Chris Boardman’s fight for safer cycling

The 1992 Olympic champion opens up about the role of his lifetime

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In our current issue (350), Trevor Ward meets cycling mensch Chris Boardman and discovered why his latest role might just be the biggest, and most important job of his life. To subscribe to Cycling Plus and take advantage of our current offer of a sample pack of Veloforte nutrition, head here

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Words: Trevor Ward

Photos: Joseph Branston (portraits) & Getty

The record turnout for the Salford Cycling and Walking Forum reflects an unpleasant but unavoidable aspect of life in 21st century Britain – that we seem to be incapable of sharing a few metres of road space in a safe and respectful manner.

“I commute 75 miles a week on my bike and just want to feel safer,” says one of those present at the meeting in Salford.

The next day, on the other side of the River Irwell in Manchester, Chris Boardman is contemplating how we arrived at this state of affairs.

“As human beings, we are taught to think short term, in the span of our own lifetimes,” says the man best known as the 1992 Olympic pursuit champion, a wearer of the Tour de France’s yellow jersey, a holder of the Hour Record and, more recently, road reforms campaigner.

“Something like the motor car is invented and everyone thinks, ‘Oh great, look at the distance I can travel without having to do any work’, and it becomes incredibly popular really quickly without anyone thinking about where this is going to lead.

“Suddenly bicycles are what poor people ride, and anything that’s going to kill them takes precedence. So the drivers get used to us getting out of their way and think, ‘We have primacy in this space’, and then that becomes the norm. It’s an evolutionary process.”

Roads may have originally been built for pedestrians (Roman legions on the march), horses (pulling carts and coaches) and bicycles, but today the car is king and society, says Boardman, is belatedly coming to realise that something has to be done to curb its polluting, obstructive and injurious ubiquity.

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Bee better

As the Cycling and Walking Commissioner for Greater Manchester, Boardman’s answer is to make riding a bike an enticing and accessible alternative to travelling by car. Over the next five years, he’ll oversee the spending of £500 million on a 1000-mile (1600km) network of cycling and walking paths. Called ‘Beelines’, the network will feature junctions and crossings that prioritise cyclists and walkers, and 75 miles (120km) of Dutch-style segregated cycling lanes.

But rather than preaching to the converted who attended last night’s forum, Boardman’s target audience is the people who, together and over the course of a year, make 250 million car journeys of less than a mile in Greater Manchester.

“This has got nothing to do with experienced cyclists [see ‘Boardman Needs You!’ below for why that isn’t the full story]; this is all about people in cars,” he says. “A big chunk of those 250 million journeys is people taking their kids to school, not because they need to but because they don’t see any other option.

“I have to make getting out of their cars the easiest, most attractive and safest choice for them to make. We want them to look out their car window [at people cycling] and think, ‘Oh, I quite fancy that.’

“The car industry cottoned on to this years ago. Do you ever see a car advert that shows the car struck in traffic? They only show the best bits. We, stupidly, are not talking that language.”

While the motoring industry successfully promotes its products as luxury lifestyle choices, the cycling industry’s message tends to revolve around health and safety and, as a result, is lagging far behind.

“It could definitely do better,” says Boardman. “High-vis and helmets is not the image it should be selling. We should be showing aspirational stuff – people riding bikes doing normal things in normal clothes. That’s the image we need to sell this ‘product’,  and it’s a really saleable product.”

He despairs of professional riders like Geraint Thomas and Alex Dowsett expressing their opinions in favour of compulsory helmets. He believes all pros should receive media training – “it would only take 15 minutes” – so they could deflect clickbait questions about helmets to wider issues of road safety.

Opportunity knocks

Helping his cause, he says, are the bits of driving that you never see in the glamorous car commercials.

“Congestion is a real opportunity for us,” he explains. “No-one changes their behaviour when things are great; you do it when things are shit,” he says. “Another opportunity is air pollution, which is a very topical and political issue right now. It’s all coming together nicely because it just so happens that people who ride bikes are the solution – the fastest, easiest and cheapest solution.”

There is a fly in the ointment, however, and it comes from an unlikely source.

“The electric car is one of our biggest concerns,” he says. “It will make you feel like you’ve done something positive without having to change your behaviour. Most of the pollution’s still there – from the particles produced by tyres and brakes – and it doesn’t address obesity and health, it doesn’t address congestion, yet it will make people feel like they now have the moral high ground. Potentially, electric cars are a real problem.”

Infrastructure argument

Boardman is a staunch believer in infrastructure and the need to give potential cyclists the perception of safety as well as the reality of it. But on the basis that even the best infrastructure has to end somewhere, some believe stricter enforcement of traffic laws would be a better way of making roads safer for everyone. This is behind the thinking of West Midlands Police’s Road Harm Reduction Unit that pioneered Operation Close Pass.

“We need to provide other options, yes,” says Boardman. “Policing is one. Streets need to be comfortable and safe places, and West Midlands Police have been amazing. They don’t think in terms of ‘motorists’ and ‘cyclists’, to them it’s ‘people’ and ‘behaviour’. You don’t need to mention the mode of travel, you don’t need to tribalise road-users, you just start with those who can do the most harm and work your way down. Then, if you’ve got time, you’ll get right down to the lowest priority and deal with the person who rode their bike through a red light or on the pavement.”

He rejects the other arguments against infrastructure – that it takes too much time, money and political will. He says the first stage of Beelines – requiring consultations with the 10 councils in Greater Manchester – could have “taken two years and half a million quid.”

Instead, Boardman and his team followed the ‘marginal gains’ approach used so successfully during his time at British Cycling. “We took a load of maps and pens to each of the councils and asked them to show us where you can’t ride a bike or cross the road safely,” he says. “We did it in four months at a cost in the region of £60,000 without touching a pen ourselves.” [The results of the public consultation into this first phase were due to be published in January.]

If you build it, will they come?

But how can he be sure that once the Beelines are built, people will use them? London’s cycling superhighways may be thriving and YouTube packed with videos of smiling, happy families riding their bicycles on segregated paths in Holland and Denmark, but other, seemingly foolproof schemes have failed.

In 1955, a town planner and utility cyclist called Eric Claxton designed a 25-mile (40km) network of cycleways around the new town of Stevenage in Hertfordshire. It included underpasses at major junctions and safe routes from residential areas to schools, shops and offices. It was completed by the 1960s and is still there today, albeit overgrown and neglected. Yet it never resulted in a boom in cyclists and today less than three per cent of the town’s population use it on a daily basis.

Last year, Stevenage Borough Council launched a Cycle Strategy Action Plan with the aim of upgrading the network and investigating why people didn’t use it “by drawing on a number of different fields, including psychology and behavioural economics.”

Steve Thomas, a member of Stevenage CC, summed it up to me in simple, non-scientific terms. “The cycleways coincided with the rise in car ownership during the 1960s. There was no green or health movement in those days, so everyone ditched their bikes for cars.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Boardman hasn’t heard of the scheme or Eric Claxton, despite the fact they share a similar philosophy, with Claxton declaring in 1977: “I didn’t do my cycleways for cyclists. I did them for people.”

Boardman says the success of his own scheme will depend on getting the right message across to the right audience, as much as the quality of his infrastructure. Echoing Claxton, he says: “We try not to use the word ‘cyclist’.  We’re talking about people getting around without cars. It shouldn’t take bravery to ride a bike.”

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The accidental advocate

After “stumbling” into the role of cycling advocate when he was interviewed on TV during the 2012 London Olympics and became “irritated by some stupid questions about cyclists’ behaviour”, Boardman is now into his second year as Greater Manchester’s cycling ‘tsar’.

“Am I enjoying it? Enjoy isn’t quite the right word but it’s a sturdy soapbox to stand on and it has moments of tremendous satisfaction,” he says.

Cycling Plus wonders if the death of his 75-year-old mother, Carol, who was killed while out cycling in 2016, is a motivating factor behind his work. In December Liam Rosney admitted causing her death by careless driving and was jailed for 30 weeks in January.

“I haven’t worked out how to deal with it, frankly,” he says. “I cannot get involved. I know it would consume me. I’ve just got to focus on what we can do. I don’t want to use it as a bludgeon, but I also don’t want to pretend it didn’t happen.”

Grand plans

Our time is up and Boardman has to get on with his job of persuading Greater Manchester’s drivers to switch to cycling or walking. As a parting shot, we ask him if he has any political aspirations on a national level? “The whole point of doing this is to change a country,” he says. “As grandiose as that sounds, it’s true. If a party is in power that says, ‘For all these problems we’ve got, this is our cheapest, fastest and most practical solution and we want you to do it, will you help us?’ then I think the answer would be yes.”

BOARDMAN NEEDS YOU!

Why the fight for better infrastructure actually is about experienced cyclists…

Many riders, including Cycling Plus readers, may feel they are experienced enough at dealing with close passes and other daily road hazards not to need Boardman’s infrastructure. But he says there are other reasons they should be involved in the fight for more cycling lanes and safe junctions.

“You’ve already made your choice – you’re kitted up and dealing with the situation and that’s fine,” he says. “But what about the other side of your life? You ride your bike so many hours a week, but the rest of the time you’re like everybody else. You want the roads to be safe enough for your kids to be able to ride to school. So while on the one hand this has got nothing to do with experienced cyclists, this is all about people in cars, and some of those will also be experienced cyclists.”

And his advice if you think your area could do with some investment in infrastructure?

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“It’s horribly boring, but write to your MP and local councillor, and tell them what you want. These days, people are so apathetic that if just half a dozen people write to a local politician saying ‘We need this’, it gets noticed. That’s how you change things.”