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Times safety campaign proves that cycling is now mainstream

The Guardian: Times safety campaign proves that cycling is now mainstream

Unusual campaigning stance by the paper will reach a different audience from typical cycle campaigns

Can we dare to hope that maybe – just maybe – we are on the cusp of something special?

After years of being dismissed as anti-social ("lycra clad velociraptors"), deviant ("road tax dodgers") or just plain weird, cycling it seems is starting to emerge as something attractive, aspirational and even cool.

Of course regular readers of this blog will need no convincing and the change has been happening for some time, but there are signs that cycling is now well and truly mainstream – even if policy-makers are still some way behind the curve.

This afternoon MPs debated cycling safety in Westminster Hall (you can watch it here).

The fact that this debate is happening at all is a great tribute to the Times's 'Cities Safe for Cycling' campaign, which began life at the start of February.

Inspired by the tragic case of reporter Mary Bowers who was seriously injured after being knocked off he bike close to the Times offices in Wapping, the paper launched its campaign by splashing with it on two consecutive days. It has kept up the pressure since, winning support from celebrities and politicians and producing a manifesto for safer cycling.

Ahead of the Westminster Hall debate today, David Cameron said:

Anyone who has got on a bicycle — particularly in one of our busier cities — knows you are taking your life into your hands every time you do so, and so we do need to do more to try and make cycling safer...I think that if we want to encourage the growth in cycling we have seen in recent years, we need to get behind campaigns like this.

It remains to be seen whether encouraging rhetoric like this will be accompanied by firm government action. But just think about the message that a campaign like this sends – in particular because it comes from the Times. The paper's readership is naturally closer to Jeremy Clarkson than Caroline Lucas, so the policy changes that the campaign is demanding are likely to have traction with sections of the public and politicians who would otherwise dismiss them if they came from other quarters.

The other significant factor is that this kind of campaign is so out of character for the Times. This is a news organisation that sees itself as a sober paper of record – not a strident campaigning voice. It just doesn't do screaming front pages on 'issues', however worthy. It has even realised that it needed to suspend the paywall on the campaign content in order to get mass support behind it.

And there are some sensible suggestions in the manifesto: changes to lorries to make them safer; improving dangerous junctions; an extra £100m for cycling infrastructure (though it should be more) and a 20 mph limit in residential areas without cycle lanes (imagine Clarkson backing that!).

There is a lot at stake here though. My one criticism is that reading across the Times's coverage you could be forgiven for getting the impression that cycling is a practically suicidal activity. There is much discussion about the dangers and anecdotes about collisions but not enough about the joy of getting around on two wheels. And the tag-line "Save Our Cyclists" doesn't strike the right note for me.

Yes cycling infrastructure is woefully inadequate in this country and yes there are too many cycling casualties on the roads, but the risk is that by talking up the dangers too much in the media we end up putting off would be cyclists who themselves will be advocates for improvement.

Another sign that cycling has reached a critical mass that politicians can no longer ignore is London Cycling Campaign's major push ahead of the mayoral elections. Writing in the current issue of London Cyclist magazine, the LCC's chief executive Ashok Sinha describes Love London, Go Dutch as "the most ambitious campaign LCC has even undertaken".

So whatever newspaper you read (or don't read) sign up for the Times campaign. If you live in London support the LCC's Love London, Go Dutch initiative. And maybe, just maybe, the mentality that says "roads are for getting cars from A to B as quickly as possible and everyone else can fend for themselves" that pervades much of UK transport policy will start to change.