Cycling towards a new ism

The humble bike is not only a key weapon in the fight against climate change – it also has the power to transform our health and even how we think about urban planning. In the wake of COP26, should we be focusing on bikes instead of electric cars?

Mel Young: I was in Glasgow last week at an event which was titled “The Power of the Bike” as part of the COP26 fringe. It was a fascinating discussion because it moved quickly away from the mantra that more people should ride a bike. In terms of climate change, it is obvious that it is better to ride a bike than drive a car but riding a bicycle has many other implications. But if we are to become more focused on the bike then we need a culture shift. People in cities don’t feel safe cycling in the streets, so to make it safe, urban planning needs to change, for example. We need to have changing facilities if we cycle to work; schools could be hubs for cycling; health objectives could be set around cycling and so on. But it needs a real shift in thinking and hence action.

Alex Matthews: Yes it’s such an interesting topic – as you say, it goes far beyond just the fact that we all need to use our cars less, and therefore cycling is a great option. Urban planning is the big one I think. I live in London and I cycle to the office, which is about 12km each way. I’m relatively lucky in that there are cycle paths for most of that – but it does still feel unsafe, particularly when the cycle lane is shared with the bus lane, for example. And I also worry about what I’m breathing in as I cycle – obviously it’s meant to be the healthier option, but I think the traffic fumes I’m inhaling probably negate any benefits from the exercise! Amsterdam and Copenhagen are known as cycling cities, as opposed to the car-focused UK and US cities; we could learn a lot from them about how to plan our cities so that they favour bikes over cars. However, they have been doing this for much longer; in the UK and US we’ve been planning our cities around cars for decades, so it won’t be as straightforward as simply replicating Dutch and Danish policies.

MY: Yes, I agree, I don’t think we can replicate what is going on in one country or one city because each city has its own geography and character. Amsterdam is flat, for example, but I do think the central message can be the same where authorities recognise the power of the bike and design cities that are bike-friendly rather than car-friendly. To me the big barrier is safety. I remember, years ago, listening to a transport expert and environmentalist who simply explained that if you build a road, cars will drive on it. At the time, they were building the Edinburgh City Bypass which seemed like a good idea because it would take traffic out of the centre. But he was against it and no one understood why at the time. But very quickly the Bypass became a traffic jam, and remains so to this day. He was right. So, by the same argument, my view would be that if you build safe cycle paths across cities then people will start using them. I think the demand is there.

AM: Safety is definitely a key concern – I know lots of people who would like to cycle in but they’re worried about safety, understandably so. People do regularly get knocked off their bikes by cars and even pedestrians, sometimes with tragic consequences. This needs to be addressed by urban planners if we are to get more people on their bikes.

Another thing we need to address is the practicalities: where to lock bikes up outside offices, shops and hospitals etc; places to change and shower; addressing bike theft and vandalism; and repairs. Making a city bike-friendly isn’t just about cycle lanes, it’s about having the infrastructure available – like we do for cars – to persuade people that cycling isn’t a hassle. I have had several appointments at a hospital a few miles away from home recently, and I cycled there because it was quicker than public transport. However, there weren’t nearly enough bike racks or places to lock up my bike outside the hospital – it took me ages to find somewhere and I ended up being late for my appointment. However, there was an enormous car park under the hospital – so actually it would have been much easier for me to drive. That’s crazy! Especially at a hospital, which should be encouraging healthier behaviours! Why not build a ‘bike park’ instead?

MY: Absolutely, it is about a culture shift that has implications everywhere and we need to change things. Apart from the benefits to the climate, this will have a massive impact on health. We are becoming inactive which is dangerous for our health and the future of health services, so it is important to stay active; the bike is an obvious way of doing this. We need to start early by getting very young children into the habit of cycling and having fun on their bikes. It starts to become a way of life which is a benefit for everyone.

AM: Yes the health aspect is key to this as well. Far too many of us drive journeys that we could easily do by foot or on a bike, so we’re not only contributing to climate change but also missing out on exercise and the related health benefits. You’re right that getting children into the habit of using their bikes or scooters is critical – because they will not only push their parents into taking up those habits, but will take them into their own adulthood too. 

It’s so interesting isn’t it that a seemingly straightforward idea – cycling instead of driving to help reduce global warming – brings up so many other issues such as health, urban planning and safety. Nothing is straightforward!

MY: I think this is why we need The New Ism, and why we bang on about systems change every week. No matter how you come at a particular issue, you end up looking at all sorts of other connected areas. As you have articulated, you can’t simply start cycling instead of driving, because there are so many other implications. At the end of the day, it is about being very clear about what our values are, and then building our society and economy on that. If we want to be a climate-friendly, healthy, safe society, then cycling should form part of a central strategy that makes us all happy and content.

Photo by Alejandro Lopez on Unsplash

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