Sitting here on a lazy Sunday morning watching the London Marathon, I find myself marvelling - amid many things - at the athletes who are swooping through the capital's streets in the wheelchair event. The speed and efficiency of those machines (let alone the athletes) is really impressive - did you know that the world record for the wheelchair marathon is under 1 hour 20 minutes?
With all the difficulties that must exist for wheelchair users when travelling across the capital on a normal day - busy buses, trains and streets are, alas, not the most hospitable environments for a wheelchair - I can't help wondering if people ever use their wheelchairs as a mode of transport comparable to a bicycle - i.e. as a vehicle for commuting, getting to the shops, visiting friends.
Perhaps there are legality (or safety) issues involved in using a wheelchair on the road - can anyone englighten me? - but I don't see why in London we can't build a network of quiter routes that are suitable for cyclists, wheelchair users, mobility scooters, and more. Regardless of the ideological ravings of many cycle campaigners, it would be better, on the whole, to build such a network away from the capital's main roads, with their large volumes of buses, trucks and pedestrians. A network of quieter streets, parkways and canals would be a sanctuary where the most vulnerable road users wouldn't feel - or be - vulnerable. That microcosm of routes could extend like a system of capillaries throughout the whole capital, creating a safe connection from anywhere to anywhere.
You may think I'm a dreamer, but to some extent my dream is already a reality. There are already thousands of kilometres of quieter cycle routes in the capital; a London Cycle Network which, up until the turn of the millenium, was being developed by enlightened planners. Sadly, in the cacophony of moral and political grandstanding that surrounds today's calls for 'cycle superhighways' and 'space for cycling' on main roads, the London Cycle Network has been almost forgotten. It waits forlornly in the margins, undervalued and underused.
One of the biggest reasons for this marginalisation is that the planners who created the London Cycle Network didn't get round to creating a decent map and system of signage for its routes. While in theory you can get more or less from anywhere to anywhere in the capital on those routes, in practice you get lost. Ludicrously, there is no single map showing how the network connects together, and on the network there are hardly any signs.
The London Cycle Map Campaign is calling for a Tube-style map and network of safe, quiet cycle routes in the capital; much of this network should include the current London Cycle Network. We want cylists to be able to consult a single map of routes and then follow those routes by following regularly-spaced, highly visible coloured signs and surface markings. This map and network would provide a direly needed alternative to the status quo. Instead of remembering hundreds of turn rights and turn lefts to get to a destination, or venturing onto the capital's major transport arteries, London's cyclists could get wherever they want to go, simply and easily, in a stress-free, specially dedicated cycling environment.
And, sitting here watching those wheelchair athletes streaming through the capital, I don't see why a London Cycle Map and network shouldn't be for them too, and many more like them. Let's enable all Londoners to access the convenience and joys of a Tube-style map and network of colour-coded cycle routes.