You are no doubt aware that Jeremy Clarkson has been singing the praises of Denmark, and Copenhagen particularly, in his latest Sunday Times screed/car review; he names the Danish capital one of the world’s best cities because, in his words
best of all: there are no bloody cars cluttering the place up. Almost everyone goes almost everywhere on a bicycle.
Having conceded that this might sound, to his readers, ‘like the ninth circle of hell’ (and implicitly to Clarkson himself, before he experienced how it might work), he writes that such a mistaken impression might be formed
because you live in Britain, where cars and bikes share the road space. This cannot and does not work. It’s like putting a dog and a cat in a cage and expecting them to get along. They won’t, and as a result London is currently hosting an undeclared war. I am constantly irritated by cyclists and I’m sure they’re constantly irritated by me.
Clarkson is no doubt coming at this from the perspective of someone who doesn’t really like bicycles being in his way when he is behind the wheel of a car, but he is at least generous enough to concede that those people on bicycles might be ‘irritated’ by him in his car.
The more important point is that, in a roundabout way, Clarkson has grasped that cycling becomes attractive when you are not having to negotiate, incessantly, with motor vehicles. Remove conflict, and life becomes easier, principally for cyclists, but also for drivers.
To achieve this, of course, space has to be reallocated in the carriageway, taken away from the motorist, and given over to people choosing to cycle; or, some streets have to be made difficult or circuitous for people using them in cars, while remaining direct routes for bicycles. These are both forms of segregation. As Clarkson puts it
City fathers have to choose. Cars or bicycles. And in Copenhagen they’ve gone for the bike.
This is the first thing I think Clarkson gets wrong; it is needlessly oppositional. Cities do not, necessarily, have to choose between the car and the bike. The real choice is between whether our cities remain entirely motor vehicle-dominated, like London, or whether provision is made for safe and convenient journeys by bicycle, and by foot, as is the case in Copenhagen, and the Netherlands. This isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a car versus bicycle issue – it should be about providing people with a choice about how they make their journeys. At present, for most people in UK towns and cities, there is no choice at all, because road conditions are so hostile.
If you do provide people with a realistic choice – if you genuinely facilitate cycling – then it becomes an ordinary, everyday activity, and not a confrontational extreme sport that is only ever likely to appeal to a tiny minority. This is where Clarkson is actually really on the money –
in Britain cycling is a political statement. You have a camera on your helmet so that motorists who carve you up can be pilloried on YouTube. You have shorts. You have a beard and an attitude. You wear a uniform. Cycling has become the outdoorsy wing of the NUM and CND.
In Copenhagen it’s just a pleasant way of getting about. Nobody wears a helmet. Nobody wears high-visibility clothing. You just wear what you need to be wearing at your destination. For girls that appears to be very short skirts. And nobody rides their bike as if they’re in the Tour de France. This would make them sweaty and unattractive, so they travel just fast enough to maintain their balance.
Frankly, this is amazing stuff, coming from a renowned petrolhead like Clarkson, who has, in the past, made quite a number of unhelpful, not to say incendiary, comments about cycling, which even if they were meant as a ‘joke’ are sadly almost certainly not taken as such by much of his target audience. So I’m really glad that he has seen for himself how cities and towns can function with a large proportion of journeys being made by bicycle, and indeed how you achieve those numbers of journeys.
The upshot is a city [Copenhagen] that works. It’s pleasing to look at. It’s astonishingly quiet. It’s safe. And no one wastes half their life looking for a parking space. I’d live there in a heartbeat.
Welcome to the club, Jeremy.
Unfortunately there is one final thing he gets wrong –
But I don’t live there. I live in a country with Ben Nevis in it. And as a result we have to have cars.
I don’t take this comment too seriously, because in the context of the piece as a whole it is simply a rather clumsy and cack-handed way of moving on to a car review, but nevertheless it should be pointed out that not everyone in Britain lives on Ben Nevis, or indeed anywhere near it. Most people in Britain live in places that are, by and large, quite flat. London, for instance. I don’t think the presence of Ben Nevis some 400 miles away should tell us anything about the geography of London, or indeed whether people who live in Zone 1 ‘have to have cars’.
In any case, London itself is rather flatter, for the most part, than the Danish city of Aarhus, where 25% of all trips are made by bicycle. There are, likewise, parts of the Netherlands that are also very hilly, and which have modal shares far in excess of an equivalent British area.
Suffice to say, the link between terrain and the practicality of the bicycle as a mode of transport is a bogus one. There are very flat areas in Britain, where cycling is almost totally non-existent as a mode of transport. Gradients are quite unimportant when compared to how practical and safe cycling is felt to be. Car journeys should not be described as essential because of the presence of mountains somewhere else.
But overall, much as it pains me to say this… thank you Jeremy Clarkson.