bryan Simons, 40, was killed when he was involved in a collision with a taxi in Corstorphine in March. In January, Andrew McNicoll, 43, died after colliding with a parked car on Lanark Road. Shortly before Christmas last year a 22-year-old cyclist was killed in a hit-and-run incident in the south side of Glasgow during evening rush hour.

The most recent statistics from the Scottish Government show 781 cyclist casualties recorded in 2010, of which 138 people were seriously injured and seven killed. A study by Rospa in October last year found that 75% of fatal or serious cyclist accidents occur in urban areas. The majority – 75% – happen at, or near, a road junction and 80% occur in daylight.

According to campaigners these figures are only the tip of the iceberg, which is why a week on Saturday an estimated 1000 cyclists will converge on Holyrood as part of a Pedal on Parliament campaign.

The group has created an eight-point manifesto which includes lobbying for improved funding for cycling, more bike- friendly road design and proposals to help reduce the risk of HGVs to cyclists and pedestrians. To date almost 1700 people have signed a petition, with cyclists Sir Chris Hoy and Mark Beaumont lending their support.

Among those spearheading the campaign is Sally Hinchcliffe, a writer based in Dumfries and Galloway. A board member of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, she founded Cycling Dumfries to lobby for better infrastructure.

Key to the Pedal on Parliament movement is making Scotland a cycle friendly nation. As part of its Cycling Action Plan, the Scottish Government has set a target of 10% of all journeys to be made by bike by 2020 – a number tied to its low carbon and obesity strategies.

Yet with only 1% of the country’s transport budget allocated to cycling, more investment is needed, say campaigners, if Scotland is to come anywhere close to emulating the success of countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark, where cycling accounts for 27% and 13% of journeys respectively.

“We believe allocating 5% of the budget would bring us to a level where cycling could be as popular as in Denmark and the Netherlands,” says Hinchcliffe.

Key to this is getting more women on bikes. The number of male cyclists in Scotland outnumbers women by around three to one. Many experts suggest that could be down to the issue of confidence.

Matters perhaps aren’t helped by a much cited 2007 report for Transport for London which concluded women cyclists are far more likely to be killed by lorries because, unlike men, they tend to obey red lights and wait at junctions in the driver’s blind spot.

Safety is the prime factor stopping women from getting on their bikes, says Katharine Taylor of sustainable transport charity Sustrans. “When Sustrans surveyed 1000 women, the most common reason given for not cycling was not feeling safe enough,” she says.

“Many women are put off by the speed and volume of traffic. The National Cycle Network offers plenty of well-signed routes that are traffic-free or involve quiet residential streets. By building your confidence you’ll start feeling safer should you come to use a busier road. Many women still cycle near the kerb which is more dangerous as it means drivers are less likely to see you and you will encounter potholes and badly parked cars.”

It is a viewpoint echoed by Hinchcliffe. “Women do tend to cycle less aggressively than men,” she says. “If you read Cyclecraft – the book many people use for advice to stay safe on the road – the guidance is you have to be strong, fast and fearless.

“The instructions for going round a roundabout are terrifying – you need to be able to accelerate up to 20mph. There are plenty of women who can do that, but there are plenty of women who can’t.”

Attitudes to female cyclists can be a potential deterrent too, she adds. “I have female friends who have had sexist comments shouted at them, especially if they are standing up in the pedals and leaning over, when, well, you are quite exposed,” says Hinchcliffe.

The isolated location of many off-road cycle paths is another factor. “One woman in Glasgow told me that she leaves work at 4pm in the winter because she cycles along the canal and there is no way she would do that after dark,” she says.

“Those lovely routes through parks and along canals look great on a sunny summer’s afternoon, but less so on an evening in December.”

According to the CTC, the UK’s largest cycling charity, there is a correlation between the number of bikes on the road and how many accidents occur. The most recent figures show that in East Renfrewshire, where 0.32% of people cycle to work, there was 732 injuries per 10,000 cycle commuters, yet in Moray, where 4.84% use bikes to get to the office, there was only 54 injuries per 10,000 commuters.

“What we’re keen to emphasise is that, in general, the risks of cycling tend to be lower in places with higher levels of bike use – thus getting more people cycling doesn’t necessarily mean more people being injured or killed,” says Chris Peck, CTC policy co-ordinator. “Another thing we have noted is in places where cycling is normal and feels safe, you do get more women doing it.”

Pedal on Parliament campaigner and mother-of-two Sara Dorman, from Edinburgh, describes herself as a “utility cyclist” who uses her bike to do the shopping and take her daughter to ballet class.

“I love the simplicity,” she says. “The first five years I lived in Edinburgh I didn’t cycle. When I had my first child I was faced with the dilemma of how I would get her to nursery and myself to work – without spending hours walking or on the bus. I don’t own a car so cycling was a practical decision.

“With two small children and a full-time job, I don’t have time for a gym membership, but cycling keeps me active and saves time on my daily commute. I often get people telling me that I’m ‘brave’ to cycle but that shouldn’t be the case.”

Dorman, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, is keen to get away from the notion of a conflict between cyclists and other road users. “We want to break down this ‘us and them’ dichotomy, the idea that there is a rivalry between cyclists and drivers,” she says. “At the end of the day, we are all simply trying to go about our daily lives.”

Also joining the rally will be Lynne McNicoll, whose stepson Andrew was killed while cycling in Edinburgh earlier this year. “After Andrew died my initial reaction was let’s throw the bikes away, no one in this family is going to ride a bike again, but that doesn’t honour him in any way,” she says. “My husband and I decided we were going to get back on our bikes and do Pedal on Parliament.

“It’s about moving forward in as positive a way as we can. The most important thing is to find solutions that will stop what happened to him happening to someone else. Making the roads safer and getting more people out on their bikes is something I would love to see. It is important that Andrew’s death isn’t in vain.”

Pedal on Parliament will rally at the Meadows, Edinburgh from 2pm on April 28. visit www.pedalonparliament.org

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