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Edmund King

Edmund King AA President

chain reaction

There has been an explosion of interest in cycling,
and we must do all we can to continue to fuel it

IN MANY WAYS, 2012 HAS BEEN THE YEAR OF THE BICYCLE. We’ve had increased use from the so-called ‘Boris Bikes’ hire scheme in London, a brilliant Tour de France, great cycling feats at the Olympics and now the Tour of Britain race. Coupled with that, ever more drivers are becoming cyclists due to the prevailing high fuel costs.

However, when it comes to drivers and cyclists, a ‘two tribes’ attitude persists. “Shock news – AA President cycles” and “Edmund King, the President of the Automobile Association, is an urban cyclist and a weekend warrior” were just two of the headlines that I saw after I was interviewed by Cycling Plus magazine.

The article began: “To some cycle campaigners – who only know him from his TV interviews or his motoring columns in The Guardian – he’s the devil in a car, mate. In fact, King is an urban cyclist and a weekend warrior. He rides a Brompton (‘I never drive in London’) and a £2,800 full-suspension Whyte E-120 XT trail bike (‘cycling is my main hobby’).”

It’s evidently not widely remembered that cycling has always been a part of the AA’s history. The first AA Patrols rode bicycles from 1905, 40 years before our vans appeared, and they were a regular sight on the roads until the outbreak of the Second World War. Yet because I work for the UK’s leading motoring organisation, some people assume I must drive everywhere. I don’t. Like many other drivers, I weigh up the options and take the best mode of transport for a particular journey. Travelling to the AA offices in London, I usually take the train. To the AA headquarters in Basingstoke, I tend to drive. For shorter journeys, I walk or, indeed, cycle.

We really must get past the dangerous ‘them and us’ mentality that sours interactions between different groups (and even sub-groups) of road users – be they pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists or drivers of vehicles large and small. Cycle campaigners often do themselves no favours in this respect, and motorists can be just as bad. Motorists see cyclists running red lights. Cyclists see motorists cutting them up.

THE AA WANTS

  • All road users to follow the Highway Code
  • More cycle routes/lanes where quieter alternative routes do not exist
  • More widespread cycle proficiency and truck/cycle awareness training
  • More cycle-safety elements in the driving test

THE AA DOESN’T WANT

  • The licensing of bicycles
  • Compulsory cycle helmet use

We need better behaviour all round. We’re not yet like the Netherlands, owning lots of cars, but moving around town by bike. Yet the majority of motorists have bicycles at home and the majority of cyclists have cars. When we release our grip on the steering wheel or handlebars, the differences disappear. We need to change things culturally, and I think this is happening – slowly. It’s all about modifying attitudes, particularly at a young age. It would help to get more youngsters cycling, and that means improving facilities for everyone. Existing cycle routes could be better designed. Cycling needs to be incorporated into the planning stage of developments, not added as an afterthought in the form of ridiculous 10- yard cycle lanes painted in the gutters of busy roads.

Many people are put off by perceived or actual danger, and some parents won’t allow even their teenage children to cycle. But if they haven’t done so by the time they obtain a provisional driving licence, they probably never will – instead becoming drivers who have no empathy or understanding of the issues that cyclists face.

We also need more cycle training across the UK because figures from the AA Populus opinion panel (see below) show that less than a quarter of the 1.5 million AA Members who cycle have ever received any. Two of my children recently completed Bikeability cycle proficiency courses via their school. These courses should be offered more widely.

Notwithstanding these problems, cycling is enjoying a renaissance even in busy cities such as London, and cycle shops are doing well in spite of the recession. This is to be welcomed because the more cyclists there are, the safer and better accommodated they will be.

The great AA giveaway

Last year, the AA Charitable Trust ran a cycle safety initiative giving away 5,000 free helmets and high-visibility vests to cyclists. The Trust has been addressing a number of safety issues for road users recently. We launched free Drive Smart training aimed at young drivers at risk, comprising free, two-hour courses (supported by the Government and the police) to promote safer and more economical driving behaviour. We have also been offering free Drive Confident training to rusty or older drivers. Both courses have proved incredibly popular – you’ll find more at theaa.com/driving-school/improve-your-driving.

Of course, the AA runs safety campaigns on a host of issues, including drink/drug driving, mobile phone abuse, road rage, speeding and, indeed, the state of the roads – highlighting the fact that potholes are even more of a hazard to cyclists and motorcyclists than they are to drivers.

The AA charity trustees are keen that the work of the Trust should cover broader road safety issues, and have therefore called for further initiatives to cover cycle and motorcycle safety. After conducting surveys in London, we found that fewer than five per cent of the riders hiring Boris Bikes wore helmets or high-visibility vests, so we decided to launch a giveaway scheme. The idea was that casual users could leave an AA helmet at their place of work for use when they wanted to hire a bike. I always do.

For the giveaway we had AA Patrols on AA mountain bikes, which we use at events from Wimbledon to Glastonbury. We were also supported by many staff volunteers because there is a high level of interest in cycling among them; we always get a good turnout (from our chief executive officer down) for the London-Brighton ride and other charity events.

The response from the public was overwhelmingly positive, too. We had nurses, plumbers, police, lawyers, parking attendants, students and many more queuing up for helmets. In fact, we had to end the giveaway early because we ran out of stock.

Need I say more? Come and join us. Get out your bike, dust it down and enjoy the freedom of two wheels. It will be fun, it will get you fit and it will save you money. Win, win, win.

Your views make a difference

With more than 150,000 Members, the AA Populus panel is the largest dedicated motoring opinion survey in Europe and essential to the AA’s work as the motorists’ champion. Recent campaign victories include the postponement of the scheduled 3p fuel duty increase and Government pressure on oil companies to make fuel prices more transparent by displaying wholesale as well as retail prices at the pumps. Another great achievement is the success of our 10-year campaign against wheelclamping on private land, which becomes illegal in England and Wales from October 1 this year.

So what next? Make your views heard by joining the AA Populus panel at theaa.com/public_affairs/aa-populus-panel/