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Cycling the Saviour?

Updated: Oct 5, 2020

Peter Walker’s How Cycling Can Save The World is a fascinating dive into the history, and potential future, of the bicycle as a vehicle for positive personal and societal change.

Not small-scale societal change that would afford extra space for the middle aged man in lycra, but the type of change that could move us significantly away from the inequities of today’s stacked system. The humble bicycle holds huge emancipatory potential, as this book compelling explains.

First though, about the author - Walker is a political correspondent for The Guardian who has reported from places ranging from Iraq to North Korea. Walker has also run The Guardian’s Bike Blog and has been named as one of the fifty most influential people in British cycling. His authority to write on cycling is bolstered by personal experience, particularly the effect regular cycling had on his health and well-being whilst working as a courier in London and Sydney.

Walker draws on international example to demonstrate the opportunities available to societies who embrace the bike: cleaner air, healthier lifestyles, pleasant commutes, physical mobility and therefore improved social mobility, stronger communities, and cheaper travel.

The book is laden with evidence for all of these positive outcomes - evidence gathered from scientific studies, from official statistics, through interviews with politicians, medical professionals, other authors, and campaigners. It’s heavy on facts but it doesn’t read dry. It’s hopeful, it’s warm, and it is stays true to its optimistic name by maintaining a focus on human and planetary well-being.

It takes an international perspective in order to pitch, most directly, for better cycling infrastructure within the UK. We’ve supplemented the book’s arguments by including some evidence from Bike Life - 2019 - Bristol, a report produced by Sustrans in conjunction with / commissioned by Bristol City Council, to show that the book’s insights and conclusions apply locally.

“Cycling can save the world – or at the very least make it a significantly and noticeably more healthy, safe, equitable, and happy place”.

One inequality identified by both How Cycling Can Save The World and by the Sustrans report relates to air quality. Walker reports on the conclusions of academics from Leeds University who found that:

“Communities that have access to fewest cars tend to suffer from the highest levels of air pollution, whereas those in which car ownership is greatest enjoy the cleanest air”

It has always been thus? In the northern hemisphere we find that wealth tends to congregate on the western side of cities. A hangover from when the wealthy put themselves on the high side (up wind) of the prevailing winds during industrial times, to avoid the worst of the smog.

Bristol has seen recent protests surrounding illegal levels of air pollution and it’s clear why. Researchers at King’s College London conducted a study which revealed that five people die each week in Bristol as a result of high levels of air pollution. Of course it's not five people die and no one else is affected, we're all impacted, but some more than others. David Dajnak, the principal air-quality scientist within the study, said: “the highest level of air pollution in Bristol coincides with… areas having the highest black and minority ethnic population.”

“We have a moral, ecological and legal duty to clean up the air we breathe. This research emphasises how vital it is that we act quickly to improve health and save lives in Bristol.”

- Marvin Rees

It applies in Bristol that while people from socio-economic groups D and E (which are significantly but far from exclusively comprised of people from minority ethnic backgrounds) are most likely to suffer the impacts of higher traffic levels, they are least likely to own a car. Despite lower car ownership 74% of people from this group never cycle, though 35% would like to start, equating to 32,000 adults.

For those that don’t cycle, here are their stated reasons:

Safety fears will be contributed to by the fact that densely populated areas, in which those from lower socio-economic groups tend to live. have even worse cycling infrastructure, and less safe roads, than the average.

Every day, in Bristol, cycling takes up to 28,000 cars off the road. That’s with 28% of the population cycling at least once a week. What a difference it would make to the inequality described above if we could have another 23% (the amount that would like to cycle but currently don't) of the population taking to two wheels.

Cycling as a mode of transport is ideally suited to urban life. Cities that are designed for cycling can help people access everyday services and reduce social and economic isolation - it ought to be a safe and accessible means of transport for all. That car in front of your car, would you rather they were cycling? The air would be cleaner and you'd be dealing with less motor traffic. If the answer's no, how about if they were cycling in a wide and segregated lane set apart from cars? See sensible cities all over the world.

As well as proven disparities within overlapping socio-economic and ethnic demographics, gender and age are also strong indicators of cycling uptake. Yet, as the book reveals, it need not be so. In the UK 29% of bike rides are taken by women and girls, in Denmark and The Netherlands it is 55 and 56% respectively. In The Netherlands people aged 65 make 24% of their trips by bike!

Again safety appears to be the primary concern and reason:

On the subject of safety, the chapter that most notably caused a change in my thinking was Chapter 7: ‘If Bike Helmets Are The Answer, You’re Asking The Wrong Question’. Ex-professional cyclist and ongoing campaigner, Chris Boardman, was pilloried by a significant number of the public after cycling slowly down a quiet street on television without a helmet on. His response was that “These actions (making safety the responsibility of the cyclist) seek to deal with an effect. I want to focus the debate on the cause, and campaign for things that will really keep cycling safe”.

This made me rethink the annoyance I have previously felt in seeing people cycling around without a helmet (tellingly, that thought tended to come to me whilst I was driving). I continue to believe that helmet use in the UK is wise but now see that, were the commuting infrastructure adequate, I wouldn’t concern myself with someone else’s PPE decision. In Holland, helmets are uncommon and their cycling safety statistics, per mile ridden, are far superior to ours. My annoyance would have been better targeted at infrastructure reform.

The book convinced me that cycling is fundamentally a safe activity that too often occurs in dangerous, poorly designed environments. By extension, cycling very often does not occur when it otherwise might.

In another chapter, Walker looks beyond the tarmac into the effects that the roads can have on the communities through which they run. He reports on a study of three streets in Bristol which set out to test the conclusions from previous research elsewhere. It reaffirmed that the number of friends and acquaintances reported by residents was significantly lower on streets with higher volumes of motor traffic.

The Sustrans and Bristol City Council also suggests that improving streets for cycling and walking would have social benefits:

Venturing further into residential life, Walker compares the risk of cycling to that of a sedentary lifestyle: drive to work, sit at a desk, drive home, then sit in front of the television. Whilst cycling where the car has dominion isn’t as safe as it should be, a strong argument is made that it’s still safer, overall, than driving to work daily. The holistic and long term benefits of cycling outweigh the risk by comparison, even here. The Sustrans / council report concluded the following in relation to health, in a city which is far from maximising cycling’s potential:

I took a lot from the sociological look at the relationship between road users, and the rhetoric and public perception of what it means to be a cyclist found in Chapter 8 ‘The Outgroup, Why Cyclists Are Hated’. It’s argued that media portrayals feed into real life, on-street interactions, and into political decisions of significant consequence. Included are some frightening, comical examples from the US of political attempts to restrict cycling and some astounding positions taken by UK politicians failing to speak rationally about cycling uptake and safety.

One feature that I feel would have improved the book significantly would have been the inclusion of photographs. Hard data and interviews from Utrecht, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Bogota, Portland, Seville etc. are compelling but visuals would have helped cement the fact that the same could be happening where you and I live.

It is politicians, councillors, and town planners who, for the benefit of society, ought most to read this book. However, the decision-makers are most reliably reached through a change in common discourse. The book will usefully be read, therefore, by all who would like to contribute to the debate on the design and safety of our roads. Also anyone with an interest in breathing less polluted air, saving money, aiding their health, and helping with environmental preservation – both local and global. Ideally people who are not already convinced in the merits of cycling.

As 20% of journeys in Britain are less than one mile, 38% less than two, and 66% less than five, and as I look out my window to see at least fifty cars and zero bikes, it’s surely a debate worth joining?

All graphics referenced from:

Which wheels would you choose?

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