I live in Reading, Berkshire and I’m a member of the Reading Cycle Campaign. I wrote the following for their current newsletter:
“The Cycle Campaign asked me a couple of months ago if I’d be interested in contributing something to the newsletter and here is my first piece. For those of you who don’t recognise the name, I’ll briefly explain that I’m the chap who wrote the cycling book called ‘Crossing Europe on a Bike Called Reggie’ and my second book – ‘Along The Med on a Bike Called Reggie’ – is about to be published [it now has!]. But fear not, that’s the last mention that I will make of the books. Away from travelling, cycling and writing, I’m also a secondary school teacher working in Henley-on-Thames, although I have lived in the centre of Reading since studying here at the university in the late 90s. I’ve been paying my subscription to RCC for many years but it’s now nice to contribute in a different kind of way.
Over the last few years I’ve had the opportunity to travel quite widely on the European continent on my bike (although I’m sure that many people reading this will have travelled much more widely than me!) and it has been interesting to compare and to contrast the cycling situation in towns and cities across Europe with the lot of cyclists here in Reading. We often like to think that we have a rough deal, as cyclists in the UK in general, and, in our case, Reading. But how true a picture is that? When visiting another town or city the first thing that I tend to notice is not whether there are cycle lanes or cycling signs or cycling refuges etc… ; I do like to look around me and see if there are other cyclists. A cycling-friendly environment will generally mean more cyclists on the road and I have visited plenty of towns and cities where cyclists are very few on the ground. People vote with their feet (literally!) if they don’t feel comfortable using a bike in the place where they live. Two good example of this are Rome and Athens where you are hard pressed to find many cyclists at all and it’s easy to understand why. Yes, it’s to do with the infrastructure in place – which is limited – but also because people simply don’t feel safe on a bike. I’ve cycled through countless other places where facilities are a little better – perhaps a few cycle lanes here and there – but where cycling is still shunned by the majority of the locals. At least here in Reading we cyclists are out there on the streets and through organisations such as the RCC, we are vocal. At the other end of the spectrum are the towns and cities which are famous for being cycling paradises. We are right to compare the situation in Reading to Amsterdam, Copehagen and other towns and cities in the premier league of cycling but neither should we beat ourselves up too much that we have a particularly raw deal. From what I’ve seen, we are about average. Fear not, I’m not condoning being average – why shouldn’t we have a cycling environment which encourages people to consider cycling as a ‘norm’ rather than a fringe activity – but change takes time. What I do have concerns about, however, is whether the local authority here in Reading has real long-term vision. A couple of years ago, Hamburg declared that by 2020 the centre of the city would be car free. They have put in place the necessary funding and a staged plan to make this a reality. Can you imagine such a strategic decision ever being made in Reading? There is nothing stopping Tony Page [he’s the council leader in Reading and also chief ‘transport’ person] from standing up and declaring that he intends making Reading – let’s say within the IDR [the ring road] – into a traffic free zone by 2025. But would he? It’s unlikely. Alas we live in a world where results have to be delivered quickly. Things don’t tend to be measured on a ten-year basis but upon a year or two if we are lucky. From start to finish, a bicycle hire scheme can be implemented in a couple of years and a bridge can be built [both of these are happening in Reading]. But how about our councillors doing something brave and making a decision that they probably won’t be in office to benefit from themselves electorally? Would they do that? Perhaps next time I meet one of them, I might ask.”