A couple of weeks ago I had an email from Sustrans thanking me for completing their cycle to work survey. The email was also publicising a new Sustrans campaign for a national cycle to work standard and had a link to the mandatory-for-campaigns e-petition. The email got me thinking about my own commute; what do I like about it and how could it be improved?
My commute is a 7 to 12 miles cycle ride (I vary my route on time of year and weather), followed by train and finished with a 1.5 mile Boris bike ride. Very occasionally I’ll drive to the station, but as well as preferring to ride – it wakes me up in the morning and relaxes me in the evening, two things I don’t get from driving – I like the significant amount of money cycling saves me.
So what would be my ideal commute? I would like to ride a full size bike on quiet roads or dedicated, sealed surface, cycle tracks, that avoid busy commuter routes. Sealed surfaces are important for two reasons. First they are faster to ride, and however much I enjoy cycling, like any commuter, journey time is an important factor. Second, getting to work with you and the bike covered in dirt and grit from muddy tracks isn’t much fun, especially when you have to put wet and dirty clothes back on for the ride home.
At the station I would hop onto a carriage with my bike. Each train would have a carriage dedicated for commuters with bikes (this isn’t far-fetched, you can do it on the Swanage Heritage Railway). I reckon you might even see some social interaction between these commuters, it could be a liberating experience, especially if there was a decent coffee machine! I’m almost tempted to say I would pay a little extra for this service but, through my season ticket, I already gift more than enough of my salary to First Capital Connect’s shareholders and greedy directors. So, almost tempted.
At my destination I would ride the short distance to work where I would stow my bike in a secure parking area. I would then go to my locker in the changing rooms, get my towel, and shower. I’m ready to face the day ahead, relaxed and refreshed, especially since I’ve not been stuck in a tin box, surrounded by congestion.
The Sustrans campaign focuses on the employer, so how does mine shape up? Pretty well. I have a shower and locker, although while our campus is meant to be secure, we only have open bike racks and poorly secure bikes are known to disappear. However, my employer is a large university and facilities do vary. I think the facilities I have access to are more by luck than design. Not everyone has access to showers and lockers, while others do have secure bike parking. There isn’t a coordinated strategy across the organisation. If Sustrans can encourage large employers to adopt a coherent cyclist friendly strategy, then clearly it is something to be welcomed.
But what about the actual commute? It is all very well encouraging employers to provide good, cyclist friendly facilities, but if people regard the bit between work and home as hostile, most are not going to cycle.
A few weeks ago the Cambridgeshire Cycling Festival came to St Neots. Near to the festival entrance was a board with statements on what people like about cycling and what would encourage them to cycle more. Visitors were asked to place stickers against the statements they agreed with. The two most popular statements were: more cycle routes (as a pull factor to encourage people onto bikes) and, roads too busy (as a push factor keeping people off bikes). Ok, not the most statistically meaningful survey, but it does suggest if you want people to see cycling to work as viable, you perhaps should consider the infrastructure for getting there.
When I started my current job I used a Dahon Vitesse folding bike. At £300 it was a budget bike by folder standards and the build quality wasn’t great. The bike snapped at the main hinge in the first year. Fortunately it was still under warranty, but the second bike only lasted another year before the handle bar stem hinge broke. After that I gave up on them. I used the Dahon on the road. Morning traffic was usually light but evenings were busy and, at times, I felt vulnerable. A few times I tried an alternative traffic free NCN route, but the Dahon was not a bike designed to cope with gravel and muddy farm tracks. Recently while riding home on the NCN, I met the President of the London Brompton club, on his Brompton of course. We got chatting as cyclists are inclined to do and he said he found the route to be fine. I can believe his Brompton’s steel frame is more forgiving than the Dahon’s aluminium one. However, that day the NCN was dry, he might have a change of heart when the potholes are full of water and the tracks are churned to mud.
So now I use a full size bike and, except for the worst of conditions, I commute on the NCN. When I do use the road I take a longer route, because traffic on the most direct route is busy and often unpleasant. However, using a full size bike, I can’t take it onto peak hour trains (folders you can), so I use a cheap and basic hack and for good reason. I’ve had two bikes stolen and one vandalised at train stations. I’m usually at the station early enough to find a space, but overall there isn’t enough capacity and the space between bikes can be cramped.
In London I use Boris bikes. Their advantage is that I don’t find my train arrives at Platform 11, but I have to trek round to Platform 1 to collect a bike. The disadvantage is that King’s Cross doesn’t have enough docking stations, so most mornings I’m queuing to collect a bike. If I get a later train I may not even get a bike.
So, while I welcome Sustrans campaign to make workplaces cyclist friendly, I think what cycle commuters – and more importantly the mass of potential cycle commuters Sustrans believe are out there – really want are safe and clean (mud/gravel free) cycle routes. And for those like me who have a mixed commute, an integrated transport system that doesn’t restrict you to either a relatively expensive folding bike or hack machine that may not be there on your return.
I’ve signed the petition because I think anything that gets more people onto bikes is a good thing, but I would rather see Sustrans use their limited resources to lobby for better infrastructure and bring their own National Cycle Network up to commuting standards.