Spend time in Copenhagen and you begin to wonder whether the sign that greets you in the airport terminal proclaiming Denmark as the world’s happiest country in some part references the Danish love affair with the bike. As rush hour traffic largely comprises streams of individuals crisscrossing the city to work, school and even the nursery – toddlers sitting in large wooden boxes affixed to cargo bikes – cycling seems hardwired into the nation’s psyche. And it’s this question of whether the UK could ever see a similar mainstream adoption of the bike for everyday journeys that I’m keen to put to Dan Morris; ride leader, Rapha Ambassador and Senior Transportation Planner with Warwickshire County Council.
‘If you want to start cycling to work you’ve got quite a lot to consider. The kit you’ll need to cope with the UK climate, how long it will take you and whether you have facilities to change. Of course, if you’re riding for leisure, all of those things go out of the window. Which is why I always suggest you start riding a bike simply for fun.’
It’s easily apparent that Dan is a passionate advocate for all things cycling. From describing his professional role through to his favourite 30 mile local loop, his voice and animated hand movements punctuate the points he makes with a calm confidence. Ideal traits when communicating a message that cycling is a viable mode of transportation to organisations not always receptive to change.
Referring to the time he worked for Sustrans on a project to encourage more Birmingham based businesses to embrace cycling as a way for their employees to travel to work, he freely acknowledges the infrastructure at that time couldn’t deliver in terms of changing perceptions that cycling in the city centre wasn’t inherently dangerous. ‘I was trying my best to promote all the pluses that cycling ticks,’ Dan explains, ‘but it was a super-hard sell. Really frustrating because I understood the positive impact cycling could have on individuals and their families.’
Things finally changed when Transport for West Midlands received a £48m pot of money to develop cycling infrastructure across the seven boroughs at the same time Dan took up a new position with the cycling development business BikeRight!.
‘After 18 months of cold-calling and knocking on doors – talking the talk but not being able to deliver in terms of persuading people that cycling was a practical and safe option – we had this joined up approach that I could sell to people as a viable means of using a bike as everyday transport. We even had fleets of bikes we could loan to businesses for a week at a time to encourage their employees to at least try riding to work.’
Finding that his role with BikeRight! involved liaising with the Transport Authority’s infrastructure team – consulting on the design of cycle routes and questioning whether they met the needs of their users – he already had close-working ties with the local authority when they advertised his current position of transport planner. Concerned that he didn’t have the usual engineering background, it was following the interview after he’d accepted the position that the panel’s requirements became apparent. ‘It turns out they already had an office full of engineers and what they really wanted was a public-facing individual to not only influence the design of local infrastructure but also engage with the public on cycle-related matters.’
As he didn’t take his driving test until his mid-twenties, at the very least Dan is able to communicate this message with a degree of conviction and goes some way to explaining why cycling has been the commonality in a varied career that included a spell working in a nightclub.
‘I was finishing my shift at around three in the morning before getting on my bike and riding home. But I didn’t know anything else. I’d ride to work, to college, to see friends. And this probably accounts for why I do the job that I do. Cycling is such a massive escape for me. The headspace I need to switch off from work before focusing on home and family.’
Growing up in Leamington Spa, the West Midlands is where Dan returned following a couple of snowboarding seasons after he graduated with a Physiotherapy degree from Birmingham University. Initially starting out in the health and fitness industry led to him working within public health on a programme engaging with young people between 8 and 16 who were clinically obese. ‘Our aim was to get them active and eating well but the biggest barrier I encountered was their reluctance to take part in physical activity because of previous bullying or low self-esteem. As I loved cycling I felt this might be the perfect way to address this issue and enable them to factor in a degree of everyday activity into their lives.’
Now that he’s landed his dream job – a role in which he can marry the design and promotion of cycling infrastructure with the necessary encouragement for people to get out and use it – Dan can confidently get to grips with the key messages that sustainable cycling can address.
‘Very often, and especially in large urban areas, if you want to get from point A to point B in the shortest time then in many ways the bicycle is the obvious choice. And when people list all the potentially negative aspects of riding a bike often what I’ll simply suggest is for them to try it. Just once and see how they get on. I’m not expecting them to ride every day but if they can find their own need or reason to do it, then that can sow the seed for longer term engagement.’
Believing active travel in the UK is currently in a good place with more workplaces opening doors to enable bicycle commuting, Dan feels local authorities are striving to enable provision but there’s still a lack of consistency between areas. Cycle lanes varying in design and colour from city to city without a joined-up blueprint to make the UK a truly cycle-friendly country.
‘We need a top-down approach that is evident in countries such as the Netherlands,’ he suggests. ‘I was over there giving a presentation about UK cycling and one of the comments I made related to our perception that Dutch motorists are so much more respectful towards cyclists. But the simple truth of the matter is that their motorists are cyclists.’
‘We need people to feel confident riding their bikes,’ Dan continues. ‘The more journeys made by bike, the greater it encourages local authorities to see that cycling is a worthwhile investment. And in comparison to what’s been spent on roads and rail, cycling doesn’t really cost an awful lot to provide decent infrastructure. But there’s the catch. As local authorities are held accountable for the impact of their spending, often they don’t think they need to invest in infrastructure because no one’s riding their bikes. But if the provision was there you’d see a greater take up.’
‘If you put me on my soapbox I say we don’t need to learn from the Dutch or the Danes. We need to look to America and learn from Portland, New York and Chicago. Car-centric cities that have turned it round and increased cycling participation. Taking space back from their existing road networks to create interconnected routes that cross the city.’
But it’s the provision of cycle training together with usable infrastructure that Dan feels could have the biggest impact. Training available to all schools irrespective of postcodes and funding bids and encouraging a mindset that cycling is the norm. ‘If you can combine this with encouraging adults to cycle – bike share schemes in all of our cities and investing in the number of segregated cycleways – then I believe we can reach a tipping point where making a journey by bike becomes your preferred option and not solely for cycle fanatics like me.’
Now that he’s a father and time with the family is precious, Dan is happy to be selective about when or if he can ride or race. To such an extent that a lot of his miles are done on an indoor trainer. ‘I’m quite happy getting up at ‘silly’ o’clock in the morning to do a turbo session,’ he comments with a smile. ‘I still absolutely love getting out and riding with other people but just need to keep all these aspects of my life in balance. And I suppose it’s because cycling plays such a pivotal role in my life – both at work and in my spare time – that I really try not to be too evangelical about its benefits. But if anyone wants to argue the pros and cons, I’m that pain in the arse individual who has an answer for everything.’
All images by Benedict Campbell