Sunday, May 11, 2008

38 miles a year...

Turns out that's how much the average British adult cycles. 61 km if that's more familiar. Data comes from Friday's Guardian - -
and it gets me thinking.

How out of touch have the self-defined cyclists become? How can they, or we, advocate cycling when they / we have forgotten what it was like when we started? To better understand, I measured my most recent shopping trip. The results surprised me.

Cowley Road, Botley Road, Summertown, then back to Cowley Road via Marston Ferry road. Stopped in 3 shops on route. A trip I'd think nothing of, now. Clocks in at - just under 9 miles!

"Jesus, 9 miles? That's like a quarter my annual distance, right there. And I did it without thinking. Maybe I'm not so odd, maybe urban people average higher? [checks regional data] No! Even Londoners average only 53 miles a year! Jesus, I'm an outlier!"

Outlier - that's not good. Falling into the 'cyclist' stereotype would be all too easy from here. I'm white, young, male, healthy - already sounds closer to lycra-clad hedge-stops than relevant cycling advocacy.

Perhaps I should explain how i got onto the bike, and why. I was not a sporty child. My family taught me to ride a bike, but I lived too far from any of my friends to use it. They drove me to primary school, and I took the bus to secondary - again, too far to walk or cycle. Again, too far from friends. I had a steel mountain bike - uncomfortable, with steel rims, bad brakes, heavy, wrong dimensions. I came off it once. I didn't like the thing. It sat in the garage, I sat in the house - I was a gaming and reading teenager. And no way could I ride a bike on the roads.

Then I went to university. I insisted the bike was coming with me; my family indulged me, though i think they doubted i'd use the thing. They were right, at first. I'd insisted it came with me, because that's what Oxford students did - they had a bike, they rode it to lectures, etc etc. I didn't - i walked. I couldn't ride a bike.

I walked at first. 9AM lectures, five days a week. Eventually, when the weather was good, and I knew my way, I cycled. I was slow, unsure, wobbly, and it tired me out. But i knew where i was going. I didn't cycle anywhere i couldn't have walked. I'd start pedalling and be tired almost immediately. But it was definitely getting me there quicker!

Thanks to the bike, i could leave college 5 minutes later. Which meant getting up 5 minutes later. Even unlocking and locking the bike, it still made sense. So i kept going. I rode the same short route hundreds of times, and learned to cope with roads. From college to lectures, i had to:

- turn right from a side road onto a bigger one
- turn right at a crossroads
- and turn right from a side road again

(There were other bits, but these were the hard ones). I learned to cycle doing that, over and over. I'd learned to drive at 17, which helped; i knew how cars behaved, the Highway Code... but it took a long time before i didn't wobble, didn't swerve towards the kerb when traffic passed.

Eventually i realized I was cycling more. I was making journeys i wouldn't have, if I'd had to walk. In the same time, i could go further; I went places i didn't have time to before. I could carry shopping, or go buy stationery, outside the center of town. Cycling gave me the freedom to do that.

Freedom - by cheap, independent transport. It's that simple, and that's why i like to cycle. I shouldn't forget that it wasn't always easy, when I started. Cycling as second nature took a full year, at least, to learn. All too often cyclists forget this, forgetting that dusting off a bike and getting back on it, learning to ride on roads and in traffic, takes time and effort.

So perhaps we need to say not "it's easy, and fun" but "it's worth the effort". For many people, at first, the former just isn't true. But hopefully, the latter will be.

Now playing: Ott - From Trunch to Stromness

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