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Page last updated at 11:12 GMT, Tuesday, 6 May 2008 12:12 UK

The bicycle backlash unfolds

Folding bike

By Claire Heald
BBC News

The bicycle. It's the model of green transport and sales of folding ones that fit on trains are stepping up a gear. But as they multiply, so does rush-hour resentment, as commuters and cyclists come to blows.

Dawn is breaking over one commuter-town train station as the daily grind of travelling to work begins. A City type is easy to pick out at the far end of the London-bound platform - he has forgone formal pinstripes for Lycra shorts and a luminous top.

He collapses his bike into a spiral that is barely bigger than its 16in (41cm) wheels.

David Pyle
Yes, you should try to protect the environment, but be sensitive to others
David Pyle

A Brompton folding bicycle, it's the bowler hat of modern commuting - compact, popular, a bit of a design classic.

Its owner is polite and considerate but hesitates to give his name. Glancing sideways, he says he takes an earlier train to avoid the worst of the rush-hour. For him, cycling "at both ends" - in the sticks and the city - means he travels in an environmentally-friendly way.

So what's not to like here?

Plenty, say fellow commuters, aggrieved by the increasing number of folding bikes vying for space on the train. Sales are up, and the crush inside the carriages is on.

Sweaty menace?

"Here's one! Right here," pipes teacher David Pyle, as he opens the train doors to reveal a folding bike strapped to a handrail on the 0628 BST from Sevenoaks to Charing Cross.

Stepping inside, there are no seats left and he struggles to find a place to stand and hold on.

He complains that bikes, even folding ones, take up too much room. And he doubts their environmental credentials when some riders are dropped off at the station in a 4x4

And there is wrath for the sweatier cyclists.

James Waller of Evans Cycles shows us how to fold and assemble a folding bike.

"Yes, you should try to protect the environment, but you should be sensitive to others," he says. "If putting your bike on the train obstructs other people's standing space, it doesn't fulfil any ecological criteria."

Cramming into a busy train while under pressure of time - commuting is hardly an experience that brings out the spirit of generosity in us. Take father and son city-workers Nick and Tom Hester.

"For years we had a long standing thing about a little guy who we called 'cyclo git'," says Nick. "He had a row just about every day - the classic 'get his bike out of the boot at Sevenoaks station' man."

"They're so arrogant with their 'let me through, I'm a cyclist' attitude. The trains are crowded enough, they should be banned during rush hour."

"The most annoying of the lot is the people who build their bike just as everyone gets up to get off," adds Tom. "There's a perfectly large station - why do it on the train?"

Sales shift gear

They've noticed the change as sales of "folders" are on the rise in the UK - about 75,000 of the 3.5 million bikes sold last year. Market leader Dahon says its sales are growing by about a third each year. UK-based Brompton says it's unable to keep pace with demand.

Bike and train commuter Ercan Ozcelik the morning crush

Partly it's down to technical improvements - folding bikes have improved both in the ride they give and how quick and easy they are to fold (7-15 seconds for a Brompton).

Other factors have also driven sales: the London congestion charge (and similar plans in 10 other UK centres); growing awareness about exercise; and the 7 July bombings which converted many to pedal power.

The city now boasts a high-profile cycling mayor and will this year host its second folding bike race for commuters. Across the rail network, standard bikes are either banned by train companies at peak times or must be booked-in.

"Tick, tick, tick"

As rush hour rolls on, the steady tap of rain on the train windows hardens to a more aggressive pelt. Mac-clad passengers squash onboard. Soggy brollies dangle. Tempers begin fray.

But there is also the "tick, tick, tick" sound of folding bikes being wheeled up to, and off of, trains.

You can see them looking at you in your shorts, thinking 'I haven't got a seat, and yet he's got a bike'
Ercan Ozcelik
Cyclist commuter

City lawyer Roger Day is undeterred by the conditions; indeed they are "liberating". "I always cycle in the morning, rain or shine," he beams.

He does four miles to the station, and a quick sprint in the city: "I used to drive to and from Canary Wharf, and it was miserable. This journey takes longer, but I would take it a million times it's fantastic and helps keep me healthy."

Other cyclists are keen to show how little room their bike occupies; how easy it is to assemble: "It takes half a minute," says investment banker Jamie MacLean, unfolding his bike at London Bridge.

The us-and-them aggravation in the dog-eat-dog world of the train doorway is well known to some, however. Ercan Ozcelik has 22 years of taking the train and cycling to work under his waterproof, high-visibility belt.

"Coming home, when there's no seats, you can see them looking at you in your shorts, thinking 'I haven't got a seat, and yet he's got a bike'."

Blame game

But to place blame under the tyres of the bicycle is to miss the problem, say cycling's proponents. It is train overcrowding and the demise of the storage-giving guard's van that are at the root.

"Commuters have a problem with other commuters," says Tom Bogdanowicz of the London Cycling Campaign. "The bottom line is they're complaining about overcrowding on trains, not specific items."

The solution? Greater capacity for people and trains designed to take bikes. Then everyone could fold up their bike at the station, and carry it on to the train.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Cycle/train commuting has saved me approx 10k miles a year by car which has to be good both for my fitness and the environment. It is understandable that people get resentful or annoyed at cyclists using up seats on the train etc but it is only as bad as bringing a suitcase on. Surely the rail companies could put on one extra bike specific carriage on the busier trains? They could have half the seats and extra points for storing bikes.
Sush Kelly, Birmingham

The extraordinary thing is that seven years ago I and about 20 others were regularly commuting from Guilford and further, all with full-sized bikes. The old trains had plenty of space (although the small minded "jobsworth" guards rarely permitted us use of both cattle wagons). Why did the powers that be not spot the need and design the new trains to cope with the needs of bikes, pushchairs, holiday baggage, rucksacks to name but a few of the daily needs - and all subject of major complaint by the poor long suffering commuter, both pedestrian and cyclist? Typically short sighted.
Bill Rees, Zug, Switzerland

I've used folding and non folding bikes (and prams and large luggage) for years. I see this as a threefold problem:
1) Poor rolling stock design - train luggage racks that are too small even to take a Brompton, let alone a pram, so wasted space
2) Selfish behaviour from cyclists (yes I've done it as well, everyone has a bad day)
3) Selfish behaviour from commuters who stand in the only space that a bike\pram\large bag could go when the train is empty, thus forcing the person with the large object to stand in the doorway and to get in everyone else's way
On shoulder to shoulder trains, even a Brompton is getting a little selfish. But they would fit in overhead racks if they were better designed.
Simon, Saffron Walden

I recently bought a folder after being admonished for bringing my bicycle on the train. It is compact and so much easier to transport and store. The ride is surprisingly smooth and it is great in the city.
Candace, New Jersey, US

You should have to buy a ticket for a bike.
Matt Whitby, Thatcham

My folding bike is smaller than the majority of bags, briefcases and suitcases that almost all commuters carry. Overcrowding is the issue.
Naythan, Rushden, UK

The worst example of a selfish cyclist I've seen was on a rush-hour train. The bike's owner had decided to create their own bike parking space by locking their bike in front of three folding seats. Folding seats are designed to fold-away when not in use to allow easy access down the train's corridors. Not only did this bike prevent the use of three of the train's seats, it also blocked the corridor in the process.
DS, Croydon, England

DS of Croyden, he's selfish because he wanted to get home/to work? I think not. A tiny bit inconsiderate? Possibly... but I suspect that was the only cycle "provision" on that train, as it often is here. Current First Great Western Intercity trains have a cycle car. But it means running the length of a carriage after putting the bike in, as you are usually one of the last on the train. Folding cycles are often smaller than luggage cases, which there is never enough room for on a busy weekend train.
Mark, Bath

The fault lies entirely with the rail company as they are not providing suitable facilities for their paying customers, whether they are cyclists or pedestrians.
Ken, Glasgow

The really annoying ones are the cyclists who don't fold up their bike, prop it across the doors, and then get annoyed when someone wants to use the door to actually get off the train, and they have to move their precious bike.
Nona, London

I use the train-and-cycle combo to get to work from Hertfordshire to central London. However, I get incredibly irritated by the cramming in of frankly not-very-small folding bikes by other commuters - the bikes get in the way and take up valuable space. My solution is easy - I leave my bicycle in the cycle racks at the train station in London and don't take it on the train. It's not a folding bike, so I get a faster, more comfortable ride too. And I don't have to fight to get my 'luggage' onto trains in the rush hour. At the home end, I'm fortunate to live close enough to the station to walk. I'm about to move further away and am going to pull the same trick there - leaving a second bike at the station. This may seem expensive, but Brompton bikes start at over 300, and go up to 700 or so. My full-size bicycle cost 130, has integral lights, a luggage rack, and is comfortable enough to do the London-Brighton ride and over 6,000 miles so far. So buying two full-size bikes is cheaper than one folding. Perhaps more people should consider this rather neat way of commuting...
Ian Cowley, Royston and London

What about more bike parks at stations? Then cyclists could leave their bikes at the rail stations and join the rest of us on the tubes/buses/pavements for the last part of their commutes. That's for those cyclists who don't already join pedestrians on the pavements obviously.
Ian, London, UK

I remember the days, not very long ago, when trains had a carriage for bikes. Despite bikes being higher up the agenda than ever, profit comes first and bike accommodation is now limited to a couple of bike/pushchair/disabled bays. Given they barely accommodate for peak volumes of passengers, I suppose this is all that can be expected; though it is a little rough to put this lack of accommodation on the cyclist.
Toby Williams, London

Why all this resentment against folding bikes? Surely the problem is overcrowding on trains. Trains in Europe - particularly the Netherlands and Denmark - have carriages equipped for bikes and are extremely bike friendly. Here we pay lip service to the bike rider for example with bike paths that allow cars to park on them (illegal in Canada) and trains with no designated carriages. Instead of arguing about this why not attempt to find some solutions. I have recently moved house and a folding bike is vital to my commute to work, I take up less room than a pushchair or a large suitcase - will you be turfing those off next?
Gill Foster, London

Why is it ok for commuters to carry extra-large golfing umbrellas - even if it's not raining, over-sized brief-cases - even when they haven't completed the work they took home the night before, large handbags and at least two plastic carrier bags - because they have to have at least two pairs of shoes for the day, or worse spread over two seats because they can't fit on one.
Bill Williams, London

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