The Olympics is over, and the UK is the best nation in the world for cycling. Sport cycling at the elite level, that is.
the Tour de France and the Olympic medals table.
Meanwhile, for athletes who have to train on public
roads, for club cyclists, tourists who want to enjoy a bike ride, for commuters
and people just doing the shopping by bike, UK cycling is among the worst in the world. If cycling is
growing as an activity it is not because the environment for cycling is
improving – it patently is not – but because alternative modes of transport are
becoming less attractive, and perhaps also because people are being inspired to
get on their bikes by the success of our high-achieving competitive riders.
Why is the UK so successful at Olympic-level cycling? Why
have we gone from a nation where we barely registered at the elite level of
cycling, to a position where we dominate the world? Good organization, science,
targets, the pursuit of marginal gains. Targets are set, progress and
performance constantly measured. We consult experts in each relevant field. Evidence
is gathered and alternatives to improve performance evaluated. Changes are made
and their effects measured. Gains are pursued without compromise in every area,
on the basis that small improvements in many areas aggregate up to big improvements
in overall performance. If something doesn’t work, it’s changed for something
that does work. Problems that are holding back performance are identified and
fixed. We invest money wisely. And when we host the Olympics at home, we over-deliver.
Why do we have wooden-spoon performance when it comes to
ordinary cycling? Why does cycling modal share remain stubbornly, embarrassingly
low despite politicians being united in their stated belief that it’s a good
thing and should be encouraged and promoted? Because we’re taking the precise
opposite approach to that we’ve taken to achieve elite-level performance. We
organize badly: there is no unified vision and responsibilities are split so
there is no overall control or accountability. We don’t use science. We don’t
pursue gains in any organized manner. We constantly set targets and fail to
meet them. We measure lack of progress and fail to act on it. We ignore experts,
both safety experts (as at the Bow Roundabout) and cycling infrastructure experts
from countries with a record of success. Evidence, such as surveys constantly
saying that people don’t cycle due to fear of motor traffic, is ignored and
instead of picking alternatives to improve cycling, we pick alternatives that
favour motor traffic. We make changes based on political whim rather than
science. We make small improvements in very limited areas, and ignore problems
in important areas. If something doesn’t work (like narrow, on-road, advisory
lanes where car parking is allowed), we pretend it does, or we ignore it, or we
just try the same thing again. Problems that are holding back performance are not
identified or fixed. And we both under-invest and waste much of the little money
we have to spend on cycling - how did the near-useless Cycle Superhighways cost £10M
each to deliver, when they are little more than paint? And when we host the Olympics at home - an opportunity to get spectators to use active travel to get to events, and build a legacy of great infrastructure, we deliver close to nothing at all.
Back in 1997, we created a single ‘quango’, UK Sport, to oversee investment
in high-performance sport. It has a clear remit and a no-compromise philosophy,
to provide the best possible support for athletes. That organization has
delivered in spades.
Since 1997, we’ve had a plethora of organizations, from
local authorities, central government, the justice system, quangos, charities,
Transport for London and so on, involved in everyday cycling, with no clear remit, a lack
of any coherent philosophy, and seemingly dedicated to compromising cycling out
of existence and providing an almost complete lack of support for ordinary
To promote cycling to encourage ordinary people to be more physically active (which is a goal of the 2012 Legacy plan), could we learn from the elite sport of cycling, and try something that works for a change?