When it comes to tackling the really big challenges of our world, you might not immediately think of cycling and walking as solutions. But it’s time to recognise the potential of the humble bicycle and our own two feet.
First, though, I have a confession. You know how most children learn to ride a bike around five or six? Well, I learned late – about 11 or 12 – and have always been a very, very nervous rider. What’s more, having learned, I left it more than three decades before doing anything more than a few minutes of uncomfortable wobbling. We went through six prime ministers, drainpipe trousers, Duran Duran, the invention of the internet, email, Twitter, Facebook, the bacon sandwich incident – and still I resisted two wheels.
When the first lockdown began and people were discouraged from using public transport, I had to work out how I could get to work in an environmentally friendly way. This led to a brief flirtation with an adult tricycle, but somehow it didn’t seem for me. I was a bit worried about the stigma (and the photos). Then, aged 50 and in Europe’s mountain biking capital – the French resort of Châtel – I had an epiphany. I hired an electric bike. This was the eureka moment, and I now have the zeal of a convert.
In all seriousness, though, policymaking is often out of step with the things we really value in our lives, and yet it shapes them so profoundly that we can lose sight of the fact that even the way we travel every day could be different. We should ask ourselves, if we were thinking from scratch about how we wanted to travel around our towns and cities, what would we prioritise?
I would put safety and speed at the top of my list. I would also want transport that was affordable and accessible, that didn’t take up more public space than it had to and had a minimal impact on both the local environment and our planet as a whole. Ultimately, if town and city planning reflected the lives we want to live, I think walking and cycling would be taken far more seriously.
For a start, they make us healthier and happier. Of course, we all know that exercise is good for us, but the problem is that building it into our lives is easier said than done. Here we can learn from Sardinia, Okinawa in Japan and Nicoya in Costa Rica, described as “rare longevity hotspots around the world where people are thriving into their 100s”. Their secret? People in these places exercise as they go about their daily lives – walking and gardening, for example – without really thinking about it.
Inactivity isn’t the only deadly consequence of our current transport habits. Every year around 25,000 people are killed or seriously injured on our roads. Air pollution, meanwhile, is thought to be responsible for approximately 40,000 deaths in the UK each year. Giving people decent alternatives will make our air cleaner and streets safer. As for the streets themselves, designing our lives purely around the car just isn’t an efficient use of public space. One study found cycle lanes can carry two and a half times as many people as car lanes, despite taking up half the space. And if you added up the square metreage taken up by parking across the country, you’d get an area larger than Birmingham.
That said, the most urgent case for change is that road transport currently contributes around a fifth of carbon emissions in the UK, and most of that comes from cars. Emissions from public transport are negligible in comparison. Electric cars are key to getting emissions down, but just replacing every conventional car journey with an electric car journey isn’t going to be enough. The government’s climate change advisers say we need to reduce our car use overall. There are a number of reasons this is necessary. These include the fact that changing the UK’s entire fleet of cars from petrol and diesel to electric is going to take a while. Additionally, manufacturing and powering electric cars still results in carbon emissions.
There is one more advantage of walking and cycling over alternatives. The average UK household spends nearly £60 a week on owning and running a car, about 10% of its household budget, and a further £15 on other forms of transport including bus and rail fares. The beauty of walking and cycling is that they cost next to nothing.
Yet in Britain just 2% of journeys are made by bike, compared with 12% in Germany, 16% in Denmark and a staggering 27% in the Netherlands. Just as in the UK, the postwar years in the Netherlands saw a boom in car ownership and urban planning centred around automobiles rather than bikes. Cycling fell rapidly in the 1960s and 70s and journeys became increasingly hazardous for cyclists.
But then something changed. In October 1971 six-year-old Simone Langenhoff was killed by a speeding car which hit her as she was cycling to school. Simone’s father was a journalist on a national newspaper and used his platform to campaign for road safety. This helped set off Stop de Kindermoord (Stop the Child Murders), which grew into a huge social movement across the country. Over the following decades, the government invested in cycling infrastructure and built the segregated bike lanes that the country is now famous for, which went from 9,000km in the mid-70s to more than 30,000km today.
Cyclists are now far from an afterthought in the Netherlands. Rather than them having to rely on helmets to lessen the consequences of collisions, streets are designed to prevent accidents happening in the first place. Drivers are restricted to low speeds and reminded to look out for other road users. Wherever possible, cyclists are given separate lanes, protected by barriers and bollards. Cycling lessons are widespread in schools – something that would have really helped me. It works. In cities such as Amsterdam around two thirds of all trips are by bike or on foot, compared with less than a third (28%) in London.
Lots of the most exciting action on urban transport has come from local and regional governments. Nothing demonstrates this better than the Bee Network in Greater Manchester. When Andy Burnham was elected mayor in 2017, he immediately appointed Olympian Chris Boardman as his walking and cycling commissioner. Chris went to each of the area’s 10 local authorities and asked them to think about how their roads could be redesigned. Within a few months, they had a plan for a 1,000-mile network of walking and cycling routes across the city region. An online consultation with members of the public generated 4,000 comments. According to Chris, the most negative response was: “Where’s ours?”
The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, is also convinced there is a better way of doing things. In 2020 she made turning Paris into a ville du quart d’heure (15-minute city) the centrepiece of her re-election campaign. This is the idea that you should be able to meet all of your daily needs within 15 minutes’ walk or cycle of where you live.
A key reason for the rise of the car is that is has been absolutely emancipatory for our lives. Lots of people rely on cars, particularly in more rural areas, and cars will continue to be necessary for many and play a vital role in getting us where we want to go. Lots of people also depend on driving for work and income.
The response to the Covid crisis has reminded us that there is nothing inevitable about how we use our public space. The first few weeks of the lockdown in March 2020 saw road traffic fall by nearly three quarters to its lowest level since the 1950s. On some days, cycling reached double, or even triple, its pre-Covid levels in the UK. More than three quarters of Brits said they supported permanent measures to encourage more walking and cycling.
Ultimately, the big idea here isn’t actually about transport; it’s about building a better life for people: ensuring everyone can live in a clean and attractive neighbourhood and giving them more choice about how to get around. When it comes to our society, we cannot leave it to the market to decide. We need to make those choices ourselves.
These issues bring to mind a cartoon someone once showed me of an audience at a conference listening to a speaker list all the benefits of taking action on the climate crisis – from cleaner air to healthier children. Someone in the crowd interrupts: “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?” Even before we get to thinking about tackling the climate crisis, more walking and cycling could help build a better world.