Fessing up about transport

OK I admit it. I love bicycles. I think I always have. Ever since I used to borrow my grandfathers one, and painted it gold and silver with airfix paints. It was so big for me I had to stop and then lean over with one waving foot, so as not to lose my developing testicles. It was true sit up and beg. I used to love to explore on my own and go.

I finally bought my own and first bike at college. That enabled me to explore and became part of my identity. I was in one of these towns that just seethed bikes.  Ringing bells in soft evening lights. Gentle, flowing and encouraging.

I took some great holidays often hiring and travelling on bikes.  I travelled to China in 1985.  Many wonderful old Raleigh style bikes, similar to my grandfathers, but some great names like Swan etc. My most astonishing memory was rolling along near Chengdu from memory and being overtaken by a very muscular looking women on her bike converted with a large back tray that was carrying perhaps 50 cabbages. I thought I was fit. At the same time China was embarking on a partly German inspired massive investment in road transport. Clearly they couldn’t hold back their economy by declaring their love of the bike. But towns like Suzhou just reminded me of college days, the whirring of the gears, the ringing bells.  I loved what chinese people managed to carry by bike.

When I first got a job, in Cheltenham in the UK, I could not believe how every one talked about cars the whole time. We were sort of in the country and everyone was just mad about their cars. They needed them every day, and loved them, within 6 months I could identify all of the different makes of car, know their price spec. etc. With my first job I also discovered traffic jams.  I’d been living in London all my life, but pretty much took to the road in the evenings or weekends.  IE going out from 7 or 8pm. Suddenly when I left the house at 7am I discovered queues of 50 at lights I’d never seen more than 5. Eye opening and depressing.

A few years after starting work I took a holiday to California, it was great, we borrowed a car and visited some great places. But I came back with a new phrase, everywhere, just everywhere we went we encountered thundering traffic noise and snarl ups. Here was the great car economy. I nicknamed it “The fatal flaw”.  Even small and quiet neighbourhoods would have some thundering traffic. … and at all times of the night and day, those massive trucks.   We went to some wonderful spots – Lake Tahoe, Yosemite at just about every point we had to have double glazing to protect us from thunderous traffic noise.  Loud at night, can’t keep the window open for cool fresh air, next it’s air conditioning etc.

Back in the UK I supported Sustrans with their rollout of what is now 11,000+ miles of bike network, and better than that designed with People in mind. Because it’s not just having the physical infrastructure that makes the difference it’s how their designed for safety of the most at risk transport users. I attended discussions about transport design, realised what a cycling headbanger I’d become – for training I’d like nothing better than being overtaken by a truck and sprinting desperately to try and catch the slipstream – you could do the same with low powered scooters and motor bikes.

A few years on, and I and my family all have bikes. But my kids do not have my curiosity or appetite for cycling, and mainly that’s because it’s never really been safe for us to encourage them to get their independence. In truth this is partly because I lost my best friend to a hit and run bike accident outside my school. You don’t really recover from these experiences or you’d have to say that you don’t learn.

But for me a nice path, good company and a journey of 5-15 miles is just heaven. It actually makes you want to commute.  This is what urban design and planning should now be for me. How can we create family friendly transport that encourages us out of our cars and gets us fitter. Another austerity driven measure – don’t gym – commute (as opposed to driving to the gym so that you can get on a bike machine).  What are the barriers we need to remove. My concerns about the environment still relate to an environment where the propensity to use the high output solution is still very large.  I’m thinking about people enabled transport.

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