It would be fair to say that I had a very fortunate childhood. I was raised in a Surrey village with great community spirit. Everyone more or less knew each other and looked out for each other. If a crime was committed, the village bobby knew which door to knock on to conclude his enquires. My friends and I were able to get on our bicycles and go on adventures without fear or hindrance, be it heading out across the local commons or cycling to favourite spots by the river. As I write this on my 38th birthday, those days of children being able to take risks, learn from their own mistakes and run free seem more than an age away.
A major problem with having such an individualised car-centric culture is that areas become neighbourhoods without neighbours. As a result people feel less inclined to walk and cycle around their communities as they’re moving amongst strangers and a climate of fear is allowed to manifest itself. What’s very sad is that there are many people out there who know more about the lives of the celebrities in EastEnders than the people living in their own street. Once again the media, while certainly not the cause, is happy to keep it that way. Once upon a time, fear of the unknown would have been a catalyst to go out into the big wide World to gain new experiences and realise that most fears were unfounded. Now it keeps people firmly inside.
After reading yet another excellent post on Copenhagenize last year, I bought Climate of Fear by Frank Furedi. In one particular section he notes how a community in the past would have had certain unwritten rules that bound them together such as respecting one’s elders, assisting your neighbour if in trouble and so on. It allowed a certain level of order, civility and wellbeing. However, as the years have progressed, society has increasingly shut itself away in their houses to then pour themselves into metal cages to commute ridiculous distances to work in another building. Absolutely no interaction with ones neighbours or any effort on ones part to integrate with the local community necessary. As a result, there has been a complete breakdown in those unwritten rules. An elderly person stepping out into the street to walk to the shops may feel incredibly afraid of a group of young lads on the street corner. The lads are probably very nice if you talk to them but no-one knows each other any more and to engage them in conversation carries the risk of being branded a ‘paedophile’ or something equally horrific. This is a shame as the youths are equally afraid because no-one has taught them the rules or where they fit in society anymore. The Culture of Fear prevails.
Cycling around a neighbourhood is a great way of engaging it. You get to see people. You can even smile at them (not too much) and say hello if you like. After all, in the past, that would have been the default. You get to see things that you would have missed if you had shut yourself away in a cage from the nice things like an interesting café or shop to the more unpleasant things such as fly-tipping or the cycle infrastructure your local council has put in just to show you what engineering could look like on Crystal Meth. Essentially by getting out on a bike or on foot, you become the eyes and ears of your community again, just how it used to be.
The car represents only limited freedom. It’s effectively a cage on wheels that’s probably crippled you financially before you turn the key. It has been reported how animals can lose their minds and develop disturbing habits if confined in a cage. Take a look at the humans you pass on your way to work as the poor things are trapped with only LBC for company. Yes, frightening isn’t it?
The bicycle empowers the people. In the same way that it transcends class it gives any citizen instant freedom and mobility. With a bicycle you can go where you want in your locality when you want under your own steam. Or, if the mood takes you, you can travel the World on it with just a passport, a saddlebag and a smile. You get to meet real people, living real storylines. You also get to burn a few calories and get all the endorphins you need in case the constant bombardment of ‘beauty’ in the media is also scaring you.
In an age where a new Government seems Hell bent in perpetrating the Culture of Fear (the recent elevation in Britain’s terror alert status thereby increasing society’s sense of powerlessness was a particular humdinger), the humble bicycle cuts through all that by giving people back their confidence, happiness and can unite communities. Basically doing that ‘Localism’ thing these Harbingers of Doom keep banging on about and more. It can improve general health and mental health too but please, please don’t use me as a benchmark.