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.