Get on yer bikes!

Cheaper, healthier and safer than motoring, cycling should come out of the gutter

Cycling may be the answer to a number of social and environmental ills, from the urgency of tackling obesity and reducing congestion to im-proving community cohesion and reducing pollution, but drivers and politicians still regard it as a non-viable form of transport.

The Wanless report on the future of the nation's health warned two years ago that we are sitting on a health time bomb. Inactivity is already costing taxpayers £2bn a year and, unless we change our behaviour, obesity will cost the future NHS even more. Already one in every seven UK teenagers and one in 12 six-year-olds are dangerously overweight, according to the Department of Health.

Kids could burn up 12lbs of fat per year, according to Dr John Buckley, exercise physiologist at Keele University, by cycling to and from school every day. Yet fewer than 2 per cent of school pupils now ride to school. Twice as many are dropped off by car than in 1984, yet most children live less than two miles away. Schools, despite receiving a two-year £50m package to increase cycling and walking, are still allowed to ban children from bringing bikes on to the premises, fearing liability if they get stolen.

Cycling would not only keep Britons trim, it makes business sense, too. A survey by the Chartered Management Institute in January showed that cyclists are far less often late for work because of heavy traffic than car drivers. And facilities for cyclists are much cheaper than those for motorised transport. The existing network of off-road cycle paths has cost £35,000 per kilometre to build, compared with £11m per kilometre for the 17km of new motorway on the A1(M) between Darrington and Dishforth in Yorkshire.

Cycling is safer, too: 125 cyclists were killed on the road in 2000, compared with 3,489 other road users and 46,250 people who died from heart disease attributed to inactivity.

Yet pedalling has fallen from 27 billion kilometres cycled annually in 1938 to just five billion today. Our National Cycle Strategy, drawn up in 1996, failed its initial target to double the number of cycle journeys by 2002. Even if its target to quadruple the number of cycle journeys by 2012 is met, that will only put us on a par with Germany and Sweden as they are now.

Cycling is simply too far down new Labour's agenda. Road, rail and even air transport receive keen government attention and political investment, while the responsibility for rolling out the UK's cycle network has been handed to a voluntary group, Sustrans. The network's funding comes not from government but a medley of National Lottery grants. How many roads and railways depend on Lottery ticket sales for their construction?

It is time for a bicycle backlash. Until our love affair with the car is broken, cycling will never be a priority. And it is drivers who hate pedallers most. As a London cyclist, I am harassed most days by motorists who, revving up their engines, shout, "Why don't you ride on the pavement, you idiot?" - and who, on two occasions, have pushed my back wheel with their front bumper.

"Compulsory road tests for cyclists!" demanded the RAC in January, while the AA criticised the "lawlessness" of some cyclists; others spoke of "Lycra louts" on bikes. It is true that a minority of cyclists do shoot over red lights and some do ride on the pavement; but often this is because the road is such an unpleasant place to be. In any case, car drivers already take a comprehensive road test, but that doesn't prevent a "minority" frequently breaking the Highway Code: that green box at traffic lights, with a big white bicycle painted on it? That's for cyclists to use, not cars. That long green/brown margin painted at the side of the road? That's for us, too, not for drivers to park on.

Better traffic law enforcement for everyone - more speed cameras, more traffic wardens and tougher penalties for speeders and drink-drivers - would be an important step towards promoting cycling. The London congestion charge helped, proving that more people will try cycling when there are fewer cars on the road. It also showed that more cyclists using the road leads to fewer cycle casualties; bicycles become more familiar to motorists. According to Transport for London, cycle use has risen by nearly a third post-congestion charge, while casualties have fallen by 17 per cent.

It should also be pointed out that the cycling movement could do more to persuade others to get on their bikes. With a few notable exceptions, staff in bicycle shops can be snooty and patronising towards beginners, charging £50 or more for a job they know will take a few minutes. But there is a way around this: enrol, as I have just done, on a bicycle maintenance course with your local cycling campaign (mine, at just £10 for four lessons, was excellent).

The UK's Critical Mass movement is ten years old in April. For a decade hundreds of cyclists have been gathering in city centres once a month to ride around the streets together. The message is one that every cyclist, driver and politician should learn: cyclists using the road are not holding up the traffic, we are the traffic. We should not ride in the gutter any more, but in the road where we belong.