Recently, I’ve been reading a lot about how we need proper cycling infrastructure and segregated cycle lanes if we want to get more people using bicycles. However, while I agree that segregated lanes ARE important, they’re a long way off, and what is needed more urgently is a cultural shift about the way we view our journeys.
In the UK, the relationship between cyclists and drivers is an uneasy one. Not only are cyclists are fed up of bad and unsafe drivers, putting their lives at risk, many are fed up of being at the receiving end of verbal abuse too. Car drivers seem to hate us for… what exactly? Smugness? Lycra? (we don’t all wear lycra) The fact that we don’t pay road tax? Or is it just the fact that they see us as an obstacle to them getting to their destination even faster?
I think that a lot of the antagonism between car drivers and people on bikes is down to the latter. It’s down to an impatience to get to where we’re going as quickly as possible. In modern day Britain, it’s not the journey that matters, it’s the destination.
I spent a year in Madagascar. I think there are a lot of lessons to learn from my life there. Our transport options were limited to the following: For destinations along the coast we could walk (if it was within walking distance), or go by sea in a little wooden sailing boat. For the latter, we had no control over how fast it would take us to get there; it always depends on the wind. A trip to a village 3 miles south could take anything from 20 minutes with a brisk wind, or three hours with none. For inland destinations too far to walk to, you could take a zebu cart – a wooden cart drawn by two snorting, farting and pooing Malagasy cows. Unlike horses, zebus don’t gallop. Zebus are never in a hurry, and so we could never be. What would be a twenty-minute car journey, could take up to four hours on the back of a zebu cart.
Returning home after a year away, I looked at the UK with new eyes. Everything here is so FAST. We’re so keen to get from place to place, from destination to destination, that we’ve developed an impatience that’s almost permanent. Ironically, it’s our desire to get to places as quickly as possible that has led to more people driving, more roads being built, and more traffic jams and congestion to slow us back down again.
It’s not just car drivers that are impatient; I’ve noticed many people on bikes cycling with the same attitude – speeding through red lights and weaving in and out of traffic in a manner that I could only describe as risky and dangerous. I notice that I too started to get impatient in a traffic jam when I couldn’t cycle on the cycle lane because it was blocked off by cars. And then I started to think about it. How much time would I really gain if I had free run of this cycle lane? One minute? Two? Thirty seconds?
What makes life so unsafe for cyclists is the impatience and the need for speed from drivers. The 30mph speed limit is treated as a guide, and the amber light is viewed as a reason to speed up, with at least two or three drivers jumping red lights EACH TIME at a crossroads I cycle through daily. It’s no wonder that many people are put off cycling when this is the reality on the roads of UK cities.
While segregated cycle lanes are costly, changing our mindset is free and could benefit all of us. If we all slowed down a bit, developed some patience and mindfulness, we would approach our journeys completely differently. We’d be more aware of others on the road, and there’d be less of the unsafe driving that puts everyone at risk – drivers, pedestrians AND cyclists. We might also be less stressed, angry and annoyed, and surely that’s got to be good for our health?
I was once in a bus being driven very erratically and speedily. While waiting at a red traffic light, a woman walked up to the bus driver and said to him, “I’d rather be late in this life, than early in the next”.
It’s something that I think we’d all benefit from remembering. That, and my new cycling mantra: “I’m not in a hurry”. It’s reduced my impatience, and the resulting stress and annoyance by the behaviour of other road users.
It’s no longer just about the destination, it’s about the journey too.
- Lowering urban and residential speed limits to 20 mph has been found to increase urban journeys by just 40 seconds maximum. See 20’s plenty campaign for more information.
- When will cars go at the speed of a bike? – good blog post in a similar vein