You would think that this particular moment in history would be the humble bicycle’s time to shine. Recently petrol oozed its way up to nearly £2 per litre and the cost of living started outstripping wages at an unprecedented rate. The stress of energy bills is draining the energy of more and more people but also stoking a lot of anxiety and fear. And there’s the small matter of catastrophic climate change. Using a bicycle or going on foot for more everyday journeys could help keep household costs down, make local environments more pleasant and improve health. Particularly mental health, which for many is taking a kicking right now. However, I feel that a lot of these points are the reason why the very act of riding a bicycle and more specifically, providing safe areas for this to occur, is singled out for hatred and vitriol.
The ideology of the motorcar has become so ingrained for so long and the memories of how people used to get about long forgotten, the majority have become unwitting slaves to motoring. The huge advertised promises of fun, freedom, prosperity and modernity have now become an expensive weight, grinding down on people that can see no possible change to their lifestyles even if they want to. The costs of which ever spiralling upwards out of control. People may feel trapped and frightened of an uncertain future. As a result, they may need a scapegoat and more populist areas of the media and social media are happy to provide them.
We aren’t very good at dealing with simplicity in the United Kingdom. It’s probably why riding a bicycle is regarded as a sport or leisure activity first and foremost. It can be pigeonholed as requiring specialist clothing and equipment. It becomes easy to regard bicycle riders as an ‘out group’ on our highways. With lycra, bicycle riders have a uniform to be despised and controlled with threats of red tape and regulations that would act as a deterrent. Apparently red-tape and regulations are a bad thing in all other aspects of life. Except the humble bicycle.
For all the trillions spent on motoring advertising and infrastructure over the decades, the car has won many, many battles but not the war. The bicycle was here before and isn’t going away. But now we need to make sense of a battlefield radically changed over the years; Housing developments with no walking or cycling provision and offering little local utility. Town centres smashed up in the past to make way for motoring without regard for the future. Public transport fares so expensive, they make the passenger consider sex work as a more serious and viable career option.
Even when infrastructure is provided for bicycles in the Shires, it would have gone through a consultation period longer than World War II with only slightly less hatred exchanged. The end product usually looks like it was designed by someone left in a room with a bottle of vodka and an Etch a Sketch. We make designing for the simplest modes of transport complicated and the most complex forms of transport simple.
However, in our towns and cities, there is a planning concept that has recently leapt back into the public domain that has provoked some bizarre responses from Populists and ‘influencers’ ; The “15 Minute City” (or “Low Traffic Neighbourhood”)
The concept is quite simple, but I’ll let Wikipedia explain:
“The 15-minute city is an urban planning concept in which most daily necessities and services, such as work, shopping, education, healthcare, and leisure can be easily reached by a 15-minute walk or bike ride from any point in the city. This approach aims to reduce car dependency, promote healthy and sustainable living, and improve the overall quality of life for city dwellers.
Implementing the 15-minute city concept requires a multi-disciplinary approach, involving transportation planning, urban design, and policymaking, to create well-designed public spaces, pedestrian-friendly streets, and mixed-use developments. This change in lifestyle may include remote working which reduces daily commuting and is supported by the recent widespread availability of information and communications technology. The concept has been described as a “return to a local way of life”.
Basically, it’s returning things to how they were before the car took control of our lives. In essence this involves dividing a town or city into zones and re-prioritising streetscapes in a way that completing a journey by car takes longer than by foot, bicycle, powered wheelchair or mobility scooter. It is a concept that has existed on mainland Europe (and to a lesser extent here) for many, many years. It makes an area with all its shops and public utilities more accessible and pleasant to all ages and abilities creating a more level playing field.
It shows that in society the car has its place, but people should come first. In the UK it is nearly always the other way around. This is what happens when a particular group gets its own way and is pandered to for 70 years. The sense of privilege is astonishing.
As a result, with every positive action comes the inevitable negative reaction. This is not helped by people that make a living from stoking fear and hatred by indulging conspiracy theories and misinformation that even Joseph Goebbels would have marvelled at. In particular, there is much talk of neighbourhoods becoming ‘prisons’ and that their freedoms will be removed. In the future, one would need a pass or QR Code to pass from city zone to city zone. That emergency services will be prevented from doing their jobs. Far Right groups have hijacked the debate with protests claiming that the schemes are ‘Socialist’ or ‘New World Order Communism’ (no, me neither) whilst GB News is a QVC shopping channel of dystopian, climate change denying ideas touted to people that didn’t get enough cuddles as children. But I guess they need their 15 minutes of fame.
To reiterate; I am writing about a simple planning concept that has been used successfully elsewhere for decades. After all, there is a finite amount of vehicles one can fit into a finite space. The ridiculous thing is that the motor car isn’t being banned from any streets.
Another notion put forward by nay-sayers was that there would be a radical increase in CCTV as people valiantly move from city zone to city zone (maybe people that think this could find more gainful employment with Marvel or DC Comics). Ultimately, the United Kingdom would become a ‘Police State’. However, for all the talk of enslavement and freedoms being removed, there is less talk of the fact that, to get to this point in history we have already incarcerated and removed the freedoms of our children to get from place to place safely whilst learning independence. You know. Like in the supposed ‘Good Old Days’.
We live in an age that seems Hell bent in stoking the culture of fear and hatred. There’s money and notoriety to be made from it for starters. In the meantime, a country’s health and well being declines. And we certainly know how to put the car in incarcerate.