Jeremy Clarkson, the opinionated presenter of BBC motoring show Top Gear and bete noire of Britain’s cyclists, has said that he would live in Copenhagen “in a heartbeat” – and it’s all down to the city’s embrace of cycling as a means of getting around.
In an article that appeared in the InGear section of last weekend’s Sunday Times, Clarkson contrasts London, where despite Boris Johnson’s promised cycling revolution it’s fair to say the car remains king, with the approach adopted in the Danish capital which sees around one in three residents cycle to work or their place of study each day.
And it appears that Clarkson sees the Copenhagen model as the way forward to create cities that are better to live in.
"I suspect even the Danes are baffled about why they keep being picked out as a shining example of humanity at its best,” wrote Clarkson. “Just last week a newspaper in Copenhagen suggested it must be because, while cycling from place to place, visitors enjoy looking at all the pretty Danish girls’ bottoms.
"In fact, I’ve decided that the world’s five best cities are, in order: San Francisco, London, Damascus, Rome and Copenhagen. It’s fan-bleeding-tastic. And best of all: there are no bloody cars cluttering the place up. Almost everyone goes almost everywhere on a bicycle.
"Now I know that sounds like the ninth circle of hell, but that’s because you live in Britain, where cars and bikes share the road space,” he continues. “This cannot and does not work. It’s like putting a dog and a cat in a cage and expecting them to get along. They won’t, and as a result London is currently hosting an undeclared war. I am constantly irritated by cyclists and I’m sure they’re constantly irritated by me.
"City fathers have to choose. Cars or bicycles. And in Copenhagen they’ve gone for the bike.
"In Britain cycling is a political statement. You have a camera on your helmet so that motorists who carve you up can be pilloried on YouTube. You have shorts. You have a beard and an attitude. You wear a uniform. Cycling has become the outdoorsy wing of the NUM and CND.
"In Copenhagen it’s just a pleasant way of getting about. Nobody wears a helmet. Nobody wears high-visibility clothing. You just wear what you need to be wearing at your destination. For girls that appears to be very short skirts. And nobody rides their bike as if they’re in the Tour de France. This would make them sweaty and unattractive, so they travel just fast enough to maintain their balance.
"The upshot is a city that works. It’s pleasing to look at. It’s astonishingly quiet. It’s safe. And no one wastes half their life looking for a parking space. I’d live there in a heartbeat."
Although it may be premature for Pickfords to get on the phone to ask Clarkson whether he’s fixed a date to move, his piece does give food for thought; if the petrolhead-in-chief can see the merits of prioritising the bike over the motor car in the urban environment, there’s a glimmer of hope for us all.
It is of course possible to take issue with some of the points Clarkson makes. London, for example, is a very different city to Copenhagen, or Amsterdam, say, with a much greater area which means longer commutes for many of those who live in the city compared to the ones their Danish or Dutch counterparts have.
Then there’s the question of infrastructure. Cycling in Copenhagen or Amsterdam is not undertaken exclusively on segregated cycle paths; cyclists can, and do, ride on the road, but they are not choked by motor traffic to the extent London’s are, and the needs of bike riders are front of mind for planners, not an afterthought, including issues such as the provision of cycle parking.
Clarkson appears blissfully unaware that some of the conflict between motorists and cyclists – who, it should be remembered, are not mutually exclusive groups, with most adult cyclists also owning cars – could in part be due to attitudes encouraged by his own TV programme and newspaper columns.
And as the trade website Bike Biz, in its own report on Clarkson’s comments in the Sunday Times, points out, he is now on Twitter, and it’s inevitable that at some point he will use that medium to have a pop at Britain’s cyclists.
But that shouldn’t detract from the underlying message of his latest piece – encouraging people to use bicycles and not cars to get around does make cities a more pleasant place to live, not to mention the health and environmental benefits it brings.
With cycling pushed up the political agenda as a result of The Times newspaper’s Cities fit for Cycling campaign, itself building on the work of existing advocates of cycling, the fact that someone of Clarkson’s stature recognises the benefits that the bicycle can bring is progress.
Copenhagen, it should be remembered, isn’t a city that always embraced the bicycle to the extent it does now. It took a conscious effort on the part of city planners in the 1970s and 1980s to change policy that favoured the motor car and lay the groundwork for the present-day city that Clarkson now praises.
It didn’t happen overnight there, and London and other British cities won’t be transformed solely on the basis of one newspaper article; but if Jeremy Clarkson can see the appeal of cities built around cycling – cities, that is, built around people – that in itself is progress.
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