When we first saw them, we thought that the Center Parks arrival gates were a bit overblown but the truth is, these are not just places where you check in and pick up your magic wristband – they are the portals to an alternative reality.
One where the UK decided that the car was all very well for carrying your luggage and getting your family to a fairly remote destination – but has no place at all around where people live and play. A place where the parking right by your front door is for bicycles, as is the parking outside the shopping centre and the playground and the outdoor activity centre, and where almost everyone takes to their bikes, including kids of all sizes and bike-riding abilities.
It achieves this not through putting posters up encouraging people to walk or cycle – or even through any very fancy infrastructure, apart from the odd contraflow bike sign. No, it does this by, gently but firmly and somewhat bossily, depriving people – yes, actual British people – of their cars as soon as they have unpacked them. And nobody seems to so much as turn a hair.*
You notice the difference even as you drive in – the people who have already arrived and settled in are not only on bikes or on foot but they just stand there in the middle of the road looking at your car with the resentment normally reserved for bikes, rather than hurrying to get out of your way. Once the Friday or Monday check in is over, all the cars disappear as if by magic (apart from the service vehicles – they’re missing a trick not using cargo bikes for the staff although given some of the hills, perhaps an electric version), and car engines give way to merrily tinging bike bells and the sound of children screaming with what might be laughter or what might be them learning how to ride no handed the hard way. As the weekend wore on, the children seemed to get more free range (my nieces and one nephew – once Minecraft had been prised out of their cold dead hands, finger by finger – happily took to their bikes and cycled themselves down to the swimming area), the interactions between bikes and people on foot got smoother, and many people were clearly just getting on with using bikes as transport (it’s a shame the hire bikes don’t come with baskets, though – there was one family having an interesting time transporting their instant barbecues back to their chalet under their arms) having discovered that once you take all the fear of traffic away, it’s just a quicker means of getting about than walking. There were even quite a few unhelmeted kids by the end of the weekend, although there were also a few kids who had quite clearly decided just to keep their helmets on for the duration, and were wearing them round the shopping centre too.
And then Monday comes, the cars are let back in, and you are spat out onto the A66, 60 mph traffic, and the delights of the ‘real world’…
It is a shibboleth of cycle campaigning that you mustn’t be seen to be ‘anti car’ – that you must provide carrots rather than sticks, if you want to get people to cycle or walk. A weekend at Center Parcs suggests it’s not so simple as that. Clearly what the British people want is not to be enticed, encouraged or trained out of their cars. They want to be ordered out of them. Sternly but kindly. By someone who looks a bit like Nanny, or perhaps Nurse. It’s the only language they understand.
* That said, a friend who can no longer walk very far did describe Center Parcs as ‘hell on earth’ and I can imagine that if you couldn’t get about under your own steam, the whole shopping mall and overpriced chain restaurant vibe of the ‘Village Centre’ would begin to pall a bit.