Walking and cycling compared

“What do you call a jogger with bad knees?”
“A cyclist”

Here’s some personal stuff – but it is relevant.

Despite the name, this was never intended to be a dedicated cycling blog. This was partly because I quite like buses (poor things, hardly anyone has a good word to say for them, but actually, you know, they’re great!) but mainly because I really do fly a flag for walking – not leisure walking, not driving to somewhere picturesque and then going for “a walk” – but just everyday getting about on your own two unassisted feet. The original working title of the blog was “no mean feet”.

As I’ve said in an earlier post, I used to be a rather heroic urban walker, but it is no longer the pleasure that it used to be. Since I wrote that post – in fact in the last two months – things have noticeably slumped. Yes, I need to get over myself, I know. I can walk for many miles if necessary. I stride. I’m brisk. I don’t limp (yet?). What else do I expect at the age of 54? (but dammit, this particular manifestation of the mid-fifties doesn’t happen to everyone – some people are fell-runners in their 60’s! Why me of all people? I really didn’t expect this at all). Yes, yes, I’ll be all right in a minute … but … but …the horrible fact is that a good deal of the physical pleasure has gone out of walking.

Walking is great. You get all the benefits of cycling yet it feels somehow freer because there isn’t this damn machine that you have to lug around with you, a machine that requires various kinds of coddling and fussing over and fretting about.

If you have the time to do it, walking is just fantastic. Whole books have been written about the wonderfulness of walking, its meditative aspects and its properties as a thought stimulant (I’d put John Hillaby right up there with Richard Ballantine as an inspiration). And I loved the fact that it was just a little bit eccentric to be a serious urban walker – and now that Will Self fellow gets to bang on about it and I can’t say “me too!”. A small part of my identity has just flaked off.

At its best, urban walking feels strangely transparent and effortless. It feels rather like this:

balloon over clifton bridge

The problem is that it has stopped feeling like that for me. And it never will be quite like that again.

Well, there’s an obvious solution isn’t there?

Yes indeedy. This is how cycling feels:

bleriot monoplane

It offers slightly different pleasures to walking. If feels powerful. It feels skilful. You get a wider range of physical intensity. You can go fast. You are reminded of O-level physics in a really intimate way. Fiddling with machinery is a whole daft joy in itself.

Over the last month I have done far more cycling, counted in terms of individual trips, than I have done in … well, since some time in the early 1980’s. I shall have lots to say about this shortly. Just one more thing for now though.

I do genuinely like the physical process of walking, that is true. Yet I do wonder, if I’m honest, if part of the reason I chose, for those many years, to walk rather than cycle, was that cycling felt too much trouble. That word ‘trouble’ is key. I knew, from my own experience, that cycling can be done even on the roads as they are. I knew, because I had done it in the past, that the whole vehicular-cycling thing works and will (largely) keep you safe. But it takes an effort, and the effort needed is far more mental than physical. Once you’ve got into the swing of it, it’s ok and you don’t really think about it and it seems worth doing. But once you stop for a while, it’s so difficult to get back into it as you see what a scary, stinking, unfair mess we’ve made of our urban transport system.

[Footnote. Unless otherwise attributed, all photos on this blog were taken by myself. I scraped the two pictures in this post off the web – and I didn’t find an attribution. Sorry]

Political will in Bristol

I’ve already mentioned the Bristol Cycling Manifesto, but here it is again.

The top line is that there is a petition that, if you live in Bristol and wish to do anything other than use a car for every single journey, you really should sign.

This is about political will, as (briefly) discussed yesterday. We’ve ended up with a mayor who seems to genuinely support cycling. (And George Ferguson seems to have more of a real clue about it than Boris Johnson did). Making the changes that will foster active travel is going to come up against both considerable inertia and active opposition. It can only be done if there is seen to be real support. From the numbers of people riding bikes around Bris that support is definitely there – but it needs to be seen to be there.

As well as the petition, Bristol Cycling Campaign’s freedom to ride campaign includes a framework for the infrastructure layout that would make the city easy to bike around. Here’s their cute map of what a decent Bristol cycling network ought to look like:

toptube map print version june2013

This is another way that political will can be created – you do some of the work that ought to have been done already by salaried planners, you show what things ought to be, roughly, like. You act as if the thing has already started by providing a starting point.

Did I say that I really admire people who can get this sort of thing going? I am really not an activist, I’m more of a sit-on-my-bum-and-thinkivist.

Political will

“We could do what the Netherlands did – if we had the political will”. I’ve said this kind of thing myself – and what I’ve meant is that there is nothing inevitable about our present personal transport mess, that things could have been different if different planning choices had been made, that things could well be better – if different planning choices were to be made now.

But what is this mysterious thing, “political will”? What actually causes the people who have the choice-making power to do the right thing? What makes elected politicians feel that something is “the right thing”? What heartens them to actually push things through?

I don’t subscribe to the “all politicians are scoundrels” view. I think they are in many ways like the rest of us except that they enjoy the strange game of “politics”. What I mean by this is that politicians want to be not just re-elected (so they can go on playing the game) but also to be liked and respected and to feel they have been of some use – all the things that most of us want. But (also like most of us) they usually need to be pushed into doing awkward or difficult things. So “the right thing” needs to be made easier for them.

Which is all a roundabout way of mentioning the “get Britain cycling” epetition. I’m rather sceptical about petitions, but it can’t do any harm?

Almost certainly, everyone who sees this blog has already signed, but I thought you might like to see how it’s doing. It was started in April and will stay open for one year. The idea is that it will be taken a little bit seriously if it gets to 100,000 signatures. I’ve been tracking it since the start of May and this is how it’s gone so far:


Will it get to 100,000? Hmmm. Not impossible, but not by any means inevitable. I’ll give another update at the end of July.

Of course generating “political will” might be an easier task at the local level …