As Hull prepares to be the City of Culture for 2017, Rob Ainsley hopes that it doesn’t short-change cycling
I’m from Hull. So you’re not allowed to make snide jokes about it being City of Culture 2017. That’s my job. Sure, we haven’t given the world many great writers, painters or composers. We’re more about everydaylife culture. We perfected the boiled sweet, flat screen TV and butterfly stroke. We devised the rules of football, the Venn diagram and Elastoplast. So if you fall and graze your knee, be grateful: thanks to us, you can use elementary set theory to decide the treatment.
Hull had a big tradition of cycling between the wars – World War One and Two, that is, not Cod. Everybody biked to the docks to work. When glum genius Philip Larkin moved there to be a recluse poet in the 1950s, he famously noted it was ‘nice & flat for cycling – that’s about the best I can say’. I learned to ride there, so I was unlikely to be a climber.
When the Humber Bridge was built in the 1970s, it included cycle tracks. Though overtaken subsequently by longer bridges round the world, none of them allow bikes. We still have the longest in the world you can pedal across. Not that there’s actually anything on the other side.
Even our City of Culture bid itself, made in 2013, was delivered on two bikes. (Deliveroo’s just started in Hull: its riders would have got it there for just £2.50, and still hot.) The press releases promised a ‘carnival of pedal power’, bikes symbolising a ‘green revolution’.
But there’s a problem. Cycling is struggling in Hull. In 2001, the Census says, 12 per cent of commuters there went by bike. In 2011, it had plummeted to 8 per cent. It’s still in the cycling cities top 10, but only just.
It’s similar in most other UK cities. However busy the country lanes might be with Sunday club riders, town centres are being pedalled less. Everyday cycling is low, with modal share barely 2 per cent.
There are exceptions. Cambridge went from 25 to 29 per cent in the same period. Bristol, Brighton, Oxford and central London all rose too. But they’re booming economies with saturated roads; much faster by bike than car to your new office job or lab post. Hull’s fishing-bonanza years finished decades ago; now people are driving to the Job Centre instead.
Derry (‘Derry- stroke- Londonderry’ as it’s usually announced, to appease republicans and loyalists) was City of Culture in 2013. They got a splendid, and useful, pedestrian and cycling bridge. Nothing quite so impressive for us (‘Hull- stroke- Kingston-upon-Hull’ perhaps, to appease republicans and royalists). We’re promised better city centre access, a 1km closed-loop sportscentre track, good new traffic-free routes along the promenade and out to the Ferry Terminal... We may not be on a cycling par with Amsterdam yet, but at least it’s easier to get the ferry there.
I hope these City of Culture plans don’t short-change cyclists. Because there’s a big intersect in the Venn diagram between Hull’s social culture and cycling culture. A cheery kind of all-in-this-together independence, verging on the up-yours. No big-budget extravagance; we take just what we need. An unpretentious pleasure in the business of everyday life, of fun and friends and food and drink. Hull’s a trusty town bike, not a £5k carbon-frame racer.
I don’t care much about Hull’s artistic legacy from this year. You can make all the gags you like about the only culture being in the close-to-sell-by yoghurt in Boothferry Road Aldi. City of Culture is about social and economic regeneration.
So what I want is for its cycling to start growing again, there and everywhere else. I’ll be pestering city and county councils even more over infrastructure and facilities. Because more everyday cycling, the A-to-B stuff, means win-win-win: less pollution, less congestion, friendlier public spaces, and healthier, happier people. Healthier public finances too. A city without a thriving cycling culture is not a city of culture for me. Will Hull 2017 deliver on those promises about bikes and green revolutions? Well... I hope they pleasantly surprise me. Then I can write my Bookerprize-winning novel about fish, cycling and Elastoplast, and really put Hull on the cultural map.
However busy the country lanes might be with Sunday club riders, town centres are being pedalled less