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How a book dedication saved this bicycle advocate’s life

Riding a bicycle is life-affirming, but I never thought writing a history book about cycling could have the sort of impact I’m about to relate.

Montreal in Quebec, Canada, was a hot-bed of cycle advocacy in the 1970s and 1980s, one of the key reasons that city now has hundreds of miles of cycleways, including a two-mile curb-protected cycleway smack-bang in the Central Business District.

Montreal became bicycle-friendly because of people power. Bicycle-advocacy group Le Monde à Bicyclette was founded in April 1975, and many of the campaign tactics it employed – such as die-ins – are still used by advocacy groups around the world.

The anti-automobile activism group was cofounded by Claire Morissette and Robert “Bicycle Bob” Silverman. The curb-protected cycleway in the Central Business District was built in 2007, replaced a car lane, and was named for Morissette, who had died from cancer earlier in the same year.

To research Bike Boom I visited Montreal, and hung out with some of the 1970s members of Le Monde à Bicyclette. This is my pic of Robert on the Piste Claire-Morissette (I ferried him around in a Christiana cargo trike):

Bike Boom is dedicated to him:

For Robert “Bicycle Bob” Silverman and all of the other 1970s cycle advocates who tended cycling’s flame when planners and politicians were trying to snuff it out.

Last week I sent Robert a proof of the designed pages. His reply took me by surprise:

“Thank you for dedicating the book to me. Reading it actually saved my life. I’m going blind with macular degeneration which started a few years ago, which was combined in early October with a stroke. Life has been very hard; so bad that I cannot ride a bicycle any more, cook, or do other very simple tasks. I was prepared to take my own life, but changed my idea after reading your dedication.

“This is true, not an exaggeration. In Quebec, dying with dignity is legal … But since receiving your dedication [my mind has] changed.

“When I became a bicycle advocate [in the 1970s], for the first time I had a reason to live. I would ride a bike, and that in itself was revolutionary … I have dedicated my life to making the world a better place via a simple solution: the bike!”

I was very touched by Robert’s candour, and asked his permission to tell this particularly sensitive tale.

Wonderfully, Robert is now working with local advocates to produce an in-depth history of Le Monde à Bicyclette and will also be dictating a number of hard-hitting bicycle blog-postings. Bike power!

In 1935, cyclists accounted for 80 percent of the traffic in some English towns and cities

In May 1935, a Divisional Road Engineer in the Ministry of Transport wrote to the Chief Engineer in London giving the latest traffic counts:

“The cycle traffic on the Wolverton Road [near Stony Stratford in Buckinghamshire] represents in numbers 54 percent of the traffic on the road throughout the day. At rush hours it reaches 80 percent of the total traffic using the road … At Magdalen Bridge in Oxford, 12,500 cyclists pass in the sixteen hours of the normal census day. They represent in numbers 50 percent of the total traffic. At a point in Bedford cyclists represent in numbers 80 percent of the total daily traffic …”

And check out this pic of cycling to work in Chatham Docks, 1939.

More such info in Bike Boom, published in May. Sign up for updates on the right.

#AlternativeFact: “Cyclists cause air pollution”

“Cyclists cause air pollution” is becoming one of the regular tropes to attack cycling, wheeled out by shock-jocks, NIMBYs and even black-cab drivers (possibly tweeting such views from their diesel-powered vehicles, idling at taxi stands).

It’s insidious. Have a look at this A-level physics exam paper from Edexcel:

I was alerted to the questions by my 17-year-old daughter. The exam paper is real.

More such bikelash nonsense will be in Bike Boom, published in May 2017. Sign up for updates on the right.

Britain’s first cycle tracks

Between 1934 and 1939 Britain’s Ministry of Transport paid local authorities to install cycle tracks. Fifty or so schemes were built, resulting in perhaps as many as 200 miles of cycle tracks, some of them protected with curbs. The great majority were built – 9-ft wide and both sides of the roads – next to the new bypasses of the era; a few were built on “trunk roads” through residential areas, such as in Sunderland and Oxford.

Some of these cycle tracks still exist; many have their original protective curbs and some, such as the ones below in the North East of England, still have their original ribbed, rippled and cracked concrete surfaces. (One of the pix also shows a type of “floating bus stop”, something that has troubled modern British cycleway designers.)

I’ll provide more detail on these early cycleways in Bike Boom, including why they were so woefully underused at the time (hint: yes, the surfacing was rubbish, even though it’s still with us, but the experimental cycleways were white elephants, and didn’t form part of a dense network.)

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Why did the Dutch get cycleways but the Brits and Americans didn’t? And why didn’t British cyclists use the 1930s cycle tracks? I’ll discuss the reasons at length in Bike Boom (due out Spring 2017). Sign up for updates in the box on the right, above.

Despite the car boom, cycle use doubled in the 1930s

From 1912 to 1934 the county surveyor for the County Council of Durham conducted traffic surveys on the increasingly busy Great North Road at Framwellgate Moor and Teams Crossing.

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“Generally, the statistics show an increase in lorry traffic and in motor cars, together with ordinary cycles. … This year ordinary cycles have more than doubled in number the figures recorded two years ago. In this mind the committee will have in mind the recent circular of the Ministry of Transport regarding the provision of cycle tracks along the main roads … There is no doubt whatever … that the question of handling the problems created in highway administration is of great importance in the life of the community.”

Pedestrian traffic was not recorded.

Source: Report of the County Surveyor to the Works Committee, January 21, 1935, County Council of Durham.

Netherlands vs Britain

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Zoom in and out of OpenCycleMap: the difference between the Netherlands and the UK is stark, as is the difference between Belgium and France, countries which share the same topography at the border, and in parts the same language, but where the provision of cycleways is so different.

There are also stark differences between the two “halves” of Belgium, the Flemish-speaking north (Flanders) and the French-speaking south (Wallonia).

It’s also worth pointing out that the provision of cycleways doesn’t necessarily mean the cycling will be great; for instance, from the map it might seem that Belgium has more cycleways than France, but that doesn’t mean Belgium is a better cycling country than France.

Note, not all of the purple cycleways marked on the map above are separated or protected. OpenCycleMap is crowd-sourced, and some data is provided by state actors, but in other countries this is not the case. Plus, density of cycleways can sometimes reflect population density, see:

More such stuff in Bike Boom, published May 2017, Island Press, Washington, D.C. Sign up for updates on the right.

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