The struggle to make this thing happen, the fights fought, the controversies generated, are gone. In their place, testament to powerful visions and hard work, is a beautiful bridge, almost completely taken-for-granted by those who use it, its beauty unappreciated for the best reason – eclipsed by its practical value. It has radically improved the quality of many people’s journeys; and it has imperceptibly but surely created many more, including those of my family and me.
It’s called the Millennium Bridge, although it didn’t open for use until February 2001.
How did it happen? Who was responsible? Perhaps in its early days those whose lives were changed by it asked such questions, but no more; our local cycling and walking bridge has slipped gracefully into the landscape, becoming part of our ordinary travelling environment, forming the backdrop to our lives. But that doesn’t make it any less revolutionary.
Twelve years since its opening I can scarcely imagine the difficulties once involved in crossing the Lune by bike. If you were strong and fearless you could carry your bike up and down concrete staircases and along the quiet, high, hemmed-in corridor running beside the west coast mainline.
Or else you could use one of two road bridges: both carry large volumes of motorised traffic including many HGVs and buses; both are multi-lane and one-way. Going against the flow forced you onto the pavement with equally beleaguered pedestrians. Even travelling in the same direction as the motorised traffic most cyclists would retreat to the pavement (and you can see from the photo below, still do). A few rode on the road; at rush hour this involved making your way through fuming drivers stuck in slow-moving nose-to-tail traffic, at other times it entailed trying to hold a pace and space sufficient to prevent getting swallowed and squeezed.
That’s like a bad dream now. We often cycle across the Lune; a couple of days ago the four of us rode to Salt Ayre Sports Centre for table tennis, and yesterday Bobby, Sue and I went across to do some training around the cycle track. Such trips are easy, obvious, convenient. We don’t even think about how hard they would once have been. But when Sue and I first moved to Lancaster seventeen years ago cycling across the river was awkward and difficult even as committed, experienced cyclists without children.
A new normal has been created for us here. We need to create a new normal for everyone everywhere.
Last week I gave evidence to the Parliamentary Inquiry into how we get Britain cycling. This process must lead to strengthened political commitment for cycling. The need for such commitment is obvious but not inevitable – we must keep pushing to make it happen. Getting Britain cycling requires bold vision and lots of money (not new money, merely money taken from elsewhere). We need to make cycling normal, and making cycling normal requires the sort of change the Millennium Bridge brought to some people’s patterns of mobility everywhere, for everyone.
It’s crude but also obvious: let’s say 2% of transport spending for cycling will keep cycling at 2% of all journeys. Is that what we want? Are we satisfied with continuing to reproduce cycling as a marginal mode of mobility – something few will do and most won’t contemplate? The Inquiry’s title, ‘Getting Britain Cycling’ sounds more ambitious than that to me; so how about, for starters, talking about 20% of all journeys by bike, and us as cycling’s advocates learning to demand 20% of total transport spending to match?
Would we cycle across the River Lune were our bridge not there? As a family I doubt it. Riding together requires the sort of conditions which remain almost completely absent here, as elsewhere in urban Britain. The need to re-design our cities for group cycling was part of the written evidence I submitted to Wednesday’s Inquiry, and which Peter Walker published in that day’s Guardian. But it’s a sign of how far we’ve still to go that demanding facilities conducive to group cycling is probably seen by some as unreasonable or greedy; this despite our cities suffering so much under the volume and speed of so many cars, most of which have enough seats to embed car-based sociality as a principle and a right (even if most of those seats are usually empty). We’ll have made solid progress towards cycle-friendly cities when the idea that a group of four people should be able to cycle comfortably together is seen as more legitimate than the idea of those people travelling together by car.
The Millennium Bridge gives a tantalising glimpse of this cycle-friendly future; indeed it enables a family riding together to embody, perform and so start to reproduce it. But as we found time and again on the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, because they inhabit a car-centric world most people (often far from voluntarily) continue to embody, perform and reproduce a car-centric perspective; this despite the benefits of cycling being increasingly recognised by both themselves and the politicians and policy-makers seeking to govern them.
Our bicycle bridge offers a vantage point onto a fresh perspective. It helps us appreciate how atrocious and intolerable were conditions for cycling. How did we put up with them for so long? Why did we put up with them for so long?
Those dreadful conditions have just here become redundant, but they persist and prevail elsewhere.
To talk of ‘getting Britain cycling’ against such a backdrop is simply deluded. Looking back on the River Lune, it’s obvious that what’s happened here must happen everywhere. We need the equivalent of our bicycle bridge for everyone.
If we demand the impossible it’s just possible that a generation from now we’ll look back on cycling today and wonder how on earth we managed … And we’ll look around and smile at the sight of Britain cycling.