Text By Fiona Grahame, Images By Martin Laird
Once both a plaything of the wealthy and a means of liberation to the worker the bicycle allowed men and women a freedom of movement they had never before experienced. There are several claims to its invention including that of Dumfriesshire blacksmith Kirkpatrick Macmillan who took the cumbersome velocipede and in 1839 improved it. Fact or fiction, it did not take long for this two wheeled means of transport to revolutionise how people could travel about.
In the 1930s it became very much associated with the working class . Today a decent new bike starts at £250. Few people on low incomes can afford to buy new but second hand ones can be picked up relatively cheaply and yet 60% of bike ownership is by those on an annual salary of £40,000+. It is therefore about more than income.
Cycling is a great way to get about and improve your health at the same time. The Scottish Government think this is so important that they have appointed a former professional mountain biker, Lee Craigie, as the Active Nation Commissioner for Scotland.
Lee Craigie said:
“The ambitious vision of the Scottish Government is what attracted me to this role, but it’s clear to everyone in the active travel community that there is a need to take a few more risks in order to achieve greater outcomes, faster than ever, so that even more people can connect and engage with lifelong walking and cycling – benefitting both their personal health and health of the planet.”
Investing in active travel is a positive message from the Scottish Government including appointing Lee Craigie but it is interesting when she talks of ‘risks’. Cycle safety is a significant barrier to active travel . There are approximately 2,371 miles of National Cycle Network routes in Scotland and only 644 of these are traffic free. In Orkney it means you share the roads, single lane or one track, with every other road user going. In the summer when the weather may be kinder to cyclists the roads become very busy.
At the last count Orkney had 753 cars per 1,000 people compared to 385 in Edinburgh and a Scottish average of 533. It is not that Orcadians are richer or lazier than the folks of Edinburgh , in fact Orkney has a low wage economy but to get to work you most likely will need your own transport. That choice is unlikely to be a bike simply because the road infrastructure in Orkney completely favours motorised vehicles.
Orkney’s highly successful tourism industry has made it a top destination in the UK for cruise ships with 170 due to visit the islands in 2019. To transport the visitors about taxis, courtesy coaches and tour buses ply roads which were fine in 1950 but have remained largely unchanged since. Camper vans and day trippers, unused to driving on rural roads, are able to access the islands by cheaper more reliable ferry transport.
And then there is the weather. Orkney is windy which could work in a cyclist’s favour in one direction but will be hard going when it’s accompanied by rain and battering off face and legs. Strong gusts make wobbling a certainty and a shortage of light in the winter months means lights and bright clothing are essential. In the past these natural elements did not deter Orcadians from cycling. The difference today for the cyclist is the hazard of close encounters with other road users. Recognising this the UK Department of Transport is to update advice in the Highway Code to advise vehicle drivers on the dangers of close passing. It will also suggest the use of The Dutch Reach where the car door is opened with the hand furthest from the door handle, so drivers or passengers look over their shoulder to check for passing traffic.
The Scottish Government has doubled the active travel budget to £80million.Michael Matheson, the Transport Secretary said:
“Walking and cycling as a form of transport can be incredibly beneficial to our individual health and help protect our environment – but it cannot be a solution that only some can benefit from. We are determined to ensure walking and cycling is accessible and inclusive for all.”
Traffic free cycle zones and improved driver education will go a long way towards encouraging more people to take to two wheels.
This article first appeared in the February/March edition of iScot magazine.