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A Push to Return U.K.’s ‘Motor City’ to Its Cycling Roots

COVENTRY, England — Through leafy suburban streets, then up and over a narrow bridge, the path for cyclists heading north into Coventry seems smooth and easy until it ends abruptly — at a busy four-lane “ring road” with no on ramp.

Here, as cars roar by, the choice is stark: Get off your bike and navigate a grimy pedestrian underpass, or head home.

As with Detroit, Coventry’s 20th-century development was shaped by automobile manufacturing, and although those factories have vanished, the road network is what you might expect of Britain’s “motor city.”

Now cyclists are fighting back with a campaign that blends arguments about health, the environment, the coronavirus pandemic — and history.

“If you look at the health crisis, the air quality crisis, the obesity crisis, the Covid crisis — time and time again the bicycle shows it has a real part to play,” said Adam Tranter, a bicycling advocate born and raised in Coventry, a city whose topography he says has left cyclists in the slow lane.

“The message it conveys,” he said, “is that Coventry is for cars and the only way for people to engage with their city is to drive, which is a bit bonkers really.”

That is especially so, he says, because before it became Britain’s car capital, this city of around 360,000 people in the middle of England made bicycles.

It was the technological know-how from bicycle making that gave Coventry an edge in motor vehicles.

Close to the four-lane ring road, which encircles the city, stands a statue of James Starley, with an inscription describing him as the inventor of the bicycle.

That may be an exaggeration, but Starley, a 19th-century employee of the Coventry Sewing Machine Company, is credited with improving the design of the velocipede, the infamous “boneshaker” famed for its large front wheel. His nephew, John Kemp Starley, developed the Rover Safety Bicycle, the basic design of which would be familiar to modern cyclists.

And Coventry was where it happened.

Building on that legacy is one objective of Mr. Tranter, Coventry’s first “bicycle mayor.” This is not an elected post but a title created by a Dutch nonprofit organization, BYCS. As the head of a public relations firm, Mr. Tranter has seen the opportunity and has the endorsement of Chris Hoy, a British Olympic gold-medal-winning cyclist.

His timing is good, too.

Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, wants to encourage cycling to cut obesity, one of the risk factors connected to Covid-19. (Mr. Johnson contracted the virus himself, spent time in intensive care and has spoken about being overweight).

With the government hoping to limit crowds on trains and buses to maintain social distancing in the pandemic, and anxious to reduce carbon emissions, many see cycling as a part of the future.

In Coventry it is also a big part of the past.

On a cycling tour of the city, Mr. Tranter pointed to a hotel that was once the Quinton bicycle works, which was built in 1890 and later became a center of motorbike and automobile manufacturing. Nearby is the distinctive, if dilapidated, former Challenge Cycle works, now likely to be converted into apartments.

They are a reminder of how by the 1890s the cycling industry was Coventry’s biggest employer, with 4,000 workers at 77 companies making bikes and their parts.

“Coventry was the center of bicycle making,” said Carlton Reid, an author and transport historian. “That’s why it became the Detroit of the U.K. All the capital was there, all the know-how, the machinery. The technology from the bicycle was transferred across to car making.”

In Coventry in 1905, the Rudge factory built a record 1,369 bicycles in one day. But companies like Rover and Triumph started experimenting with motorcycles and cars. By 1913, the city had around 20 auto manufacturers, including Daimler, Humber, Swift and Standard.

And when the car became king, the city forgot the cyclist.

“It’s an irony that Coventry is so bicycle unfriendly, because originally bicycles were made there,” Mr. Reid said. “It’s a nightmare,” he said, adding, “I wouldn’t encourage anyone to cycle in Coventry.”

That, he says, reflects poor urban planning and changes resulting from World War II, when the German Air Force bombed the city in 1940.

The attack destroyed the city’s cathedral (the remains of which were left unreconstructed alongside a modern replacement), and planners went on to rebuild the city’s modern core with the “ring road” around it. Little more than 2 miles long, it took more than a decade to construct and cost 14.5 million British pounds ($19 million) on completion in 1974.

It was a statement of postwar Coventry’s faith in the car. By the 1950s, Britain had the world’s second largest car-making industry, and Coventry produced more than 370,000 vehicles in the three years starting in 1962.

But the British auto industry declined badly after that, and by the early 1980s the city’s unemployment rate had soared to 17 percent. Despite a mini-revival in the 1990s, Coventry’s last big assembly plant closed in 2006.

The city’s transport museum illustrates this rich history with exhibits ranging from 19th-century bicycles to record-breaking racing cars.

But Joy Corcec, a museum spokeswoman, acknowledged that the combustion engine had made life tough for the city’s cyclists.

“Every time I see someone on a bicycle heading to the ring road, I think they are insane,” she said.

Outside, Harry Gearing, a cyclist who dons a video camera on his bike helmet, said that there were “too many cars on the road, and some of them don’t care about cyclists.” His camera, which he bought after a head-on collision that left him in intensive care for four days, deters only some bad drivers, he said.

“I had a broken hip, a broken leg, a broken foot and a fractured collarbone,” Mr. Gearin said in recalling the collision. “A neurosurgeon drilled holes into the back of my neck to relieve pressure on the brain.”

At Coventry’s city hall, Jim O’Boyle, a local councilor with responsibility for jobs and regeneration, said the figures did not suggest that the city was worse for cyclists than comparable places are. From 2017 to 2019, there were two fatal, 63 serious and 209 slight accidents involving cyclists.

Mr. O’Boyle wants to encourage cyclists but also to balance economic and social needs. He worked in Coventry’s last big car factory, Ryton, until its closure in 2006, and the city values its continuing connection to the auto industry.

Jaguar Land Rover still employs 6,000 people here at a headquarters and engineering center. Coventry has invested in electric car charging points and hopes to have a big future in battery making. (It hosts the U.K. Battery Industrialization Center, a research facility.)

“There are a whole range of things we are doing,” Mr. O’Boyle said. “I am a big fan of cycling, but we have to see it in the round. Yes, we want to give people choice, yes we want to get people fitter, but it is about a green industrial revolution and that is happening in Coventry because there are jobs” in the auto industry of the future.

That is unlikely to satisfy those who want to make it easier to cycle short journeys and reclaim parts of their city for pedestrians and cyclists.

Mr. Tranter said his mission was to widen the appeal of the bicycle beyond “the middle-aged man in Lycra,” and to learn from the cycle-friendly policies of cities in the Netherlands.

After all, he added, “no one ever comes back from Amsterdam and says, ‘Oh, I had a really nice time, but I wish there were more cars.’”

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