The Big Challenge: Clearing hurdles to active travel in Sheffield

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I love that Sheffield is the Outdoor City. We’ve got things that no other city in Britain can boast – spectacular landscapes within reach, more parks and green space than any other, and our many trees which are just putting on their great autumn show.

It made me want to move here and I’m proud to have made Sheffield home. It’s where I’m bringing up my children, and I want them to love being outside here too.

So it makes me sad that as a city we allow where we live to be choked with traffic so that our children can’t easily enjoy the freedom to get out and about themselves.

Instead of being stuck in our cars, shouldn’t we all be able to be active outside, travelling around our city each day in ways that are good for our waistlines, our air, and also good for our economy?

Of course it won’t suit every single trip, but many of our everyday journeys could be cycled, so why is it done by so few of us? I believe that, far more than the hills or the weather, the biggest barrier to cycling becoming a pleasure for Sheffielders going about their business is how our public space and roads are designed.

Motor vehicles are given all the space, lanes and parking we can find. Meanwhile anyone who wants to leave the car at home (or who has no choice: a third of our households don’t have a car) is left with two options. You can fend for yourself in the traffic (too intimidating for many), or attempt to negotiate the labyrinth of our city’s embarrassing, patchy attempts at cycle paths and shared-use footpaths, where they exist.

So what’s holding us back? Often the reason given is cost, but that ignores the costs we’re already paying for our driving. Economists in Copenhagen calculate (when including factors like air pollution, climate damage, road maintenance and the strain of inactivity on public health) that every mile of driving costs the city six times more than a mile of cycling.

Even with little money there are also plenty of quick, cheap ways we could start to improve things, the way the Dutch have, which need only our leaders’ willingness.

Selectively interrupting rat-running with planters or bollards can give life back to residential areas. Making certain roads into one-way systems can free up whole lanes. This isn’t to penalise driving or make it impossible, but simply to make other options at least as appealing and convenient. Holland, which pioneered this approach, was rated as the best place in the world to be a driver, partly because there’s so little congestion as everyone else is on their bikes!

Some businesses worry that trade will suffer. But there’s evidence that the opposite happens – in New York, businesses in streets where parking was replaced by cycle tracks saw 49 per cent growth, much more than the three per cent in the rest of the area.

If given a magic wand I’d boost our imagination by giving Sheffield a sunny (we said magic) vehicle-free day a month and supply everyone with a bike to try (with electric-assisted, child-carrying or three-wheeled options). Then we could be riding or walking with our kids to school, with no need to worry about gridlock at the gates, or cruising along side-by-side chatting with friends we’ve met on the way.

We could breathe easy, hear ourselves think and get to work on time. On the way home we might stop off for some shopping and stick it on the back (or in the basket). Once we’d seen our roads as space to ride wherever we needed with no stress from traffic, I wonder how many of us wouldn’t say: why can’t we cycle this easily all the time?

We’ve got the skills for this challenge. Sheffield is famous for its industrial creativity, solving problems through clever design. The world now eats with stainless steel forks, millions of traffic lights use David Mellor’s design, and the classic of bike parking is the ‘Sheffield stand’ (first made frugally from repurposed gas pipe).

We could make ourselves a city where we only drive when we need to, as the rest of the time it’s just enjoyable to travel under our own steam. If this sounds like a future you want, why not let your councillors know?

You can also visit www.cyclesheffield.org.uk/join-us to show your support.