Going on a Skyride is a curious experience for someone interested in increasing the use of bicycles as a mode of transport; both uplifting and dispiriting in equal measure.
It’s uplifting, because seeing thousands of ordinary people out on bikes shows you what Britain could be like. Skyrides demonstrate that the British public really quite enjoy riding bikes, and that antipathy to ‘cycling’ comes purely from the conditions they are usually forced to ride them in; namely, on busy roads, in close proximity to motor traffic. Create pleasant conditions for riding, and people will do so. Skyrides are a clear rebuttal of the tired argument that the British public are too lazy to ride bikes; that when they say they want cycle paths, they are actually coming up with excuses that cover their laziness. Thousands of people battled into the centre of Southampton yesterday for no other reason than the desire to ride around on a loop, in safe conditions.
The dispiriting part comes from the knowledge that these events are one-offs, and all that suppressed demand that is so visibly on display will go back to being suppressed once the closed roads ‘go live’ again. Indeed, the whole concept of Skyrides unintentionally serves to demonstrate the abysmal state of cycling in Britain. Children and their families can cycle pretty much anywhere, at any time, in towns and cities in the Netherlands; in Britain, by contrast, they have to make do with a small closed road loop event that occurs once a year.
Southampton yesterday was no exception to the general pattern of these events. Plenty of evidence about how families had arrived at the event – with bikes strapped to cars.
Several families we spoke to at the event had arrived by train. Southampton’s roads did not seem to be a particularly appealing prospect for those with children.
On the closed loop, of course, things are very different, and children – even very young children – were whizzing about enthusiastically.
The classic guiding ‘hand on the shoulder’ on display in these photographs reminds me of how Dutch parents cycle with their children; indeed, strip away the hi-viz and the helmets, and change the bikes being ridden, and these could actually be Dutch scenes. The demographics of the people out riding were similar to the kinds of people you see riding in the Netherlands; the young, the old, males and females in roughly equal measure. A pretty close approximation to the general population, instead of the usual domination by white young and middle-aged males.
It was quite depressing to see the hi-viz vests being enthusiastically touted by a man with microphone in the Guildhall square, urging people to take them home so they would “be safe” and that “cars could see them”. The take-up was high – not as high as I had thought it might be – but enough to turn the square into a sea of dayglo.
Presumably (and understandably, given the amount of promotion) this is how the people attending think ‘cyclists’ should look, and how they should keep themselves safe – by making themselves as visible as possible.
Once the event was over, people started to head home. I briefly stood and watched as people left the closed roads, and headed off along Commercial Road, back to the suburbs.
On the pavement.
Like the thousands of others who attended the Skyride yesterday, these are the people who want to ride bikes; the people who want to make short trips around towns and cities. They are being frustrated.
I suspect the most valuable role of Skyride events is to demonstrate that they exist.