Thursday 29 September 2011

A family addition

Aside from my cycle, the daughter got her first bicycle a little while ago. My wife had temporary use of a loan cycle, but that had to be returned to its owner after a short spell where she used it once or twice on family outings.

So my wife, who doesn't drive,  walks or uses public transport. Not so bad since London public transport by and large is fairly efficient. But my wife wanted more mobility in getting places quickly that aren't served well by public transport. A cycle was the answer, I said. She said that I meant a cycle was cheap...

In anticipation that the wife's cycle enthusiasm wouldn't last long (and being careful - my wife may say stingy - with money), we went to our local bike shop for a cheap second hand model. Where she decided upon a very early example of a folder cycle for less than £70. So early, in fact, that the manufacturing label states "Made in West Germany" - thus dating it between 1949 and 1990. I explained to my wife that this was a true classic cycle - by which she correctly surmised that this was spin for "old". And, again,  "cheap".

She used it in anger for the first time the other week. I got a call from her that morning. I was expecting to hear of problems with the cycle, or difficulties with the cycling etc. Instead she sounded as excited as my child on her birthday. She had realised that she could travel locally in a fraction of the time she took walking and with much more convenience that a bus. She loves the cycle.

Her enthusiasm reminded me of the first times I used a cycle and realised the freedom it gave you, even in comparison to a car, in London. It also made me think about how much potential is in the humble cycle.

In Waltham Forest around 40% of households don't have a car or van for private use (2001 census).  And this includes the leafier, less dense, Chingford suburbs north of the A406. In a ward such as mine, the number of households without a car increases to 44%. In some other wards, this number is around 50%. And remember, this is households, and won't indicate households where one adult cannot drive , or doesn't have regular access to a car (multiple car ownership is low in most wards - 10% in mine), or doesn't want to drive locally.

This seems to me to be a huge opportunity for a large section of the local population to increase their travel options by using a cycle. It also appears to me that this significant proportion of the local population who simply don't benefit from road treatments made to aid the flow of private vehicles.

So with this apparent latent demand why is cycling such a minority travel option? Even though more people are using cycles, the percentage is still very low.

There are many reasons given for low cycle modal share in the UK. Some seem  fairly obvious like the state of the roads for cycling, others are less obvious such as home cycle storage, the concerns about arriving "sweaty" and dishevelled, and then there are the arguments against which can never change - such as the climate or hills. We can all speculate about the main causes, and maybe cycling will simply become more popular because of external conditions such as fuel cost, economy etc. But for my money I still think fundamental re-think of the way we use our roads is required. When one considers all the facts, it seems odd that local government and transport bodies are effectively ignoring great sections of their community when they consider roads only in the context of moving private traffic from A-B. This seems non-nonsensical in areas such as Walthamstow, and becomes lunatic in central London with plans such as Blackfriars bridge. I am not anti-car - I have one and am very glad on occasion I can drive - but I increasingly cannot see the sense in treating every road and street with a universal assumption that private traffic flow supersedes all other requirements.

A few weeks ago, my wife was somewhat disinterested in the notion of cycling as transport. Within a day or so she has become completely attached to the cycle, using it for more trips than she ever anticipated. And this is with the current, second-rate treatment of cycling - imagine what could happen if this transport option was taken seriously by the great and the good! Recently I have had to contemplate the possibility that I may become car-less for the first time since I passed by test many years ago. Previously this possibility would have given me nightmares. Now, I kind of considered it and concluded - meh - I will use the cycle and join Streetcar on the odd occasion I need one. Five years ago, I never thought my attitude to car ownership would have been reversed so completely. If the cycle changed my attitude to this extent (I used to be a die-hard car user), well then it pretty much change anyone's  transport habits.

So the question remains: if my wife and I - with little previous interest in cycling, and none in transport policy - can realise how useful a cycle can be, why can't those who are actually supposed to know about these things and run our roads?


  1. I gave up the car completely 4 years ago and use the bike every day. Two downsides are the not so responsible drivers who think 3 inches is loads of room to give you when overtaking and other cyclists who think black and no lights is a good option when it's dark (especially the woman last week with her kid on the child seat on the front of her bike).