Saturday, 19 June 2010

The Vehicle of Revolution?

'Is the bicycle a natural cycle, or a vehicle of revolution?' So ran the slogan on a London Cycling Campaign badge in the 1970s.

I'd say its both.

I'd even say as an invention, the bicycle revolutionised personal transport in Europe to a greater degree than the horse. In 1950s Britain, over 55% of people travelled to work by bike. Today, according to the last Census, it is about 4%. In Holland a much healthier 30% or so of people use the bike to get to and from work.

The bicycle is cheap, simple, easy to maintain, long-lasting, zero-carbon on running ( except the methane from the rider), and keeps you fit and happy - all the ingredients of a tool for transition!

I got my first proper bike at the age of 13, and promptly went off on long rides in London without a thought. The sense of freedom and independence for me was more exhilarating than when I passed my driving test at double that age.

The car - my car - nearly took over in my late 20s, but some seed of the romance, practicality and simplicity of the bicycle had been implanted in me, and I never lost it.

A wonderful book then came my way, which really helped germinate that seed, to the extent that you'd now be forgiven for thinking I am rather addicted to bikes and cycling. The book was 'Richard's Bicycle Book', by Richard Ballantyne, and it is now on something like its 35th year and 14th edition - it isn't described as the "cyclists' bible" for nothing. First written long before green or eco credentials became trendy, this book extolled the virtues of cycling in all its forms at a time when the motor car was god, and sophistication rather than simplicity was king.

Ballantyne in his book somehow encapsulated the cyclist's psyche, as well as giving sound advice on handling traffic and aggressive car drivers ( and dogs).

Nowadays, I admit to owning 4 bicycles, and no cars. I think I am probably addicted to cycling in the sense that I feel lethargic and irritable if I spend longer than 4 days off my bike. I can think of worse addictions though.

In modern cities the bike is easily the quickest way to get around, and fortunately those marketing guys seem to have come up with some practical and smart ways of carrying stuff on a bike, without arriving at a meeting looking like you have just arrived from Betelgeuse 5.

Of course there are huge challenges to getting cities like our own Norwich much more cycle-friendly - the most obvious of these being more segregated cycle paths, lower speed limits, more car-free zones, and a lot more driver education on shared use of roads and courtesy to other road users ( cyclists and pedestrians). I'll leave these crunchy issues for later writers on this special week of the bicycle.

And... look forward to hearing more bike stories to inspire us all to get onto the streets of Norwich and the lanes of Norfolk by bike.

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