As Le Tour begins, Mark Perryman offers up a 5-point transitional programme for a cycling revolution
It's July – the month when since 2012 first Wiggins, then Froome, and last year Thomas, turn Le Maillot Jaune into Le Maillot Britannique. Or in Thomas’ case Le Maillot Gallois. And on the back of this comes a surge in riding our bicycles, rather than simply watching the excellent television coverage.
Or not! According to the latest figures from the Department for Transport, only 6% of the UK population cycle at least once a month, just 1% of primary school children cycle to school, and a mere 3% of secondary school children. Compared to Europe we remain the third lowest of daily cyclists, at 4%. Only Cyprus (2%) and Malta (1%) get on their bikes less than the Brits.
Once again the myth that elite success, Le Tour, Team GB’s hatful of gold medals in the Olympic Velodrome, the cycling world championships coming to Yorkshire in the autumn, is proved to have next to no impact on increasing participation.
Yet cycling not only helps generate a healthier population by getting us out of our cars – the same data revealed that the average length of a car journey is 8.5 miles – we can help alleviate urban air pollution, reduce reliance on fossil fuels and decarbonise the economy.
Le Maillot Jaune won’t achieve any of this, but La Révolution might. It was Trotsky who once offered up a ‘transitional programme’ from capitalism to socialism: mine is a tad more modest – from four wheels, to two. After all, we have nothing to lose but our chains......
Socialist cycling club, 1939. Available as a postcard from Leeds Postcards
1. No VAT on Bikes
A signature move would be to remove VAT on bicycles. A 20% reduction across the board on the price of a bike, anything from £200 upwards, isn’t to be sniffed at. It uses tax gathering as a tool to actively shape lifestyles, something that will be required more and more by any government seriously committed to a sustainable economic strategy.
2. Socially Useful Bicycle Production
In the past few years there has been a spate of car factory closures. This is unlikely to slow down, as consumer habits are changing. Sadly, it’s not that car-drivers are driving less, it’s that they’re driving existing models for longer. The urgent need to upgrade every couple of years is coming to an end, and electricity is coming to replace the petrol in the tank.
Good, but where does the electricity come from? If not renewables while pollution may be reduced, the impact on climate change much less so – and the same applies to E-bikes.
Those factories could be taken over by the state, and used to churn out cheap but well-made bikes. Forget about front-wheel suspension, which is entirely unnecessary for the vast majority of journeys – lightweight steel is what improves the quality of any ride. Focus on this for a new line of nationalised, not-for profit children’s and adults’ bikes. Traditional centres of car manufacture are unlikely ever to recover, certainly not on the scale they once had – but what if they became centres of bike manufacture?
3. Bicycles on trains
Eight and a half miles isn’t a bad standard to aim at. Of course many car journeys are considerably less, so there’s no need to aspire to Le Tour standards straightaway. Most of us, depending on any hills getting in the way, could do those 8.5 miles in well under an hour. In big cities that will be quicker than by bus, and no wait for the next train either.
For some, however, the journey to work is considerably longer. Why then does commuting by train actively discriminate against those who’d take a bike to complete the journey? The only ones permitted are those who can afford the expensive ‘2nd bike’ option, the fold-away. And at the weekends it’s no better, a ride in the country for city-dwellers is made difficult because the train ride to get there has next to no space for bikes.
None of this applies on the continent where it is not uncommon to find entire carriages given over to cyclists and their bikes. What new train design in the UK has even begun to address this? There is ever-decreasing provision for carrying bikes, which is sheer madness – both commercially, and for the environment.
4. A bike shed for every workplace
OK, 8.5 miles is going to leave some of us a tad sweaty. If you’re into all-weather cycling, quite possibly soaking wet and caked in mud as well. No way to start the working day! So every workplace needs to be kitted out with a bike shed, changing room and showers. Central and local government should set the example in their offices, but tokenism isn’t enough. It needs to be in planning regulations for new workplace builds, with interest-free loans for all existing workplaces to add this provision.
5. The cyclists’ road to socialism
In the early years of socialism ‘Clarion Clubs’ of socialist cyclists would take body, soul and the message for change from city to countryside. A late 1980s version was the annual Oxford to London Nicaragua Solidarity bike ride, that thousands would take part in every year.
Clarion House’s annual Big Red Picnic, which is a Morning Star fundraiser Photo: Joan Heath
Despite the supposed frailty of Jeremy Corbyn being challenged by pictures of his regular Islington to Westminster – 4.5 miles according to my road map – cycle-commuting is a culture largely absent from the Left nowadays.
A left cycling culture could help generate instead what the writer Lynne Segal has described as moments of ‘collective joy’ – a day out yes, but with a world, not just a wheel, to change too.
I could add, of course, safer cycleways and paths. These are certainly needed, because fear remains a major impediment to the revolutionary growth in cycling for our individual and collective benefit I am advocating. Yet the overwhelming emphasis on this, to little or no substantial change, serves only to produce a self-fulfilling prophecy. If it’s that dangerous, which it isn’t, and nothing is being done about it, which it hasn’t, why bother?
Like any decent manifesto for a revolution mine is the advocacy therefore of hope, not despair.
Liberté? Yes. Egalité? Of course. Velocité? Why not? Driven not by profit or an economic system driving our planet to destruction, but by ourselves. A Révolution in anybody’s language.
Out just in time for Le Tour: Philosophy Football’s Liberté, Egalité, Velocité T-shirt is available from Philosophy Football.