First Year Free

Gosh, doesn't a year go by quickly? Katie's gearbox broke a year ago and I haven't driven a car since then. I've pushed through the problems of a broken hip. Even with the time off, I've cycled more miles in the last year then I used to drive.

I've tried not to become a fanatical evangelical smug hippy-hugging tofu-chomping yoghurt-knitting hemp-sandalled pinko greenie. I'm certainly not an urban warrior, a lycra-lad or a screaming campaigner. Just a boring bloke on a bike, really. But the experience has opened my eyes to the culture I used to inhabit. Like a traveller in some exotic land or someone returning home after a long period abroad, I view my society with fresh eyes. And I don't always like what I see.

I see a society that is no longer fit for people, because people have subjugated themselves to cars. The car owns the people. The places we live, work, shop and play are framed around the needs of cars, not of people. Cars must come first. Trucks come a close second. The people, even those who drive the cars, come a long way down the pecking order.

The reasons are obvious and well-known. When cars entered mainstream Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, they liberated the individual. We could go when and where we wanted, without the restrictions imposed by the routes and timetables of buses and trains, and faster and farther than walking or cycling. (1949 was the last year in Great Britain when bikes travelled more miles than cars.) This opened opportunities for employment, housing, shopping, education and leisure. Liberation is a fine thing. Who wouldn't want it?

Facilities for employment, housing, shopping, education and leisure adapted to this new liberation. Aside from a blip in the 1970s when we had problems obtaining cheap fossil fuels, we expected to travel large distances while sitting comfortably with two hands on a wheel and the right foot on a pedal, and our cities, towns and villages accommodated this ease of travel. Industries moved to be near each other instead of near employees. Shops clustered together on what had once been green fields, because this was cheaper than town centres and not much harder to drive to. Houses were built miles from anywhere for much the same reason. If the nearest school was ten or twenty miles away, what did that matter?

It mattered only in so far as it created more traffic. This was unpleasant for the towns of villages that had to be driven through in order to enjoy the freedom. And so bypasses were built, usually wider than the previous roads, as dual-carriageways or motorways. And these created more freedoms to travel (by motor), and these opportunities were also siezed.

This freedom is so wonderful that it is no longer optional. It is compulsory, or very nearly so. It is certainly expected. The pressure to have a car is enormous. Nearly a quarter of household do not have a car, but surely only a very small proportion of those are by choice. Employers, friends, colleagues, local events and activities assume travel is by car.

This wouldn't be so bad if the car created an extra layer of freedom. Sadly, it stifles other freedoms. The largest effect is on other modes of transport. The car has pushed centres apart, making slower modes less viable. They have taken over the roads, squeezing slower movers aside. They have fragmented society. Once people would have travelled together, in each other's company whether by foot, horse, bike, bus or train. Now a metal shell surrounds the family or individual, isolating from others. There is no such thing as society; only motorists.

In my village, mums drive their darlings half a mile in SUVs to the school, perhaps because the village streets become a race-track of other impatient mums, mobiles clamped to their ears, dodging each other coming in or out of our narrow roads temporarily clogged with parked cars. Is this a good way to bring up kids?

Isolation is also from the environment. We create our own micro-climate with the touch of a dial. We listen to our favourite music from the comfort of a plush armchair. This deadens our knowledge that we are still part of the world. The world still affects us, and we affect it, but our car denies us this obvious interaction. We are hardly aware of the vast energy required to move a tonne of metal at speed, or the fossil fuels burnt, or the noise, or the two thousand people who will die on the roads this year, or the tens of thousands more from not using their muscles.

Sorry. I didn't mean to go on. Only cyclists will read this, and you know all this stuff already. Unlike me, you may also be motorists, but that's cool. I'm not trying to convert you.

Can we reclaim our society, snatch it away from the car and return it to people? I don't believe so. In isolated pockets perhaps, but the addiction seems incurable. As oil runs dry we'll dig for coal again. When that's gone we'll roof over the equator with solar panels. Perhaps Britain might become European, but I can't see us wanting to imitate those johnny foreigners. Imitating Americans, yes, that we do, and their reversal from car-addiction seems even less likely than ours.

Individual addictions can be cured. Cold-turkey worked for me. Short of an apocalypse, this won't happen to Britain or even just one city. In theory, priorities could be inverted so street design considered walking and cycling to be more important than motoring. Our politicians and designers seem too wedded to crap facilities for this to be likely.

Some folk believe the cycling revolution will arrive when we have segregated facilities. I grew up and learned to cycle in Stevenage which was largely built with an extensive segregated network. But the town's network for cars is also good so few people now cycle there. By contrast, Cambridge is congested with cars and cycling has always been massively popular despite having no segregated facilities until very recently. Segregation, as a general principle, is neither necessary nor sufficient for increased modal share.

Will UK cycling finally expire? I'm not that pessimistic. There will always be die-hard eccentrics of all ages who will buck the trend, if only as a way to stick it to the man. But if bikes ever do start to replace cars, they will have to be taxed to replace fuel duty. Beware what you wish for!

I still remember yearning to learn to drive, then yearning to own a car. And then, sometimes, somewhat rarely, enjoying a drive. Nowadays I hope I'll never need to drive again. But I hope to see Katie again. Just to see how she's getting on.

Happy cycling, everyone. Indeed, happy motoring, if you must.

12 comments on “First Year Free”

  1. Mike wrote:

    Not a rant, Alan, but a well-crafted eulogy following the demise of society as we knew it!

    The biggest barrier to reducing car use though, isn’t the individual, it’s the law-makers. It would be relatively simple to ban everything except buses, taxis and cyclists (and pedestrians of course) from the square mile at the heart of every town and city, and stop any more out of town supermarket/DiY store/shopping mall developments.

    Unfortunately the people who would have to pass the appropriate laws, and administer them, are elected officials. And even more unfortunately, their main drive is not to improve the lot of their fellow humans but to get re-elected!

    When I lived in Swindon, and was a bus-driver, our union put forward just such a scheme to the local council, along with a couple of one-way systems and and a plan to ban delivery lorries before 9am and between 4 and 6 pm.

    The local shopkeepers were okay with it, the bus drivers did a straw poll of the bus users, and they were all for it (who wants to sit on a bus in traffic for 45 minutes to travel a couple of miles?), the taxi drivers were right behind it, the general motorist was 50/50 (to be expected) and the council squashed it flat because ‘it would be unpopular and unworkable’.
    I imagine you could relate a similar story up and down the country.

    Yes, any scheme reducing the freedom of the motorist is going to be unpopular, but all it takes is real, far-seeing political will and we could improve the situation immeasurably.

    But then real, far-seeing political will is up their with the tooth-fairy, Santa Claus, the Easter bunny and the puncture elves – so don’t hold your breath!

    Pedal on!


  2. Mary wrote:

    Alan, you have hit the nail right on the head, our obsession with slavery to the combustion engine. I whole heartily agree with everything you said, and no, its not a rant, its simply what is happening. I loath and hate driving a car, I gave mine away last summer. Sadly my girls are wanting to drive and gain their 'independence' I am told. My eldest is learning the hard way about independence, the fact that her hard earn't cash goes nowwhere as her little car eats up £60 of it on every fill, and her young persons insurance = £600+ a year.

    I have noticed with irritation, any transaction at the bank requires you to drive. Without my licence I have no ID. (I don't fly, so have no passport either).

    The world revolves around the car sadly. When I cycled across England last summer there were villages simply cut off from the world outside, without their cars. There were no shops or small stores in them anymore, because everyone would drive to neighbouring towns, which stripped the village store keeper of his/her income. So a pint of milk now costs that bit extra as the stuff has to be collected from a shop further afield.

    Like Mike says, nothing will change while 'leaders' are paid to keep in the jobs by the combustion engine. We are a long way from being saved. Our local bus service is dreadful. Not enough demand, so that = a rubbish service as there isnt the funding for it, as only the elderly and disabled use the busses, and 'Hey! They dont contribute!" Oh how that infuriates me... Careful, Im starting my own rant now.

    Great post. Sadly very true. Not sure what the answer is. Basically there are too many of us for the planet to keep in reality.

  3. Simon Parkinson wrote:

    My guess is that the reality is we will all have to change to reduce the environmental impact and as the cost of oil increases further. Perhaps as a consequence we will see our towns, cities and villages reorganised again by commercial pressures. This shift to a low carbon economy is going to be difficult given the extent to which our society is built around the car but maybe the place we will end up at will be better.

  4. Alan wrote:

    Mike: yes, most politicians pander to short-term individual desires, which the car is good at fulfilling. Give the people what they want and stuff the future, ie anything beyond the next election.

    Mary: I live in that village! We used to have a couple of shops and pubs and even a petrol station. Now all gone apart from the church, and the vicar drives between the various parishes she serves. Fortunately we are on the main road between large towns so we have a decent bus service; sadly that road discourages all but the bravest (or stupidest) cyclist.

    Simon: until low-carbon is put on an "action this day" agenda, I see little change from that direction. Today's Guardian says last year's global carbon emissions were the highest ever, 5% up on 2009. True, UK emissions have decreased, but only because we have outsourced manufacturing. We externalise carbon costs, just as we externalise the true cost of motoring.

    Half of car trips in Outer London are less than two miles. I imagine that is typical of most Western cities. This is tragic. Last year I drove, I suppose my average trip was 5 miles, which wan't much better.

    People could have such better lives if we weren't so enslaved to the infernal combustion engine.

  5. Hilary wrote:

    I agree with everything you say Alan but I'm afraid I'm off to France on Wednesday with my bike in the car. This is very much not my first choice but there is no way Dennis can be persuaded to cycle (hasn't ridden a bike in 50 years) 🙁 and the moped idea turned into a bit of a disaster so its the only remaining option for a holiday together. If France had a rural bus service he could use that but previous experience suggests that their bus service is even worse than ours.

    Another example of our car dominated society – it costs less for us to take the car on the ferry to France than it did when we took a bike and a moped!

  6. Kern wrote:

    You've touched on many topics here, Alan, and I agree with your basic instincts. Barbara Tuchman, in her book "The March of Folly", used half a dozen examples to illustrate the “progress” of humankind, basically on the theme of "one step forward two steps back". Your post is an eloquent essay on the “two steps back” aspect of modern living.

    One cannot deny the liberating nature of the automobile – witness the market demand for a product like the Nano in India. Cars (and mobile phones) give personal freedom of choice. Tie that in with the global supply chain (or the “chill chain” in the case of foodstuffs) and the elements of modern utopia fall into place.

    That said, politics, like traffic patterns, are local. Increased urban density is a theme that plays well to the interests of both developers and town councils. Developers sell more per square foot and politicians raise more taxes. I can understand this.

    What I do not understand is why new developments must all be based on the suburban, big-box model of retailing. It seems the only models for modern development are either high rises or suburbs. Is it really not possible in this day and age to design communities that encourage interaction on a personal scale? Or would they simply not be commercially viable?

    European old town centres which mix residential and small commercial space are charming. They give a sense of community and neighbourliness that you can’t buy in “the mall”. And, being built for pedestrians, they are amenable to cyclists.

    This is the element of imagination that is missing in modern design: to build communities (including suburbs) that encourage personal interaction in all aspects of day-to-day living, such as walking down to a green grocer or stepping out to a pub. Automobiles don’t have to be “designed” out of the picture, but a community plan that relies solely on cars is (in my opinion) a failure.

    Hilary’s note on traveling to France is interesting. Cyclo-tourism may be “green”, but if we were being totally honest we would admit it leaves its share of carbon footprint. Flying to Europe for a cycling holiday (too rarely, sadly) undeniably burns a hole in the sky and incrementally contributes to greenhouse glasses. Also, the capital cost of our bicycles includes a chunk of carbon footprint in the form of manufacturing and transportation. Mea culpa.

    Good post, Alan. And congratulations on your first anniversary – you are to be commended. I know we could not manage without a car. I blame it on sheer laziness!

  7. Mary wrote:

    Hilary, have you ever thought of getting your Dennis on a tandem? My Chas is fancying having a go.

    Thing is, its a catch situation. Dont wanna buy one until we are 100% sure its the right step, but dont know anyone with one so we can try one out.

    I am thinking of getting him to Cumbria, I understand there is a company there where you can hire them for a wee go. Not holding my breath though. 🙂

  8. Hilary wrote:

    Nice idea Mary but he has made it very plain that he is not interested in anything that has to be pedalled (including electric bikes) and he's far too big for me to do the pedalling for two!

    Best of luck to you and Chas!

  9. Garry wrote:

    Beautifully written article. I think it's a matter of degree. I seldom drive into town, which is 2.5 miles. I walk or get the bus. I never drove to work in all my time working, except at night as necessary.
    I do drive however, some and like driving in the country. I often take our bikes to West Cork and cycle for the day.

  10. Jim wrote:

    On my recent trip following the Danube I was very impressed with the German and Austrian lifestyle. they still seem to enjoy small town living. The efficient local train stations have cycle parks absolutely crammed with hundreds of bikes. A beautiful small town I stayed in for two nights before I flew home was a good example. I sat on a bench for an hour in the morning sun and just bicycle watched. Such an assortment of people on an assortment of bikes. from 80yr old ladies with a large shopping basket attached to toddlers being pulled along behind their 30 something mums. I could have sworn there were more people walking than cycling. These were for the most part heavy, [to us] utility/shopping bikes. There were very few if any fat people. Everybody looked fit and healthy, and the many small shops [greengrocers, bakers, even a Woolworths] in the town's main street were busy. Each with a cycle stand outside that was never empty. What better sight for this old guys eyes than to see a lovely young lady, gracefully cycling down a cobbled street in the morning sun.

  11. Alan wrote:

    The big-box model of retailing that Kern mentions is another example of the vicious cycle that enslaves us. Planners and developers assume that enough people have access to a car, so they build one big supermarket to serve 10,000 people. Three or four corner shops could then be scattered throughout the settlement, but their prices would be higher and choices lower than the supermarket's. So those with cars will still patronise the supermarket, and the corner shops wouldn't get enough trade to survive, so they are not even built.

    Exactly this has happened in brand-new Cambourne, Cambridgeshire. It could have been built without the central supermarket, thus reducing car dependancy. But retail economics also wants to suck in trade from surrounding areas — the profits are greater — killing off any small shops in other villages.

    In theory, Cambourne was built as three villages. But with all the facilities in the centre, it was always a single town.

    Most folk in my village drive the 6 km to Morrisons in Cambourne for their groceries.

    Continental Europe lagged behind Britain in becoming slaves to cars. In the Netherlands, bike mileage outnumbered car mileage for ten years longer than in GB, so they had ten year less of car-mania before the 1970s fuel crises. They are less enslaved to cars than we are and, thus, more bike-friendly. More civilised.

  12. Patrick wrote:

    Alan wrote:

    There is no such thing as society; only motorists.

    That's very pessimistic Alan. I don't see cyclists as being die-hard eccentrics. It remains a wonderful form of recreation and the beauty of Britain has never been so accessible by bicycle. Utility cycling may be a hopeless case at the present time but I suppose we have to accept that democracy has made it so. I'm not so cynical as to believe we are all manipulated by large corporations and corrupt government.

    Although a love of cycling is a life-enhancer, there is more to quality of life than cycling. Many aspects of society are very much better than 50 years ago; things we take so much for granted that we've forgotten what they are. Life expectancy is just one example.

    It's encouraging to hear of your first year with no car. I assume you did this for yourself, for a better way of life, though perhaps I'm wrong and there's more to it than that. I do cycle for practical purpose whenever I can (shopping at Tesco, down to the dentist, etc) but this is because I enjoy the exercise, saving money, and because riding a bike is pleasure in itself and not through a belief that cycling is good for society. That is the key to it, I think. People are fundamentally selfish and they will cycle when it suits their selfish purposes.

    I agree with the comments on the Netherlands and how it seems civilised. If there's to be any 'civilising' pressure on Britain in the future (environmentally speaking) I think it will come from the European Union as much as the British parliament. The EU can take an overview where a national government is less able to. Nowadays of course we can always go and live in the Netherlands or Denmark if we don't like it here. I've been tempted more than once but then I remember that in less than 2 hours by road I can be cycling in a Welsh forest, or walking in Lakeland, or cycling in the emptiness of the Yorkshire Wolds.

Leave a comment

Add a Smiley Smiley »