Title: Bike Nation - How Cycling Can Save the World
Author: Peter Walker
Publisher: Yellow Jersey Press
What it is: A cycle-centric trawl through some of the by-ways of the current urban transport debate, offering a fresh take on what the city of tomorrow will look like
Strengths: Walker covers a lot of ground and arms the ardent cyclist with plenty of retorts when next they get caught up in arguing the proper role of cycling in urban planning
Weaknesses: Like so much in the current UK bike boom, it's just preaching to the converted - cycling doesn't seem to be do effective evangelism
Boris Johnson, speaking a week before the end of his term as London mayor and about to return to national politics, told me he was proud of having doubled bike use during his eight years in office. But his hope, Johnson explained, was that London could see the current 3 per cent or so of trips made by bicycle shoot up to 20 per cent. This was, he agreed, 'a big ask' but very possible. Typically, for him. Johnson phrased the serious intent within a joke. 'It was 20 per cent in 1904,' he said. 'What's the point of being a conservative if you can't turn the clock back to 1904. That's what I want to know.'
~ Peter Walker, Bike Nation
Ten things that can save the world:
- Gender equality
- Video games
- Eating right
- Birth control
- Working abroad
- Conscious consumerism
- A heart
- Bill Nye
- Gordon Brown
Everybody wants to save the world, why shouldn't cycling grab a sticky bottle off the bandwagon too?
* * * * *
Chris Boardman describes Peter Walker's Bike Nation - How Cycling Can Save the World as "the book I wanted to write," a front-of-book blurb that only had me wondering why the hell he ended up writing the dreadful chamoir he did instead. The book also comes blurbed by another of Britain's current crop of celebrity cyclists, dad-dancer and egghead-inquisitor Jeremy Vine, who says it's "as exhilarating as a clear stretch of highway." Which worrisomely sounds like the sort of shilling for the cycling industry that Arthur Conan Doyle was doing in the nineteenth century, right down to Vine's fogeyish use of the word highway. Is that what cycling is really all about now, turning the clock back to Victorian times?
Bike Nation's author, Peter Walker, is the creator of the Guardian's Bike Blog, which, for some reason, is buried away in the environment section of the paper's website instead of, oh, I don't know, lifestyle (which is where the Running Blog lives) or even technology (which is where you'll find the motoring section). Or - given the fad it is in the UK at the moment - maybe even the fashion section would be a better home. This is, I think, one of the problems with cycling: cars are sexy tech, running is a cool 'lifestyle' choice, but cycling is just something that's good for the planet. And for you.
Being good for you is exactly the way the Yellow Jersey Press back-of-book blurb for Bike Nation seeks to sell cycling, a soft sell delivered with the comforting reassurances of Boardman and Vine. You'll be healthier, the blurb tells you. You'll be safer, it adds. You'll be more friendly, it promises. The thing is, most of us hate the things that are good for us. 'Vegetables? Meh. Sugar? Yeah!' 'Exercise? Must I?' Pig out in front of the telly? Can I!' 'Save for the future? Nah. Splurge on some new tech? Woo!' Which makes me wonder about the intelligence of those marketing the current cycling boom in the UK.
I also, as you may be aware, increasingly wonder about that boom itself. For a while I believed the hype, that the bangles and the baubles brought home by British Cycling were translating into bums on bicycle seats. That the UK was going through a veritable - and verifiable - cycling renaissance. Those 46 pieces of Olympic shrapnel (25 gold, 12 silver, 9 bronze), 72 pieces of Paralympic metalwork (40 gold, 19 silver, 13 bronze) and more than 500 rainbow jerseys brought home since the advent of Lottery funding two decades ago, they've translated - we've been told time and time again - into a cycling boom. The UK has a cycling economy that, in 2011, a London School of Economics report1 put at an eye-watering £2.9 billion per annum2. British Cycling currently claims a membership of 125,0003.
But according to recently released Department for Transport figures, this is what the UK's cycling boom actually looks like:
According to the DfT, the data "suggests that people who cycle have been cycling further, but that the proportion of the population who cycle has not changed substantially."
This, then, is the world into which Bike Nation lands: less a nation of cyclists, more a quiet village.
In Bike Nation, Walker promises some counter-intuitive dives into the depths of issues like health, safety, equality, advocacy, and technology. Let's begin with one take on why cycling has become popular in urban planning circles.
Take the Danish city of Odense. Formerly an industrial city, Odense is re-inventing itself for the twenty-first century, a century in which "the rebuilt city centre will see drivers obliged to head to either underground parking garages or park-and-ride systems." In order to attract firms from the new economy - tech jobs - the city is transforming itself. "More and more investors are coming here," the city's mayor, Anker Boye, told Walker, "because they believe in the way we've transformed this old, industrial city into a new city. We try to think about people living here all their life, and having a good life here." The planners are having to listen to the employers and the employers, in turn, are listening to the people they are seeking to employ. Something similar happened in London: firms like Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Santander, Vodafone, Tesco, and Unilever formed the lobbying group CyclingWorks and helped Boris Johnson push past some of the resistance to the cycling infrastructure he was putting in place.
Some of those same tech companies driving change in Odense are playing other roles in cycling's rather quiet renaissance. Take Strava, the obsessive-compulsive cyclists's favourite bar-mounted Big Brother. Strava is currently monetising all that data users so casually give to it by selling it to urban planners:
"Strava holds a vast amount of information - downloading all the data for a big city like London takes two weeks - and the company is only beginning to understand what it could be used for. Innovations currently being worked on include real-time analysis of cyclist numbers for traffic planning, and the mooted ability to automatically send a warning to the phone of a driver who is approaching a Strava user on the road."
Technology, of course, is not always the answer. Take the rather low-tech safety solutions of hardshell helmets and high-visibility vests:
"I don't object to helmets or to high-visibility clothing. I wear a helmet most of the time when on a bike. So do most people I know in London. But when it comes to genuine efforts to make cycling safer, they're a red herring, an irrelevance, a peripheral issue that has somehow come to dominate the argument. You don't make cycling safe by obliging every rider to dress up as if for urban warfare, or to work a shift in a nuclear power station. You do it by creating a road system that insulates them from fast moving and unpredictable road traffic."
Rather than a future bike nation, could the future utopia in which cycling will abound be one in which driverless cars and urban transport systems take the strain? Arnand Babu, of the Google-affiliated Sidewalk Labs, offers Walker this vision:
"You could potentially move to a model where these suburban cities, which were so reliant on individual vehicles, could become incredibly well-connected metropolitan areas, where you could get anywhere within thirty minutes, plus a first mile/last mile of walking or bike connection. You're in a high-speed, shared vehicle majority of miles, but then the last mile or first mile you embrace a wide amount of innovation around all sorts of personal vehicles, whether self-powered or electric powered, to connect."
For me, personally, it is these sections of Bike Nation that speak the loudest, offer a realistic, viable vision of the future. Much else of the book, though, is standard, one-sided pro-cycling propaganda. Take the hoary old argument that cycling is good for society because cyclists live longer. Bear in mind, now, that Bike Nation comes from the school of counter-intuitive narrative non-fiction. An example of the thought process it engenders, for instance, shows that cycling is safer than sitting on the sofa:
"Many cyclists will have experienced this conversation at some point. While waiting at a red traffic light, a driver, generally a man, starts chatting through the open car window. 'You're brave,' they will say in a convivial tone. 'Wouldn't catch me cycling. Much too dangerous.
"When this happens to me I usually have time for no more than a weak smile before the lights change. But in a parallel world I would discover the driver's home address and burst though their front door that evening. 'Dangerous?' I would bellow, as they stumbled up from the sofa, lit by the flickering blue glow of a flat-screen television. 'You think riding a bike is dangerous? It's that TV that's going to kill you.' This would, of course, be vastly pompous, and risk a well-deserved punch to the nose. But I'd be right. It might sound counter-intuitive, but watching television can be far more deadly than riding around the truck-clogged streets of a major city."
Counter-intuitive narrative non-fiction encourages the reader to question basic assumptions, accept nothing on face value. You're encouraged to question could black actually be white, could up actually be down or could Ed Sheeran actually be rather good. So why just accept that living longer is, in and of itself, a good thing? What are the costs here? Old people require a larger pension pot. Old people require more - and more expensive - end of life care. Old people drive up house prices. And - in a really scary thought - YouGov analysis suggests that for every 10 years older a voter is, their chance of voting Tory increases by around eight percent and the chance of them voting Labour decreases by six percent. Is it any wonder Boris Johnson championed cycling? Yes, clearly, living longer is the sort of thing we should want as a society. But when presented - as it usually is - in economic tems, is it really better than the alternatives?
Or how about the notion that cycling makes you happy? Where in the pro-cycling argument is the room made for the counter-argument that driving can make you happy too? How else do you explain the mystifying popularity of the Fast & Furious franchise? Is its fanbase simply cyclists engaging in schadenfreude at the idea that a bunch of car thieves could be the good guys? Or could some people actually enjoy motoring, just like you can enjoy cycling?
The question, though, I would most like answered by books such as Bike Nation is this: what are the hidden costs of cycling? We are forever being told about the hidden costs of motoring - the economic externalities - which include "safety, parking, congestion, the construction of roads, the land value of roads, traffic law enforcement, air and water pollution, noise, resource use, and the disposal of car-based waste like old batteries and tyres." Does cycling have any externalities? Oddly, none that I recall Walker mentioning. Now I know, from having reviewed Elly Blue's Bikenomics, that even suggesting that cycling has hidden costs puts me on a hiding to nothing. But one day I would like to see someone put aside the standard pro-cycling propaganda and answer the question: how green was my Raleigh?
Those quibbles, for me they highlight the core problem with Bike Nation, the core problem with most of the cycling literature on this subject: it's just preaching to the converted. Cyclists will benefit greatly from reading Bike Nation, they will be better informed for the transport arguments they invariably find themselves drawn into. They will be better able to counter the argument that cyclists should wear helmets and hi-vis at all times. They will be able to feel better about their use of Strava knowing it's helping to build better cycling infrastructure. They will know that there is a scientific explanation for why so many people actively dislike cyclists.
But is Bike Nation speaking to those couch-dwellers it says would be safer on a bike? Is Bike Nation speaking to those bosses who need to press for more and better cycling infrastructure for their employees? Is Bike Nation speaking to city planners who need to consider the role of cycling in the cities of tomorrow? Sadly, I don't think it is.
1 Commissioned by Sky and British Cycling
2 A paltry £45 per head for every person in the UK. Even spread over just cyclists the LSE put it at a still rather limp £230 - which suggests 20% of the population are cycling when all other figures put it at about a tenth of that.
3 Compared with less than 15,000 before the arrival of Lottery funding