Ramblings on Amsterdam and Cycling History

Visiting Amsterdam for the first time with my girlfriend was an experience which can definitely be defined as eye opening. Staying in a district a bit outside the city centre, it was difficult not to wander round without constantly being struck by a sense that we had stumbled across some kind of Utopian model of the future.

A lot of this awe and wonder came, perhaps unsurprisingly, from the continual sight of cyclists. Whilst at times it felt as though you had been placed in a game of ‘Crossy Road’, with a continual stream of hazards flying at you from either side, for the most part the sheer number of cyclists was the cause of delight. After spending a good amount of time writing about how wonderful the bicycle is, going to a place which has done so much to cater and support cyclists did feel a bit like arriving at a holy site after a long pilgrimage.

As much as it may feel this way, Amsterdam’s extensive cycling network did not appear by some miracle. A brief bit of research reveals that it was the result of committed activism combining with a general popular support of cycling and politicians who recognised the potential of the bicycle to solve a range of different issues (the best article I’ve found is here). The result of all this is a city where 35% of journeys are completed by bicycle. The effects? People who seemingly enjoy their morning commute to work, roads which are eerily quiet and a general sense of the wonderfulness of it all.

As with most people who cycle, leaving Amsterdam was accompanied by a feeling of why can’t we have something like this where I live? Of course, the location and geographical features of Amsterdam makes it much more naturally cycle friendly than where I live in Leeds. However, lots more could certainly be done to implement Amsterdam’s system of cycling infrastructure in towns and cities around the UK. The question is, how can we make this happen?

The best place to start is perhaps learning from how changes started to occur in Amsterdam, with the combination of activists, a general sympathy to cyclists, and politicians prepared to listen. As was the case in Amsterdam, I would say that the UK is also home to a large number of people strongly committed to promoting cycling. If my Twitter feed is anything to go by, there are certainly no lack of individuals firmly committed to and prepared to argue for building the type of infrastructure that exists around Holland.

The recent C.T.C. survey of politicians in the run up to the general election also suggests that, if there is not a strong political commitment for investment in cycling, then there is at least a general acknowledgement of the benefits which can be brought about by getting more people into cycling.

Just over a sixth of current M.P.s surveyed gave strong support for increased funding towards cycling, a number which includes the current Prime Minister. Writing a letter in response to the survey, David Cameron stated that he is, ‘a huge cycling fan’ who is committed to doubling cycling by 2025 and spending £10 per person on cycling each year. Of course, actions speak much more loudly than words, but responses to the C.T.C. survey at least suggest that there is a level of political backing for promoting and supporting cycling.

I would say that what the UK is missing more than anything (apart from cities built on flat, low-lying land), is a more general popular sympathy and support for cyclists. Whilst there is no lack of committed individuals and groups at the bottom, and a number of people at the top who appear prepared to listen, there is not the general groundswell of opinion required to push through significant and substantial change.

Cycling as an issue never once really threatened to become anything other than a minority issue in the run up to the general election. Whilst prospective M.P.s might agree in principle to questions put to them by the C.T.C., because of the low-level status of cycling as an issue, there is very little pressure on them to now turn their principles into meaningful actions and investments. It is one thing making some general comments to the C.T.C, it is quite another making sincere promises to an electorate.

To begin to see anything like the changes many of us would like to see, I would say that what is required is a general popular shift in attitudes to cycling, from a general disinterestedness and even aggression, to a recognition of the many benefits more people cycling brings to communities, cities and wider society, and a strong commitment to bringing these changes about.

The question then becomes how can we bring about this shift? The obvious answer is by getting more people cycling. More cyclists equals more people realising the benefits of the bicycle as either a means of transport and leisure activity, and a greater agitation for improvements in cycling infrastructure. However, this can quickly turn into a chicken and egg situation. My girlfriend will happily cycle in Amsterdam, but not in Leeds. She would only start cycling if she felt safe doing so, which of course requires a much greater investment in cycling infrastructure. To get more cyclists requires a significant level investment which, as was discussed above, there is little popular agitation for, and as such is unlikely to happen.

This is not to say such an approach is hopeless- more people are now cycling in the UK than ever before, and with schemes such as the ‘Cycling ‘Superhighways’ in London, there is no reason to think that the ranks of British cyclists will stop growing. The results of this (in theory), should be more and more popular support for cycling.

How London’s ‘Cycling Superhighways’ might look. Source: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/feb/04/segregated-cycle-lanes-london-tfl

However, whilst the number of cyclists might carry on expanding, it seems highly unlikely they will reach levels comparable to the Netherlands and Amsterdam in the near future. To bring about a popular demand for ‘Dutch-style cycling infrastructure’, a wider range of approaches are needed to communicate the benefits of cycling to both individuals and wider society.

It is also here that I believe that cycling history can play a (perhaps significant) role. Much of the popular sympathy for cyclists in Amsterdam in the 1970s came from the fact that cycling had remained a fairly popular activity since the 1890s. Cycling as an activity was much more ingrained in the national and local culture than it ever has been over here.

It is my hope that the history of cycling can do something to change this. If a few years of speaking to friends and relatives about my research is anything to go by, there is very little popular knowledge about how the UK’s cycling heritage. Before I started my research, I too knew next to nothing about the UK’s cycling history.

However, as I near the end of my research I now find it difficult to think of another invention which has done so much to both meet individual needs for liberation, enjoyment and freedom, whilst at the same time bringing about wider changes which have benefited society as a whole. I hope that this blog has been able to in some way communicate the many weird and wonderful effects the bicycle had on late Victorian society, from opening up opportunities for romance, allowing individuals for the first time to visit the British countryside, and helping shift conservative notions about appropriate ‘womanly’ behaviour.

Visiting Amsterdam hammered home to me that the story of how cycling can benefit both individuals and wider society is one which belongs as much to the present as the past. Combining these two narratives, of the positive changes which the bicycle both can and has brought about, I believe can create an overarching tale which is relevant to cyclists and non-cyclists alike. It might not create new Amsterdams. But it might do something.

Cycle path in America, 1896. Source: http://narrative.ly/on-two-wheels/cycles-of-fashion/

Alan Titchmarsh and Victorian Cyclists

It must be said that I did not anticipate writing a blog about Alan Titchmarsh and Victorian cyclists. For those unaware of his work Alan is famous for being the UKs foremost gardening journalist and personality, and is certainly not renowned for pedalling old fashioned bicycles. However, after reading a recent article of his about cycling it was very hard to resist an attempted comparison with a couple of articles from the 1890s. (A link to the Titchmarsh’s article is here: http://bit.ly/1F1orkQ)

Alan used his article to proclaim his backing for ‘gentle’ cyclists, who compared to muscled men in Lycra, go cycling to admire nature and gardens whilst enjoying the scenery. He states that,

‘I know that hardy types ride their bikes at all times of year, but unlike fair weather gardeners, we fair weather cyclists are not to be disparaged on account of our apparent lack of grit. For we are the gentle ones. To us, cycling is a calm pursuit. We may pant a bit on uphill stretches and we may even dismount and push our charges while other cyclists (the ones in national costume) power past us wearing sunglasses on the dreariest of days. But we enjoy our sedate pedalling and try not to frighten the wildlife.’

‘We whistle softy to ourselves while admiring the gardens we can see over the tops of hedges. We may have a wicker basket on the front, or panniers on the back. We tinkle our bell to warn pedestrians of our approach and we are ever ready with a cheery ‘Good morning’! This is quite unlike our bulging-limbs counterparts who seem to have muscles in places where we don’t even have places and whose eyes are riveted on the tarmac.’

‘I love cycling, but sedately. Give me what they used to call a, ‘sit-up-and-beg’ machine in shiny black with proper chrome handlebars and metal brake leavers. Give me a wicker basket on the front, proper metal mudguards and one of those bells that goes, ‘ding-dong-ding-dong’ and I will show you a happy man.’

The ‘Mamils’ (middle-aged men in Lycra) who Titchmarsh complains about certainly did not exist in the 1890s. However, in this period a similarly new breed of cyclists appeared, who in more traditional circles were the cause of just as much comment and complaint.

Cyclists who had always used penny farthings or ‘ordinary’ bicycles suddenly encountered a new generation, mounted on ‘safety’ bicycles with pneumatic tyres who were capable of travelling much faster than themselves. This, combined with the greater safety and comfort of ‘safety’ bicycles meant that as the 1890s progressed ‘ordinaries’ and their riders increasingly became a thing of the past.

It would seem that those who clung onto penny farthings did not welcome this changing of the guard. The piece below, which appeared in Cycling in 1893, bemoaned the fact that,

‘Coasting is a practice which seems to have died out in the most inexplicable manner. In the old days, when the high bicycles ruled supreme, a cycler was considered to be a sorry exponent of wheeling if he could not coast in good style. Every slope, not absolutely dangerous, was always navigated ‘legs up’, with hand on brake ready for emergency; an productive of gloriously exciting and delightful sensations were these swift passages of flight, as, perched high above the hedgerows on his wheel, the rider whizzed on his way.’

‘The old order changeth. Whoever thinks of ‘coasting’ nowadays? It is considered old fashioned, an almost forgotten luxury of bygone times, now only to be indulged in by elderly tourists, and faddists lost to all sense of deportment. Advise the youth of today who contemplates the purchase of a machine, to have footrests and a break. He will regard your suggestion with scorn, and will later on be seen humping his back and labouring intensively in his efforts to back pedal down a steepish slope; whereas by carrying a few ounces of extra weight in the shape of footrests and brake, he might have flown swiftly and safely down the hill, resting his legs the while, besides enjoying that delightful sense of exhilaration we have endeavoured to describe.’

Of course the writer may have exaggerated the benefits of ‘coasting’ on penny farthings. Another writer, reflecting on their experiences of penny farthings in 1892, recalled how

‘You would be speeding head, shoulders and body above the hedgerows, when suddenly you would feel magnetised, and with arms outstretched, a tickling sensation in your throat, and a mighty rushing of wind by your ears, you would swoop through the air, arriving on earth with a ‘Ugh!’ and proceeding on your journey for a yard or so like a grovelling reptile.’

However, if Alan’s main needs for a bicycle are for it to be clearly visible to acquaintances whilst allowing him to peep over hedges and admire gardens, perhaps the way forward is not sit-up-and-beg models, but rather the approach taken by the gentleman below,