NOW that spring has truly sprung I have been casting guilty glances at the garden shed.
Lying in there is my bicycle which has not had an outing since who knows when. It is of the fold-down variety, designed, as far as I can tell, by the same boffins who invented the Swiss army knife. Once I forgot to turn something – please note the absence of technical jargon – and as I pedalled into a head wind towards the fishmonger's the bike began to concertina beneath me.
Despite that, I remain an ardent if undedicated cyclist. In my youth I cycled far and wide, as a teenager travelling up and over the Kirkstone Pass in the Lake District on a bike with three gears and a frame quite possibly made of lead. Earlier this year I did the same journey by car and marvelled at the masochistic madness of youth. En route we passed many cyclists toiling like Sisyphus up the vertiginous gradient in a biblical storm.
Loading article content
The death of cycling has often and confidently been foretold. A decade or so ago, it seemed, you had a better chance of spotting a wildcat than a cyclist. That, though, has changed utterly. Last weekend 3000 cyclists – at least double the number forecast – thronged Edinburgh's Royal Mile in protest at the inadequacy of provision for those who prefer to pedal than drive.
Meanwhile, in London, one of the key issues of the mayoral election is how the candidates aim to improve the lot of cyclists in the city. Boris Johnson, the current mayor, provoked outrage at a hustings specifically geared towards cycling and road safety when he described a typical cyclist as having "whippet-thin brown legs or dreadlocks", as if you can only have one without the other.
In London, cycling has become such a bone of contention that each of the mayoral candidates has striven to outdo his or her rivals by proposing policies to pacify this increasing vociferous and influential lobby. It is growing in Scotland, too, but we have yet to see any politician of real heft passionately embrace the cause. Indeed, as was pointed out to me when I previously addressed this subject, the Scottish Government appears to be more interested in opening motorways and building a new Forth road bridge than it is in improving the lot of cyclists.
This is odd because cycling is so obviously beneficial on so many levels that it barely needs stating. One of my correspondents directed me to the work of Meyer Hillman, whose family fled pogroms in Lithuania and settled in Glasgow. Mr Hillman, a qualified architect who has been described as "a radical green social scientist", believes that the panacea for our transport woes is the bicycle. But the great deterrent to widening its use is the speed of traffic. As he has observed,:"Cyclists rarely ride into motor vehicles."
Having said that, Mr Hillman, who is now in his seventies and still cycling, argues that accidents must be put in perspective. For example, he has calculated that for every year "lost" through accidents, 20 are gained through health and fitness. He also insists that cycling improves our mental wellbeing.
Seen thus, increasing the number of people who cycle ought to be a political imperative. That it is not is curious and frustrating, especially when it would cost peanuts to make significant advances. These would include the introduction of proper cycle lanes, with concrete borders separating bikes from cars and lorries, secure accommodation in town centres where bikes could be stored without them being targeted by thieves, and an urgent review of those junctions where accidents are most common.
But nothing, alas, talks more persuasively than money. Were the Government truly determined to promote the efficacy of cycling it would offer incentives that would make it irresistible. Perhaps this could take the form of a tax allowance; the more miles you cycle, the less tax you pay. Doubtless it would present a formidable administrative challenge but that could surely be overcome. For what is becoming glaringly clear is that Meyer Hillman is right and that if we and our planet are to be saved we cannot leave our bikes to rust in the shed.