When faced with overwhelming evidence in favour of providing good cycle infrastructure; for people ditching the car and taking to two wheels; and for organisations to do all they can to change our travel habits, you have to wonder why we are still going around in circles after decades of campaigning.
There is the cynical view that there is big money on the table to ensure the private car’s dominance on our streets is maintained, but could it be more fundamental than that?
As a society we have focussed much of our creativity and engineering prowess on removing as much risk from society as we can, but also as much effort as we can. Over the years we’ve built ever more elaborate machines that are more efficient and more effective at carrying out the jobs we used to break a sweat over.
Unfortunately, biologically we haven’t really changed at all. We still need to move and we still need to break a sweat on a regular basis to prevent our muscles from wasting away and our cardiovascular system from clogging up. We’re not doing this, at least not as much as we should be.
To make matters worse, our desire to remove effort from our lives has extended to our diets as well. Convenience food, made cheaply with less than ideal ingredients and designed for a long shelf life have become a large component in many of our meals.
The thing is, we know doing nothing but slobbing out on the sofa and eating processed foods is bad for us, so why is it so hard to change?
Comfort, warmth and safety
Be honest with yourself here. Given the choice between being comfortable, warm and safe; or cold, wet and a little on-edge, which would you choose?
If you picked the latter, chances are you are already commuting to work during the winter on your bike; rambling; playing rugby; potholing or at least living an active, outdoor life.
Many people will have picked the former and that is entirely understandable. People do like to establish a routine; to have everything the way they like it and to be comfortable wherever possible. Riding a bike during the winter is certainly not a warm, comfortable experience. It can be exciting, but warm and comfortable it is not…
Spending hours watching television. Eating comfort foods (anything with sugar, really). Sitting (really, sitting is killing you). Self-medication. Playing video games. Avoiding the sun. Avoiding physical activity. Staying indoors.
Here’s the rub. The brain actually needs discomfort. Remember, much of what we have tried to surround ourselves with –the gadgets; the furniture; the steady jobs and pension schemes; were all borne out of discomfort. Someone identified a need to solve a problem, be that a laborious task; or the need for income in our advancing years –and then created something to solve it.
Creativity and excitement live outside our comfort zones and it thrives on being given limitations to overcome. Ultimately, you need to take yourself out of your comfort zone, or you need to be pushed out of it.
Unfortunately, taking yourself out of your comfort zone requires willpower and commitment. Anyone who has ever tried to kick a bad habit –smoking, drinking, or tried to lose weight and get fit will tell you it requires a tremendous amount of energy to stay on track.
How many of you have taken out a gym membership with the intention of getting fit and losing weight, only to use the gym a few times before becoming disheartened or discouraged and giving up? It won’t be that surprising to note that getting fit is a long, drawn-out process, but doing it in the gym is not fun; it’s an optional activity that you can talk yourself out of; and it is expensive. Your lizard brain (otherwise known as the Amygdala) is more than happy to draw you back into your comfort zone again –the sofa and the convenience food, or the car.
So, we need to be pushed, or it won’t be sustainable.
Wants vs Needs
The problem for we folk who would like better cycling infrastructure, wherever we may be, is that there are not just a great many people in the electorate who are happy in their 1-tonne metallic comfort zones, but most of the elected councillors and politicians –the people who need to do the pushing, are too.
Following conversations with councillors, it appears that the electorate places great demands upon the elected to essentially maintain the status quo. The majority of requests councillors receive is for car parking, not bike parking, or bike infrastructure of any sort. Car parking problems in Cardiff are often ones of simple maths. A car takes up X amount of space, but each adult member of the household may have their own car. Sadly, there is only so much street to go around before you start impinging on the parking space of neighbouring streets. It is not a problem that is going to be solved, but it does consume a lot of time and energy.
Most people, including councillors simply don’t want bike infrastructure, even if you can fit 6 bikes comfortably in the space of one car. They don’t identify with people who ride bikes, nor do they see themselves ever becoming someone who rides bikes. People are not going to ask to be forced out of their comfort zone. However, there is a strong argument to say that they, for the benefit of the city and for society as a whole, need it.
Whilst people may not want cycle infrastructure, by and large they do both want and need clean air to breathe; to live on a street that doesn’t feel like the hard shoulder of the M4; and safe spaces for their children to play, exercise and get around safely. These external, or human costs of motoring are much closer to people’s hearts and focussing on these are our best hope of seeing a shift from the status quo.
There is little need to even mention the bicycle, for it is one of many potential solutions. Yes, it is the solution we are most invested in, but any reduction in the volume of motor traffic will benefit us all in the long run.
Good, cost effective public transport and liveable streets will make our lives as ‘people on bikes’ easier, whether there is a dedicated bike lane or not. Bike lanes would be nice, obviously, but there’s some way to go to get the political will for them, even if there is an Act telling them to put them in.
So, rather than preach about buying a bike and getting out there, perhaps we should first focus on empowering people to tackle the external factors that matter to them —speeding on residential streets; pollution; problem parking; community severance etc.
Hopefully, people will soon start to see the need for a space-efficient, non-polluting form of personal transport that doesn’t kill the people it collides with.
As luck would have it, we have such a machine that meets that need. It’s called a bicycle.