I was born and bred a north Londoner (so that means I’ve probably instantly alienated a large proportion of you reading this). I no longer live there but still have strong ties and go back every summer to catch up with people.
I am also a cyclist (hopefully that has alienated fewer of you, not least because that is what this blog is about) so I decided to cycle the 70 miles there from north Essex. That probably gives you an idea that I am reasonably keen on cycling. After the usual interesting way-finding to get to the outskirts of Enfield (all part of the fun) and some familiar old roads, imagine my delight at being reminded that the mini-Holland cycleways were now in place. I hadn’t been looking forward to the battle through the traffic of what is a typically car-choked suburban location, but the improvements not only prevented that but suddenly made those final few miles a delightful experience. The roads between Enfield Town and Winchmore Hill had lanes dedicated to cyclists which meant that cyclists were well segregated from motorists. These cycle lanes sometimes sweep behind bus stops, so avoiding the difficulty of a waiting bus holding up progress, and there is even priority crossing at major junctions. In short, cycling becomes a joy and not just for the hardened cyclists.
Enfield mini-Holland scheme, complete with floating bus stops
But I’m not here just to extol the virtues of something that I was always going to love – that’s like asking a child if they like ice cream. What was more interesting was talking to my friends that live in Enfield about it. Most gave responses which demonstrated light-hearted but pointed hostility to the concept. They all seemed to be amused by the fact that the Enfield Council road sweeping machines couldn’t go along the cycle lanes so they were left unswept (I’m assuming that this is not the most insurmountable problem in the world so may well have already been resolved). This would often then wander into the territory of vague concern for bus users, suggesting that the design of the floating bus stops meant cyclists would regularly be mowing down people boarding buses (none of them suggested that this had ever happened to them, mainly I assume because they rarely if ever took the bus). Other problems such as informal priority over vehicles coming out of side roads, the limited number of routes and the fact that this hadn’t brought about world peace, tended to follow.
What disappointed but perhaps didn’t surprise me was no one said that, having seen the opportunity this had created to actually get around without battling all the other traffic in their car, they had decided to give it a try. This was perhaps the most depressing outcome of what was a rather predictable exercise. I say predictable because so many people now drive unconsciously – I don’t mean literally of course, rather they choose to get in the car to make a journey without any thought about whether there might be a better or more pleasurable alternative or about the implications of their choices on others. ‘If you build it, they will come’ is the famous film line. But when the ‘they’ is the unconscious motorist, a fair bit of encouragement is needed to get them to give cycling a try.
So to all you unconscious motorists out there (perhaps I’ll more kindly refer to you as ‘potential cyclists’) who are experts at waxing lyrical about all the reasons why cycling is not a good idea, here are a few thoughts on why it is worth giving cycling a try:
1. Contrary to what many people suggest, not all short journeys you make involve the weekly grocery shop
This was a common response I heard, as if somehow the weekly trip to the supermarket was undertaken two or three times a day. Yes, I accept that lugging a dozen bags of groceries home on a bike is difficult (but not impossible – see the picture below) but there are many other journeys everyone makes which do not involve the need to carry lots of things. And even if you do have some stuff, a single pannier bag will do the job.
Cargo bikes can carry a lot
2. Cycling saves you making that pointless New Year’s resolution about using your gym membership
Why bother with the gym when you can get your exercise just going from place to place? Plus, you have an ever changing view that is surely far more interesting than the sweaty bloke on the step machine.
3. Be informed by the facts
Many people don’t cycle because they think it is dangerous yet the statistics suggest that driving a car renders you far more likely to get hurt. Most bike riders wear a helmet when they cycle but you are actually more likely to receive a head injury sitting inside a car (have a look at https://tinyurl.com/lxe9jkf). So perhaps you should wear a cycle helmet when you next drive the two miles to the shop; it may give you the confidence to wear it astride a bike next time.
4. Cycling up a hill is hard – but only at first
Okay, so there are often hills in the way on your route. But that is all they are – hills. Not alpine passes, just inclines. The first time you go up them, it will hurt and you may have to get off and push. The second time it will hurt but you will get to the top without stopping. By the fourth or fifth time you go up, you will only be breathing hard. Stop press – heavy breathing is good for you and is recommended (apart from if you are doing it into a telephone to a stranger). I refer you back to point 2 about exercise.
5. If you care about your kids
Now we start adopting the guilt trip. We all want to protect our kids and many parents are so fearful about the dangers of traffic, they drive their children everywhere (in cars, which are more likely to be involved in accidents than bicycles – see point 3). Of course, we now know that many of those cars are the main cause of worsening air pollution in our towns and cities and this is contributing towards major health problems related to respiratory diseases. So, by driving your children everywhere, you are statistically increasing their prospects of being in an accident and exposing them to a greater likelihood of respiratory problems caused by the air they breathe. Now that really doesn’t seem to make sense if you want to protect your kids. If they are too young to cycle with you on the road, get a tag along, a tandem, or even one of these…
A bicycle made for four
6. You really don’t know what you are missing
These days cars are kitted out with increasingly elaborate entertainment systems. Yet no amount of entertainment will alleviate the frustration of sitting in a traffic jam (although presumably the unconscious motorists that sit in the same traffic jams every day can no longer feel much frustration towards this problem). Encased in metal, motorists are denied the experience of the world around them. You see things on a bike that you would never experience in a car. Cycling is a more sociable experience – you can shout a hello to someone you know or engage with fellow cyclists or pedestrians. All you can do in a car is hoot the horn which usually makes other motorists more annoyed, rather than putting smiles on faces.
So I urge the unconscious motorist to wake up and give cycling a try. Not just once, as people that give something up after the first try are usually spending their time looking for reasons to justify why they don’t have to do it again. Try it a few times for different journeys – certainly the short ones of a mile or less but also perhaps a few longer journeys. Does it really take that much longer than in the car? Is it really that hard? And most importantly, can you genuinely say that it wasn’t overall a rather enjoyable experience? You never know, it may open up a whole new world of pleasure and that is something that we can all agree is no bad thing.