Rob Ains­ley visits the Bri­tish town that in­spired Hol­land

My kind of New Town, Steve­nage is. Rob Ains­ley cel­e­brates its over­looked cy­cle­ways


“En­joy glid­ing pain­lessly through town traf­fic- and sig­nal-free, as if in a par­al­lel Dutch­s­peak­ing uni­verse”

Quiz ques­tion. Name Bri­tain’s fa­mously old New Town, which, de­spite a large seg­re­gated bike net­work, has only UK-aver­age lev­els of cy­cling – just 3 per cent. Mil­ton Keynes, right? With the con­crete cows and its un­der­used Red­ways? Where the typ­i­cal bike-route in­struc­tion is ‘Straight on at the next 11 round­abouts’? Nope: Steve­nage. With Bri­tain’s tallest street lights and its un­der­used cy­cle­ways. Where the typ­i­cal bike-route in­struc­tion is ‘Straight on at the next seven un­der­passes’.

Be­cause the flat­pack Hert­ford­shire town was as­sem­bled in those op­ti­mistic post-war years with a pi­o­neer­ing bike sys­tem. The 12-foot-wide, smooth, com­pre­hen­sive, car-free grid of cy­cle paths en­abled baby-boom fam­i­lies to shut­tle safely and eas­ily be­tween school, shops, work and af­ford­able home.

Sev­eral stretches re­sem­ble the Nether­lands. You could be in Almere, say, built in the 1970s on re­claimed land, and partly in­spired by Steve­nage. Yes, they learned from us then. But since, the Dutch have raced on to be­come the world’s cy­cling cap­i­tal, while we’ve done lit­tle more than a wob­bly track stand.

Steve­nage’s cy­cle­ways were down to lo­cal traf­fic en­gi­neer Eric Clax­ton. An ev­ery­day cy­clist, he was keen to em­power ev­ery­one to get about healthily and hap­pily with­out us­ing a car as a “shop­ping bas­ket or an over­coat”. Un­for­tu­nately, he also in­stalled a smooth, flow­ing, sig­nal-free road sys­tem, so ev­ery­one used their Mi­nis and Austin 1100s as shop­ping bas­kets and over­coats in­stead.

The bike net­work re­mains, not al­ways well-lit but fairly smooth. But as the place grew into re­tail­parked science cen­tre cum Lon­don dor­mi­tory, the cy­cle­ways didn’t. Now they sim­ply stop where Old New Town meets New New Town.

So to­day it’s only half a cy­cle net­work. Stay at the Premier Inn and you can ride from the train sta­tion with­out a me­tre on road; stay at the Novo­tel and you’re abruptly thrown onto a fast dual car­riage­way and face an evil round­about with A1(M) traf­fic. Sim­i­larly, the Wether­spoon pub in the ‘Old Town’ is bike­able traf­fic-free; the Wether­spoon in the New New Town de­mands you dis­mount and walk. That legacy bike ma­trix can still magic car­pet you around from the cen­tre into the agree­able sur­round­ing back lanes and villages. En­joy a cu­ri­ous, al­most unique, ex­pe­ri­ence: glid­ing pain­lessly through town traf­fic – and sig­nal-free, as if in a par­al­lel Dutch-speak­ing uni­verse, the chaotic lat­tice of road­ways so near yet so far, and then – abruptly, as if flick­ing a switch – find­ing your­self in the coun­try­side.

At last Steve­nage coun­cil is ac­knowl­edg­ing the value of its in­her­i­tance, if its 2018 cy­cling strat­egy is to be be­lieved. It’s like some­one who thought their grand­par­ent had be­queathed a worth­less daubed stick-man paint­ing in the at­tic, only to re­alise it’s a Lowry.

Hind­sight is al­ways 20/20, goes the apho­rism. Well, the new decade of the 2020s can be one of sim­i­larly good vi­sion. Roads will get more con­gested. So­ci­ety is age­ing and will need com­mu­ni­ties de­signed around lo­cal shop­ping with flat, traf­ficfree ac­cess to ameni­ties for our e-bikes, wheel­chairs, wheelie cases and so on – as well as child bug­gies and bikes for young fam­i­lies. Eric could see that, and his rose-tinted specs don’t dis­qual­ify the clar­ity of his vi­sion. Bri­tain’s orig­i­nal New Town had a false bik­ing start; in my view, it was merely ahead of its time. And its time will come. Let Almere in­spire us.

Ex­plore Steve­nage on two wheels. Glimpse not the past, but the fu­ture. Just don’t ex­pect too much of the ‘Old’ Town. One al­ley, plus a tra­di­tional hard­ware shop with an im­pres­sive fore­court dis­play of elec­tric mow­ers, is about as by­gone-era as it gets. But we had a fine time cy­cling this old­est of New Towns.

Rob wrote the Bluffer’s Guide to Cy­cling and 50 Quirky Bike Rides. He’s col­lect­ing in­ter­na­tional End to Ends; york­shirerid­ings.

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