Note: I’m really struggling to comprehend the number of comments I’m getting along the lines of “ah, well I once had to carry three hundred melons up Mount Everest, so you are wrong”.
So for the purpose of clarification: This article isn’t suggesting that every single journey made by everyone in the whole world should be made by bike. Of course buses, trains, cars and taxis all have their uses, I use them all myself.
What I’m saying is that Britain’s infrastructure over-encourages the use of buses, trains, cars and taxis and massively suppresses the use of bikes, especially for short urban journeys (which make up the vast majority of journeys that people in the UK make every day, and for which the bike would make most sense for many people).
Last week I went to an event 2.7 miles away from where I live.
My journey was entirely urban, through London’s central financial district, AKA “the City”.
There was a tube strike on, so that wasn’t an option. As a result, the buses were packed and the roads congested too. (Actually, the roads are always congested, but still.)
So I walked.
I walked past where my bike is locked up, and kept on going.
It took almost an hour.
At that time of day, the bus would have taken nearly as long – probably 45 minutes or so. But I’d have been paying for the privilege of being squashed into a crowded space for the duration.
Even if the tube had been running normally, it would have taken me 30 minutes at least, if the walking at either end was included. And again, I’d have been paying to cram into a tiny underground train with hundreds of other people.
The distance could easily be covered by bike in under 15 minutes, and yet I chose not to cycle because the conditions on the roads in this country are so awful. (As I walked along, I saw that I was right not to cycle.)
I call this Transport Poverty.
I’m not the first to use this term, but I’m going to talk about what I understand it to mean.
What are the options to British people today?
There’s public transport, which for most British people means a bus. Outside of London, buses are usually expensive (here in London it’s £1.45 for a bus journey of any length, in Leeds it’s usually £2 or £2.80 depending on distance – how does your town compare?). They can also be infrequent, especially in smaller towns or on Sundays, whereas here in the capital they are at least fairly cheap and pretty reliable.
But we’re still paying £1.45 to sit on (or stand in, or squeeze onto) a great lumbering beast of a vehicle which almost certainly doesn’t even go exactly where we want it to, and even if it does then it may not take the most direct route.
As Mark Treasure pointed out, a BBC News report about the tube strike showed crowds of people waiting to get on a bus whose entire route is only six miles long – and most bus passengers don’t travel from the first stop to the very last. Even if every passenger was going to the final stop, the whole journey would take only about 30 minutes by bike – and the bike takes you right to the very place you’re going, there’s no walking at the other end.
The same goes for the tube and trains. Rail travel is great over long distances, but for a huge number of shorter journeys it’s terribly inefficient.
Another down-side to public transport is that not only do you have to walk the first and last legs of your journey, but you have to wait for the bus/tram/train to arrive!
You know, now I’m describing the actions required to make a short journey by public transport, the more insane it seems.
You have a walk from where you are to the stop or station, then you have to wait for the bus/train/tram. When it does arrive it may be full to bursting, and it will stop several times at places you don’t want to go before it gets to your stop. Even then you still have to walk to your final destination.
And that’s when everything is running perfectly – when there’s some unforeseen delay it can increase the total journey time massively, and surely we’ve all missed the last train or bus at least once?
If you’re very rich then a good (almost-) door-to-door solution is a taxi, but these do cost a lot of money and are often no faster than a bus, as they have to sit in the same traffic as everyone else while you watch the meter run up your final price. It does also seem rather mad that in London we have a huge army of people driving thousands of empty cars around such a densely-packed city, looking for people who need an expensive lift somewhere.
Then we come to the private automobile – usually a car. This option is very space-inefficient as just one person can take up so much room. Wherever these vehicles are found in great numbers in urban environments, you’ll find them going nowhere fast at all. The sheer bulk of the things means that they can never be a mass urban transportation solution, as our villages, towns and cities soon fill up with them, and the freedom these vehicles supposedly represent seems bitterly ironic. Given the massive cost of owning and maintaining these vehicles, many people have to spend a good chunk of their earnings on keeping one.
I should also insert motorbikes into my list somewhere, but this is one option I don’t know much about. But while I’m sure they have their uses, and they don’t take up anywhere near as much space as a car, I’d say that they’re overkill for the vast majority of urban journeys (which are only a few miles in length). They make far more transport sense than cars in some ways, just for the space efficiency (and surely they’re more fuel-efficient, too?). I expect that, for most people, motorbikes also suffer from a poor safety image – which brings us to the humble bicycle.
The right tool for the job
For my journey today (and for a vast proportion of journeys that British people make on a daily basis) a bike would have been easily the best mode of transport. It’s certainly much cheaper than the competition (except walking), and in central London – where the cars and vans barely move at all – it would have been much faster than any other transport, too.
There’s no per-journey cost, it can take me from door to door, and it’s fast enough to make journeys across town quickly. It poses almost zero risk to other people, it doesn’t take up lots of space, and it doesn’t pump toxic fumes into the air. What’s not to love?
But the way that Britain’s roads have been designed means that the best tool for the job is also the scariest. (And remember, they were intentionally designed that way – they’re a man-made construction, not a natural phenomenon.)
So what do millions of people do when they need to make a short journey of just a mile or two? They walk to a bus stop and wait. They flood into a tube station and wait. They sit in the traffic. Some of them even walk along the narrow footpaths and cross all those vehicle-priority minor side-streets!
Very few of them even consider using a bicycle even though it would be the fastest way of making their journey, and cheaper than everything except walking, too. But given the dreadful conditions for cycling in this country, I understand that decision completely.
So because using the easiest, most direct, cheapest and cleanest mode of transport involves high levels of stress and fear, the vast majority of people choose to pay to sit in queues of cars belching fumes, or herd into trains and buses.
Cycling in Britain today really is that awful.
There’s a whole country outside of London
And outside of my little central London bubble, the form of transport poverty that many are locked into is that of dependence on motor vehicles.
In Leeds, where I’m from, people are locked in to car ownership, and most people feel they have no option but to drive. The buses are infrequent and expensive, and despite the acres of space available the conditions for walking and cycling are dire. I myself have felt the panic of having no car to rely on, back in what now seems like a former life. I have friends who still live there who really do feel the pain of car ownership yet feel there’s no alternative. Even for very short journeys, the car is seen as the only sensible option.
In any Dutch city, even in the busiest parts of The Hague, Amsterdam or Rotterdam, most people would choose a bike to make such a journey. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in that country, and I’ve covered many hundreds of miles through countryside, villages, towns and cities, without any of the stress and fear which is the norm when riding a bike in the UK.
We don’t have to live in transport poverty
If we didn’t live in a state of transport poverty, we wouldn’t even have to think twice about how to travel a mere 2.7 miles.