When I first went back to cycling in the city, something I hadn’t done in any busy locations for many years, I have to admit it wasn’t that much fun. To be completely honest, it scared the hell out of me in many instances. Or to put it another way; other people on the road scared the hell out of me. I felt vulnerable, something no car driver can understand until they are out there in the elements with nothing between them and a hulk of metal or tarmac than a light jacket or even a t-shirt. I wasn’t expecting to feel like that. I grew up tough, not as tough as some I admit, but I wasn’t phased by other people very much and I would happily travel alone, take up new sports or activities, and walk into a pub on my own.
Perhaps it was my age; we get more aware of our mortality as we get older, perhaps it was escaping from a brutal relationship, that made me more aware. Perhaps…the world had changed. But then I didn’t grow up in a city, although I worked in London for four years at one point, and have lived and worked in many others. Recently, well, up until 2018, I lived in rural Scotland, including the Highlands and both the North East and West coasts. There were less people, and they seemed to have a bit more time for one another. A lot more time than anyone in Edinburgh does, that is for certain.
I think this sudden vulnerability that I now feel is what has been putting me off, but is also what puts a lot of people off. I and they try it a few times, get scared witless, and stop. It might be fun, in a very controlled way, on a roller coaster to be scared, but being scared the whole way into the city centre isn’t fun. I have allowed it to put me off, and I am determined now to do something about it.
The hardest thing about cycling in the city is to keep going through your initial fears until you get to the point where you are applying sensible caution. One way I have been trying to do this is to stick to the segregated cycle paths as much as possible, even if it doubles the distance I would have to travel to get from A to B. And, if I can’t do that, then I get off and walk the bits I don’t feel comfortable on. I will simply push my bike. I feel a bit stupid and defeatist, but I feel safe, and it doesn’t take the fun away from the bits I’ve enjoyed cycling.
One of the most important lines I have read in the most excellent book by Jools Walker, entitled ‘Back in the Frame’, is where she says that it’s your journey. She makes the point that it really doesn’t matter what other people, and other cyclists, think about it, or how slow you go, where you go, what you ride, and how you chose to get there. She also gets off and walks if it makes her more comfortable, and that was a wonderful message to take on board. I am not alone, and it is perfectly OK to feel trepidation and respond to that in a safe and controlled manner.
Like Jools, I also suffer from depression, although mine manifests in its own particular ways. Like all sufferers, we are all individuals. She was right that getting out on the bike in the first place can be the hardest thing, but she was also right the enjoyment that can be gained from doing so it something that shouldn’t be overlooked. My trouble is getting out the door in the first place.
I have not ridden my bike anywhere near as much as I envisaged that I would do. Partly it has been winter and I’m not keen on getting cold, wet, and caked in stuff off the road. But, if I am really being honest, sometimes I just can’t face getting from my house to the cycle paths. When I do do it, I then usually wonder why was worried, but actually making that step out of the house can be the hardest thing. This is partly my depression, partly the anxiety that comes with it, and partly because a lot of drivers are not caring or considerate to other road users. Cycling in a city is dangerous.
This is why I am such an advocate of segregated cycle paths. I totally agree that we shouldn’t need them, and that we should be able to ride on the road with everyone else, this is true. But it is also equally and sadly true that it simply isn’t safe, and that worry about personal safety takes away all the fun of cycling for many, many people. If it’s not fun, or at least comfortable, we won’t do it.
Think of it this way – it’s like gym membership. We all know that we should take more exercise, and we all put on a few pounds over Christmas (or whatever), and decide we are going to make a fresh start in the New Year. This is why gym membership goes up massively in January. But where are those nice shiny new members come March and April? They aren’t doing it any more. Why? Because, frankly, for most people going to the gym is simply not any fun.
If something is fun, we will keep doing it. We may be all worried about the environment, and we all know that many of us could cycle for many of the journeys we take the car for. Many of us would indeed like to do that, but we don’t. We try and we give up because it simply isn’t fun. We can make excuses, we can blame other people, a lack of time, and come up with all kinds of reasons. We might well not admit we don’t do it because we don’t enjoy it because we are conditioned to do things we don’t enjoy, like going to work, because it is good for us and other people’s well being (and bank balances). But, honestly, how many people truly enjoy what they do? How many people would, hand on heart, carry on going to work every day if they didn’t need to?
With cycling, be it going to work, or the shops, or wherever, we might want to do it, we might want to do it more than we want to actually be at work, but we don’t because we don’t enjoy it and we have that choice. We can say no, it isn’t fun, to ourselves if not openly admitting that is the real reason.
I remember cycling as a child, and the blissful ignorance that every car driver out there didn’t give two monkeys about anyone other than him/herself and getting where they were going. Was it different in the 1970s? Maybe it was, but I doubt it was that different. Humans are selfish creatures, modern life has made us even more so. We are insular and defensive, and don’t live in communities anymore. We don’t care about one another any more. Since the greed of the 1980s it’s been OK to say; “F*** you I’m alright Jack”, so it might well have got worse. There are more cars now definitely, and there is logically therefore, more congestion. Congestion leads of anger and impatient people are almost always angry. As I said in my opening post, cycling used to be very common. It could be again.
So, we can’t get away from the fact that cycling is more dangerous than it should be. But we can make it safer, and therefore more fun. We do this by having proper infrastructure that takes the cyclists, walkers, pram pushers, wheelchair users (pretty much anyone NOT in a car) away from the car/van drivers. We can make it safe, people will find that it is actually fun, and then people will then do it more often. They won’t do it for all the media friendly moral compass reasons we have associated with ‘being green’ and making a ‘personal sacrifice’ they will do simply because they enjoy it. The added benefit is that it also makes them feel healthier and morally better for helping with the environmental crisis etc.
Here is my manifesto for more cycling:
- Campaigners who argue against cycle-ways should try cycling the route they’re against in it’s current form, in the rush hour.
- Councillors should all be asked to cycle to work one day a week, if not more.
- Planners for new developments should be made to cycle to the development either from their office or the nearest train station, whichever is more practical.
- There should be secure bike parking in city and town centres so people don’t get their bikes stolen all the time. Bike theft is a major issue, and people usually love their bikes so it hurts in more than just a monetary sense.
- They, the policy makers, (and the planners, councillors, MPs, etc etc) should also take a look at countries where cycling is popular as a daily means of transportation and see why it works.
It isn’t rocket science. The bicycle predates the plane, the train, and the automobile. The only thing that predates it as a means of transport, is the horse. Cycles have rested in the wings for long enough.
Give us all the chance to have that feeling of when we were kids again. The opportunity to feel the wind in our hair and go ‘weeeeee’ down a wee slope (and then curse our way back up it on the way home). Let us have our daily exercise, reduce our pollution, reduce congestion, save money, and get fitter, but above all else – LET US HAVE FUN.