Cycling in Stevenage – Where did it all go wrong?

I first wrote this back in the Autumn of 2015 after a near miss with a bollard on a cycle path in Stevenage (see I never published it but after hearing a local Councillor extolling the virtues of the cycle network in Stevenage to the TV cameras last week, perhaps now is the right time to share my thoughts.

I live in Stevenage, a town famed for its cycle paths and infrastructure built around the vision of Eric Claxton.

The town has previously been held up as proof that the UK could build a Dutch-style cycle network that would encourage residents to cycle and walk everywhere.

Thanks to Eric Claxton, the Stevenage New Town was designed from the outset with a substantial cycleway network on which cyclists can ride in safety, uninterrupted by other traffic. The network is segregated from the carriageways of the town and cyclists can cross at major junctions and other convenient points through underpasses.

These underpasses were designed wherever possible such that motor traffic would climb two metres whereas cyclists would only drop down one metre. In this way adequate clearance could be provided to get cyclists under the flow of motor traffic without the ramps to the underpasses being too steep. Cyclists can also enjoy cycling straight across the open spaces in the centres of major roundabouts at this lower level.

If you’d have read Carlton Reid’s blog from February 25, 2013 you might be under a slightly different impression of the town. As Carlton said;

“Wide, smooth cycleways adjacent to main roads but separated from cars and pedestrians. Perpetually-lit, airy, safe underpasses beneath roundabouts. Direct, convenient and attractive cycle routes designed not by car-centric town planners but by a transport engineer who cycled to work every day. Schools, workplaces, shops: all linked by protected cycleways. Recreational bike paths to nature areas. Colour-coded sign-posting. Plentiful cycle parking in the town centre, at workplaces and at the rail station. An urban cycle network lionised at global conferences and the subject of lectures, books and study tours. Amsterdam? Copenhagen? Groningen? No. Stevenage in the 1970s


So where did it all go wrong?

In total, Stevenage has over 45 km of cycleways making it one of the best towns in the UK for travelling by bicycle. Having just had the Pearl Izumi Tour Series in the Town, this is the one fact I heard stated during the TV broadcasting. Sadly it is not as simple as that as with having a cycle network comes the need to maintain it but also to encourage people to use it.

However, the vast majority of the towns residents currently use the car to travel short distances in Stevenage to commute to work, visit the shops or to visit friends instead of cycling occasionally?

But why is that the case when the town is based around such a brilliant idea?

Gone are the days when these cycle paths were well kept and maintained. Now they are poorly surfaced, often covered in glass and debris and used mostly by dog walkers and joggers making them often dangerous for cyclists. Once in the Town Centre, either the shopping area, the train station or at the once thriving industrial area, you will struggle to find anywhere safe and secure to leave your bike, even if you wanted to. If you did want to cycle around the town, to commute or to do some shopping, would you be able to leave your belongings somewhere secure, have a shower, go and do whatever it is that you need to do before cycling home. And this is where the town falls flat on its face.

It has such a great infrastructure in place but it is sadly neglected and there seems to be no real effort from the local authority to get people cycling again and away from their gas guzzling cars.

There is simply nowhere in the town that can provide a multiple of services to support the cyclist, the town centre, local businesses, the commuter.

What the town centre is crying out for is a Cycle Hub!

‘Cycle Hubs’ are a relatively new concept in the UK but they have arrived on the back of the enormous growth in cycling. Essentially, a cycle hub is a cycling centre around which various facilities come together: e.g. cycle parking, bike repair facilities, a bike shop, coffee shop, cycling information, secure changing facilities and most importantly, cycle parking.

A key part of any public service is giving the user good information – make life easy for the user.

One of the first thoughts for any cyclist is this; will my bike be safe? Safety and security would be a key aspect for any cycle hub and the following must be considered:

  • Location
  • Building Design
  • Access Types
  • Security

What’s the difference between a cycle park and a cycle hub? It’s the additional facilities on offer! What standard of facility could you provide your cyclists? Perhaps consider some of the following key facilities:

  • Cycle Parking – what kind of cycle parking could be offered?
  • Helmet / General Lockers – providing safe secure lockers for bags, helmets and accessories provides a real help to the cyclist.
  • Pump – whether an electric or manual cycle pump, this is a basic requirement for everyone.
  • Bike Repair Station – a simple facility incorporating a pump, cycle tools and other useful equipment.
  • Cycle Shop / Coffee Shop – if it’s for cyclists, why not make it full service centre, so users can buy all things cycling but also just take some time to sit and relax over a coffee and some cake, let’s face it, that goes hand in hand with cycling after all.
  • Gym facilities – why not have some static bikes and “spinning sessions” throughout the week?

British Cycling’s #ChooseCycling Network – a collection of big British businesses including GSK, The AA, Sky, Virgin Trains and National Grid, representing over 250,000 employees – have previously called on George Osborne to put meaningful investment into cycling in order to boost productivity by creating a healthier workforce.

Prior to the general election, Prime Minister David Cameron echoed calls for a ‘cycling revolution’ in Britain, to achieve ‘better health, less pollution and less congestion’.

Physical inactivity costs the country as much as £47 billion a year and this network of nearly 40 businesses came together to implore the Chancellor to act before it’s too late, asking Mr Osborne to:

  • Ensure cycling and walking funding continues after Local Sustainable Transport Fund is withdrawn at the end of April 2016
  • Leave room in the current Spending Review to invest at least £10-20 per person per year – the target set by the Prime Minister in April – to increase take up of cycling.
  • Together with the Transport Secretary and before the 2016 Budget publish a comprehensive, fully-funded plan – a Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy – with national guidelines to make our roads and junctions safer for cycling, with more segregated lanes and places to park securely.

The appalling level of physical inactivity in this country is hurting us all; businesses face falling productivity as absences rise. Businesses want their staff and customers to live in towns and cities that are more pleasant, more liveable, less congested, less polluted, healthier, happier and more prosperous. This is only possible if more people are able to travel more easily by bicycle. Examples of sustained investment in cycling infrastructure paying rich dividends can be seen across Europe, and we recently invited members of the government to come with us to view one of the finest infrastructure models – Copenhagen. It is vital that those people making important decisions on our behalf are fully aware of what can be achieved – we can only hope that they choose to listen to the demand for crucial investment in cycling before it’s too late for this and future generations.”

These were the words of Christopher Boardman, MBE, the British former racing cyclist who is now more famous for his campaign work to get people more active.

But why Cycle?

There is a multitude of reasons why people should cycle more, here are just a handful of them;

  • Medical experts describe cycling as “an ideal form of exercise”
  • Cycling for half an hour a day could halve your chances of heart disease
  • It is estimated that a 10% increase in people cycling regularly would reduce National Health Service costs for treating heart disease by £200m a year
  • Regular cyclists enjoy a fitness level normally found in someone 10 years younger
  • Pollution is three times as bad inside a car as outside in slow moving traffic
  • Traffic congestion is not yet perceived to be a great problem in Stevenage, however long queues can develop on main routes in the morning and evening “rush hours”. Unless positive action is taken these are set to get worse.
  • Many journeys in Stevenage are short enough to be made by bicycle
  • Cycling can perform a vital role in beating congestion
  • Using the off street cycle network can be the quickest way of travelling in peak traffic conditions
  • Most rush hour journeys within Stevenage are faster by bike.
  • Cycling is an excellent way of seeing Stevenage from a different perspective
  • The comprehensive off road cycleway network allows you to take in Stevenage’s attractions and places of interest by bicycle
  • The Stevenage cycleway network provides easy access to the surrounding countryside
  • Cycling is a pollution-free form of transport
  • Nearly 60% of car journeys are less than 5 miles. By cycling instead for short journeys you can help to reduce pollution and traffic congestion and preserve the Earth’s oil reserves
  • Motor vehicle fumes are a major contributor to “global warming”, by cycling instead you are helping to reduce the rate of climate change.

Apart from the increased self-esteem and confidence that getting fitter and leaner will give you, simply spending more time outside will cheer you up. This is thanks to the ability of sunlight to boost your levels of the feel-good hormone serotonin.

Exercising outside exposes you to daylight,” explains Professor Jim Horne from Loughborough University’s Sleep Research Centre. “This helps get your circadian rhythm back in sync and rids your body of cortisol, the stress hormone that can prevent deep, regenerative sleep.”

According to the British Heart Foundation, around 10,000 fatal heart attacks could be avoided each year if people kept themselves fitter. Studies from Purdue University in the US have shown that regular cycling – even as little as 20 miles a week – can cut your risk of heart disease by up to 50 percent.

Cycling can even protect you from the big C, according to Harley Street gastroenterologist Dr Ana Raimundo. “Physical activity helps decrease the time it takes food to move through the large intestine, limiting the amount of water absorbed back into your body and leaving you with softer stools, which are easier to pass,” she says.

Doing aerobic exercise such as cycling also accelerates your breathing and heart rate, which helps to stimulate the contraction of intestinal muscles and keep you more regular. “As well as preventing you from feeling bloated this helps protect against bowel cancer,” explains Dr Raimundo.

According to the RAC, the yearly cost of car ownership in the UK is about £5,869, the lion’s share of which is down to fuel. Today, petrol and diesel both cost more than £1.00 per litre. Public transport costs have gone skyward too and the solution hundreds of thousands are turning to for daily travel, just as in the ’70s, is the bicycle. With cycling, the only inflationary factors are the rising cost of food and the payouts for your bike and kit. But you have to eat anyway, and the cost and depreciation on a new bike is at worst measured in hundreds of pounds, compared to the thousands lost on a car.

Transport for London estimates that the number of cycling journeys in the capital is up 117 % since 2000. But this is just a drop in the ocean when you consider there are about 7 million people in the UK who make work-based journeys of under five miles by car or bus every day.

Sports psychologists have found that the body’s metabolic rate – the efficiency with which it burns calories and fat – is not only raised during a ride but for several hours after. “Even after cycling for 30 minutes you could be burning a higher amount of total calories for a few hours after you stop,” says Mark Simpson of Loughborough University. And as you get fitter the benefits are more profound.

One of the most attractive advantages of cycling for fitness is that you can combine it with commuting, getting to work earlier and fresher after an invigorating ride. You’ll also be becoming fitter by the day without really trying, and feeling and looking younger.

It takes around five % of the materials and energy used to make a car to manufacture a bike, and cycling produces zero pollution. Bikes are efficient machines too – you travel around three times as fast as walking for the same amount of energy and, taking into account the ‘fuel’ that you put in your ‘engine’, you can do the equivalent of 2,924 miles to the gallon.

With nearly a quarter of the UK’s CO2 emissions now coming from road transport, it’s no surprise that leaving your car at home is going to help pollution both locally and globally. If all commutes in England under five miles were completed by bike instead of car they would save a collective 44,000 tonnes of CO2 every week, the equivalent of heating 17,000 houses. Given that the average speed of rush hour traffic in London is 7mph and a reasonable average cycling speed is 13mph, that makes commuting by bike almost twice as fast as taking the car. Oh, and 10 bikes can be parked in one car space.

With the physical, financial and environmental benefits, you’ll soon find out cycling really does add up! The following figures relate to cycling in the UK:

  1. 20 times less dangerous than not cycling
  2. 97% chance of not getting rained on
  3. Twice as fast as a car in traffic
  4. 4 miles is the average cycle commute
  5. £382 a year to boost the economy for every new cyclist
  6. At current rates, 60% of the population will be obese by 2050
  7. A bike takes 6.2 tonnes less carbon than a car to make
  8. 10 bikes can be parked in the space it takes to park one car
  9. A middle-aged cyclist is typically as fit as someone 10 years younger
  10. 16 mile commute = 800 calories. That’s 4 bags of crisps or 12 fig rolls or 6 bananas or 6 cans of coke
  11. 60% of car trips are shorter than 5 miles

There are also various schemes out there to help people get on their bikes, the most popular being the Cycle to Work scheme but the benefits to both employers and employees are enormous..

One study found that people who cycle to work experienced a 39% lower rate of all-cause mortality compared to those who did not – even after adjustment for other risk factors, including leisure-time physical activity.

As well as improving physical health, cycling has a positive affect on emotional health, improving levels of wellbeing, self-confidence and tolerance to stress.

A cycle scheme, like other salary sacrifice schemes, can act as one of those reasons why people may postpone changing jobs.

Local authorities, which have budgets to promote cycling, may well provide bike sheds free of charge or at reduced cost.

The cost of cycling equipment can be treated as capital expenditure and therefore employers can claim capital allowances against it.

Employees who cycle to work are fitter, healthier and happier and as a result are less likely to take sick days.

Fewer cars travelling into a workplace means reduced costs for car parking spaces and more room for visitors or freight vehicles.

Having a cycle friendly workplace can reduce the costs associated with business travel. By providing pool bikes, or allowing employees to use their own bikes to travel to meetings, businesses can make substantial savings.

In these hard economic times people need more affordable alternatives to the car to travel to work, cycling is a low-cost alternative.

  • The average cost of running a car each year is £1758, representing a significant portion of the average UK income and even more for low income earners
  • One in five cyclists say that saving money was the reason they choose to cycle.
  • Cycling to work builds recommended physical activity level into our daily lives, helping us avoid heart disease, certain types of cancer, type 2 diabetes and obesity. It’s also good for our mental wellbeing.

By cycling to work we get the daily exercise we need, without having to spend any extra time or money to get it.

Cycling in the town is accessible for all, but the difficult part is building the infrastructure for people to securely leave bikes in the town, at work, to be able to get changed, shower and so on. People need the encouragement to cycle, but most importantly, the infrastructure has to be in place to make this work!

Stevenage really could be the Copenhagen or Amsterdam of the UK in cycling terms and it should be, given that the cycle network is already there. But that is just the starting point. There must be a real desire to encourage people to cycle, at schools, from the Council, employers in the town, all working together to change the mentality of thousands.

But what exactly is being done by the Council? Who knows ..



One Down – 9 To Go!

The Ten to Tackle for Macmillan Cancer Support are up and running, or cycling, having completed my first event of the year, the Stevenage and North Herts CTC Start of Summertime Special.

Each year Stevenage and North Herts CTC organises a series of events to celebrate the start of summertime. These events usually run on the day that the clocks change, but are sometimes pushed back a week due to other events. There are 3 different routes to choose from and I opted for the 110km route. 200km seemed a bit too far so early in the year (but I am planning one of these rides later on).

This was my first audax event and I arrived at Fairlands Valley lakes in Stevenage for the start to find the Mayor, Mayoress and Sky News all in attendance. I had no idea it was such a big event but a report into cycling published the day before had brought the TV crews along to see what all the fuss is about when it comes to cycling.

This event was different to the usual Sportive. We have a route sheet telling us where to go, there were no arrows stuck on lampposts to guide us round. There were various points that we had to “check in” and get our brevet cards stamped just to prove we had completed the route, the primary objective being to just ‘get round’.

My guide for the day was a 70 year old cyclist. He used to race he told me on the way round but now sticks to a slower pace of cycling, but he was going fast enough on the flats. He led the way and I helped him up the climbs en route, so mission accomplished and the first of my Ten to Tackle completed.

Next up, my return to the Etape Loch Ness in 10 days time!

Macmillan Cancer Support in Stevenage & North Herts

There have been a few changes to the volunteer fundraising groups in Stevenage and North Herts over the last few months but there are, we hope, some exciting times ahead for fundraising in this part of Hertfordshire.

The Stevenage group had been running for years and had raised many thousands over this period mostly through their collections whilst the Letchworth group were only just starting out, raising funds through events. What was the Stevenage & District group and the relatively new Letchworth fundraising group, have now joined forces to become the Stevenage and North Hertfordshire fundraising group.

The aim of the group will be to hold collections and events in order to raise much needed funds for Macmillan Cancer Support and I am delighted to be appointed as the Chair of this newly formed group. The Committee members from the previous groups will prove a hard act to follow given their sterling service over the years.

But what does Macmillan do for the people of Hertfordshire?

In short, they work alongside the NHS and other health and social care partners to improve the lives of people affected by cancer. In Hertfordshire there are currently over 100 Macmillan health and social care professionals. These include Macmillan nurses and other healthcare professionals at the Lister Hospital in Stevenage, Mount Vernon Cancer Centre, QEII Hospital in Welwyn Garden City, Hemel Hempstead Hospital and Watford General Hospital, along with several local hospices and Community NHS Trust across the County. We can also now benefit from the new £3 million Lister Macmillan Cancer Centre at the Lister Hospital, which opened in 2014 to provide much needed facilities for people in the region, which were sadly lacking previously.

Hertfordshire has a Welfare Benefits Service providing local clinics at hospitals and offering financial help and support across the whole county.

There are also a range of information services across Hertfordshire, with several Information and Support Centres, together with a Mobile Information Unit which will shortly be visiting several locations across the county giving the public quick and easy access to free cancer information and support.

More than one in three of us will get cancer. For most of us it will be the toughest fight we ever face. Now, more than ever, we need people like you to join our team and help us make sure no one faces cancer alone.