Beauty and the Bike

Babes on bikes and a positive cycling culture have helped Darlington top a UK league for pedal power. So what is the town’s secret when it comes to reversing cycling’s downhill trend and what can it teach business about its travel to work plans? Environment reporter Kelley Price finds out.

COMMUTERS are one of the biggest targets under the Government’s Active Travel Strategy to improve health and tackle climate change.

But in order to achieve it, cycling has to be easy for everyone - and that goes for working women in their power suits and high heels, too.

It’s hard to imagine Teesside’s fume-choked rush hour transformed by the peaceful tinkle of bicycle bells into a genteel, low-carbon coast to work. But according to the Department for Transport, if it follows Darlington’s example, it could be.

Latest figures show Darlington has increased the number of bicycle trips made in the town by an impressive 57% between April 2005 and April 2008, thanks to initiatives such as Do the Local Motion. Darlington last week came top out of six UK demonstration towns, which collectively increased bicycle trips by 27%.

It’s thought the findings could signal an end to a slow puncture in the number of cyclists on Britain’s roads.

But Darlington’s experience shows that you have to get commuters young if you’re to establish good green habits for life. Unlikely as it seems, its search for the answer to why most women had given up cycling by their twenties led it to teenage girls in Bremen, Germany.

“We’ve tried to understand why young girls in particular give up cycling at a certain age,” said Owen Wilson, principal transport officer at Darlington Council.

What they discovered, perhaps not surprisingly, was that here it came down to image more than anything. But in Bremen, a bike was a girl’s best friend.

“Their whole culture is different, cycling is part of everyday life, it provides them with independence,” said Mr Wilson.

“Around 50% of pupils travelled to school by bike, young girls cycled in their high heels, we even interviewed a magistrate who cycled to court in her work clothes.

“The key message was, cycling is a simple way of getting about when dressed in normal, everyday clothes. Motorists’ behaviour was much better because they were more aware.”

The Bremen experience spawned Beauty and the Bike, a campaign to get women into the saddle by glamming up the whole experience.

Darlo Velo and Darlington Media Group applied for funding to buy old style ‘sit up and beg’ bikes - the fashionable city retro design that sports useful extras like skirt guards. The easy-to-ride city bikes, which will be available for hire, will arrive in time for a Spring launch.

Is it all a lot of low carbon spin or a real attempt to pump up the volume on green travel?

“PR is important,” says Mark Fishpool, director of Middlesbrough Environment City, “but there are barriers to overcome. You need to choose the right bike. People are fine until something goes wrong that they can’t fix, then the bike goes in the back of the shed. We offer bikes to try for a couple of days and cycle maintenance training.”

“The more people see cyclists on the roads, the more popular it will become,” says cyclist Maureen Borthwick.

She rides the short but regular journey between sheltered housing schemes High Grange and Eden House in Billingham, for her work as an Erimus Housing scheme manager.

“I travel between the schemes once a day, more if an emergency arises. It’s eco friendly, convenient and will get me fit - eventually.

“It just became so easy for everyone to get in the car for journeys, then a lot of people became obese. These days we’re faced with back-to-back traffic jams.”

Pedal power

IRONICALLY, for a company that makes diesel engines that power vehicles all over the world, Cummins at Darlington provides storage for 70 bikes, showers for employees peddling to work and a subsidised cycle-to-work scheme, open to its 860 employees.

Reducing commuter car journeys falls outside a company’s potential savings under the Carbon Reduction Commitment scheme. But Paul Hayes, environmental engineer with Cummins, says such initiatives still fit in well with a global CSR policy.

"We’ve always had a strong community of cyclists at the Darlington plant. There’s been a continual rise in the numbers. One guy does a 10 mile trip on his bike and we have quite a few cyclists who are female.

"Darlington has done a lot with cycleways. Without that, people wouldn’t do it. The town has made it easy, so why not? It’s definitely a cultural thing, people are encouraged by seeing others do it."

Darlington Council transport officer Greg McDougall believes equipping cyclists with the tools they need is important.

"You need the will, but also the infrastructure. There’s a fantastic cycle network in Darlington. Cycling is more mainstream than a few years ago, it’s seen as socially acceptable. Commuters are an important group," Mr Wilson added. "It’s more difficult to reach them because their journeys are time critical. But it’s no good marketing something that doesn’t have a good service or infrastructure to back it up."

Biking is ‘norm’

NUMBERS have doubled in 18 months at the Middles- brough Cycle Centre, run by Middlesbrough Environ- ment City. Based in the town’s bus station, the centre provides somewhere for commuters, shoppers and visitors to leave their bikes.

"About 30 to 40% of our members are commuters," said co-ordinator Mike O’Reilly. "The car has become a status symbol, it’s equated with success. But go to places like York, and the last thing you think when you see someone on a bike is ‘that person looks stupid’ because it’s the norm. We don’t expect miracles, for people to never use their car again, but fuel prices and the push on healthy living is helping. You have to dangle a carrot. If people look at their fuel bills and see they’re saving money by cycling, you’ll get more bums on bike seats."

Cycle of savings

A STUDY by Cycling England shows a 20% increase in cycling in 2012 would release a cumulative saving for the economy of £500m by 2015, in areas such as congestion, pollution and healthcare.

The study showed the value for each additional cyclist varies to a maximum of £382 a year.

Owen Wilson, principal transport office for Darlington Borough Council, said: "There are lots of cycling benefits, including the time saved on the journey to work, healthcare savings, air quality and visual impact. Noise from engines is also substantially bad for health - more than people realise."

All these factors taken together, he added, provide an approximate £20 saving to the economy for every pound spent on promoting cycling.