Not Everyone on a Bike Is a Cyclist
It was about ten thirty on a sunny Sunday morning, a couple of days before I sat down to write this, when the flotilla of cyclists came into view from around a corner. There must have been about thirty of them, riding more or less every
sort of bike you could imagine. At the front, pedaling an ancient folding machine at a sedate, regal cadence, was a woman probably in her sixties, wearing red trousers and a bright blue visor to shield her eyes from the glare. As I watched from the pavement she gave me a grin in passing.
Behind her were men and women of various ages, a few dressed up in the default city cycling garb of luminous jacket and shiny helmet, but most in ordinary clothes, on very everyday bikes. I had no idea if they were some sort of unfathomable organized group, or whether the arbitrary actions of traffic lights and chance had somehow coalesced them into this wonderful, accidental peloton.
But then thought struck me: either way, these people wouldn’t have been here just a few months ago.
This was a road in central London called Lower Thames Street, which, as its name suggests, adjoins the river that flows through the city. An ancient thoroughfare—it was mentioned in the city’s eleventh-century customs records—the road was widened and rebuilt in the 1960s, turned into the sort of double-lane urban freeway so popular in that era, when the dominance of the car appeared absolute and forever.
After the road was rebuilt for cars, very few cyclists would ride on it. It tended to be only the gung ho and bold who did so, almost all young men, often professional cycle messengers in a hurry, those who didn’t mind holding a lane amid a stream of taxis and trucks, speeding under the bridges and along the concrete canyons. I was always a reasonably confident rider, but I’d try to avoid Lower Thames Street if I could. It just wasn’t fun. The idea of a woman in her sixties choosing to cycle along it, even on a Sunday morning, would have been absurd. Such cyclists were excluded from large sections of their city.
So what changed? It was nothing more than a bike lane. In 2014, Lower Thames Street was selected as part of the route for one of London’s first two modern, Dutch-style routes, boldly called Cycle Superhighways, which would protect riders from the motor traffic with continuous curbs, protected junctions, and bike-only traffic light sequences.
This was a controversial process. Businesses along the way objected, saying the lanes would bring London to a halt. The trade group representing the city’s iconic black cabs openly laughed at the idea that there were enough riders around to fill such broad bike thoroughfares. Outside of rush hour they would be unused, it predicted—a failure, a tumbleweed-strewn embarrassment.
In May 2015, the lanes opened, one running north to south and a longer route, taking in Lower Thames Street, heading east to west. And then the cyclists arrived. In a mass. My regular ride to work sees me ride along the north–south superhighway. I had begun cycling in London two decades before, when to do so made you something of a freak, an exception. At the time, other riders were so sufficiently rare that you’d sometimes nod in acknowledgment as you passed. Now, on the new, separated lane, I regularly wait at traffic lights amid a massed pack of two dozen or more cyclists.
For me, more interesting even than the numbers is the identity of some of these new riders. London’s bike culture has long been dominated by speedy young men riding rapid bikes in specialized clothing, a product of the feral traffic culture and lack of dedicated provision for cyclists. But now other people are emerging on bikes: older, younger, slower, dressed in ordinary clothes, not riding lightweight racing bikes with ultra-skinny tires.
This book is ultimately about everyday riders, and the astonishing and varied ways in which they can transform the urban environment and way of living for the better. It’s about people like the sixty-something woman with the visor and her motley gang of fellow riders. In fact, you could even say this book isn’t about cyclists at all. In one sense it is, of course. It describes the many wonderful and unexpected ways that lives and societies can improve if only more people decide they are happy to ride a bike. And if you ride a bike, you’re cycling, and thus a cyclist. Correct?
Well, yes and no. In many places, particularly the UK, America, Australia, or anywhere else that the private car still dominates, if you tell someone, I’m a cyclist
, they’re likely to make a few instant assumptions. You’re an enthusiast. An advocate, even. You ride everywhere, and make a vocal point of doing so. You might have opinions about gear ratios and a drawer full of garish, figure-hugging
I partly fall into that category. I have cycled regularly, and occasionally for long distances, for about twenty years. While I’m a news journalist I’ve also written quite a bit about cycling issues for my newspaper, The Guardian
. I receive occasional bike-themed Christmas presents.
But I think the world needs fewer people like me, or perhaps more accurately it needs more bike riders like the crowd on Lower Thames Street, who treat cycling a whole lot less seriously. If cycling is indeed going to save the world, it won’t be the Lycra-clad road warriors who’ll be doing it. The big changes—and they can be huge—happen when a nation doesn’t see cycling as a hobby, a sport, a mission, let alone a way of life. They happen when it becomes nothing more than a convenient, quick, cheap way of getting about, with the unintended bonus being the fact that you get some exercise in the process.
This is, sadly, not very common in the more car-centered nations. Cyclists are still generally viewed as a breed, a niche. They are also seen as a curiously homogenous mass. The moment I swing my legs over a crossbar, it appears, I’m a blob within a group. It doesn’t matter that I also use cars, trains, buses, the Underground, my own two feet, occasionally taxis or planes, very occasionally trams, and very, very rarely the slightly eccentric and little-used cable car link over the River Thames in East London. For some reason it’s only a bike that defines me.
Things are very different elsewhere. The Dutch and Danish—you’ll be hearing a fair bit more about them in this book—tend to view cycling as little more than a particularly efficient form of walking. In such countries, bike riding is so ubiquitous, so normal, that almost no one defines themselves as a cyclist, any more than they might, say, define themselves as a wearer of coats or a person who takes showers.
For myself, as the years go on, while I still occasionally gaze longingly at shiny, expensive bikes in magazines, more of my actual cycling is along this continental European model. I now mainly ride clad in ordinary clothes on a solid, upright bike with a basket at the front and child seat (and sometimes a child) at the back. I make short trips to the shops, or work, or to a school. Gradually and gratifyingly, it seems, I’m becoming part of the solution.
This is important because the overwhelming evidence is that mass cycling, the sort where, say, 20 percent or even 30 percent of all trips in a country are made by bike, only happens when cycling becomes mainstream. That might seem self-evident, but it can’t be stressed too much. This means you will never get very many people cycling when the bulk of riders are kitted out with helmets, Day-Glo jackets, helmet-mounted video cameras, and all the other high-tech accoutrements seen in less-bike-friendly nations. Cycling, dressed up as a hobby, let alone an extreme sport, will never attract more than a few percent of people to take part.
I delve into the mysterious and counterintuitive world of helmets and high-visibility gear later in the book. But it’s worth immediately noting this: while they’re not inherently bad, they’re less a safety device for cycling than a symptom of a road network where no cyclist can truly feel safe.
So what is the answer? That leads us to the other big point. As Lower Thames Street (and countless other places) show, mass cycling needs decent infrastructure and planning. Everywhere with such cycling has a few things in common: notably, segregated lanes that shield riders with a physical barrier on busy roads, and lower traffic speeds on smaller routes. As soon as this happens, the bike helmets and fluorescent waistcoats suddenly disappear. They’re not needed anymore.
Such systems need to be not just well designed and maintained but also cohesive, connected, and able to protect riders at perilous points like junctions. They must be secure and navigable for cyclists of all speeds and confidence, including children and older people. They need planning, investment, and above all the political will to take space from motor vehicles—elements that can be all too rare.
One question remains, that which frames this book: Why?
Why should car drivers, still the majority transport users in virtually all industrialized countries, make way for these anachronistic, bumbling, bell-tinkling, grease-trousered, wicker-basketed, two-wheeled interlopers?
I seek to explain all this in the coming chapters, but for now let’s quickly imagine what would happen if I could press a magic button and transform my own country’s derisory 2 percent or so statistic for the share of all journeys that are made using a bike1 to a near-Dutch level of around 25 percent.2
In an instant it would mean that many millions of people in a chronically sedentary nation would make a large number of physically active journeys a year. I detail the ongoing public health disaster from inactivity in the first chapter, but even cautious back-of-the-Envelope calculations from a 25 percent cycling share easily takes you to perhaps fifteen thousand lives saved every year in the UK alone.
That on its own would seem reason enough to summon the bulldozers and start building bike lanes. But there’s also reduced smog and the accompanying benefits in combating climate change, many fewer families destroyed by the grief of road deaths, especially among vulnerable people like children and the elderly. You can even factor in a notable boost to overall mental health, and more vibrant local economies.
But most of all, after that magic button was pressed, you’d suddenly find yourself among towns and cities that were suddenly more welcoming to human beings, rather than built for rapid, anonymous, one-ton metal boxes, often carrying a single person for a laughably short distance. This is absolutely not to say cars have no place in a cycle-centric imagined future, because of course they still will, even if they might end up being driverless ones. For now, however, they’re used far too often and frequently for the wrong sort of trips.
In a world dominated instead by bikes, people can amble, children can play, fresh air can be breathed, conversations can be heard, all without our omniscient, noisy, smelly, lethal modern-day plague. If the woman in the visor had been driving along Lower Thames Street, chances are we could never have exchanged a smile. She would have been another impersonal head and shoulders glimpsed briefly through a windshield. Cyclists are recognizably human, traveling at human-scaled speeds. As a benefit to urban living, that can hardly be overstated.
So yes, cycling can save the world—or at the very least make it a significantly and noticeably more healthy, safe, equitable, and happy place.
And I’m not an environmental zealot, or a Luddite crank, someone who believes people should turn their backs on the modern world and embrace an antiquated technology. That’s yet another paradox of the bicycle, and perhaps the most important one of all. For all that, its basic design hasn’t fundamentally changed since its arrival in the late nineteenth century; the bike is almost uniquely suited to life in an increasingly urbanized modern world.
More than half the globe’s population now lives in towns or cities,3 many of which are clogged and choked by motor traffic. The bicycle can play a huge role in changing this, and in many cities is already beginning to do so. Amid the sometimes gloomy talk in upcoming chapters of public health disasters, smog-choked cities, and traffic casualties, real change is coming.
This is, above all, a story of hope.
Copyright © 2017 by Peter Walker. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.