I’ve always thought of cycling as a means to an end. For the last ten years I've been cycling on a daily basis to get from A to B. Personal bests or gruelling 80-mile rides at the weekend aren’t for me. Because of this mentality, it never occurred to me that I actually loved walking and cycling. That was until I had a lightbulb moment a few months ago.
Car travel frustration
A few months ago, I returned to the US to visit family. Seeing my family and doing a bit of sightseeing was lovely but in terms of getting around, it was infuriating. A real low-point was when my family considered taking four cars to get six of us to a restaurant that was only two miles away. To me, that sounds like the start of a hypothetical equation you would find in a Maths exam, not a real life travel situation.
But through that frustration I came to the realisation; I do, in fact, love the journey when it involves cycling and walking. I was able to discuss the wider effects on society of being disconnected from our surroundings and other people in a TEDx Talk I recently presented:
Travelling in cars separates us physically from the rest of the world. The speed that we travel means that we’re never really anywhere when driving; we’re simply between places. On these journeys, we’re little more than alone in a metal box. By driving, we miss out on connections that we could be making with the natural world, and with each other. Whether it’s feeling the sunshine on our faces, being around trees or seeing gardens and wildlife, all of these experiences benefit us as individuals. It was this sensation that I missed most when travelling in the States; just being able to appreciate a beautiful, sunny day.
Traffic also has a negative effect on our communities by separating us. In my talk, I referenced a study from the 1970s by Donald Appleyard and a follow-up study which took place in Bristol in 2008. These studies showed that the effect of traffic is still very much in force. Neighbours who have high volumes of traffic have fewer connections between them.
Creating livable neighbourhoods
There is a lot that we can do to combat this and to start to feel better about our urban spaces. This Christmas I gave out cards to neighbours all along my street as a warm-up to later in the year when I’m going to suggest a street party and yard sale. As a group, however, we have more power. We can change these spaces. Sustrans has worked with local residents to change their streets, opening them up to a range of uses, rather than just as corridors for metal boxes to pass through.
My lightbulb moment happened years after I started walking and cycling daily, but it doesn’t need an epiphany. Small steps to change the school run or just the journey to the shops can have a monumental effect on anyone.