Two Wheels that Tame Your City

נשלח 5 באפר׳ 2011, 1:43 על ידי Sustainability Org
APRIL 1, 2011
Big cities are too big. Most of us who live in big cities don't really live in them—we live instead in a collection of villages that are connected by underground trains or cab rides. Those villages are where we work, where we live, where we meet our friends and where we go to be entertained or shop. We know them pretty well, and we mostly get to choose our villages and the places we spend most of our time.
illustration by Max Scratchmann

But it's a little alienating. We don't really know how the villages connect. Without that knowledge, there is a danger that we will end up living in the physical embodiment of something like Harry Beck's diagrammatic map of the London Underground network, which bears no relation to actual geography.

So after a few years in the big city, you may end up asking yourself if you really want to live in something as abstract as a circuit diagram. If the answer to that question is no, as it was in my case, and you'd rather inhabit something more organic, somewhere more dense and complex, somewhere more real, cycling around town is a good way to start.

The main reason most people start cycling to work isn't to find out where they live. Usually, they are keen to find a more predictable way to travel, avoiding the uncertainties of a public transport system, such as the one here in London, in which long delays are still common. They may also want to fit some kind of physical exercise into a busy day after years of paying for gym memberships they never have time to use.

So the new sense of engagement with place is an unexpected benefit, and one that takes time to appreciate. After a while, you start to notice the way that different neighborhoods and districts knit together, the way architectural periods give way to each other as you move from outer to inner London, like tree rings. You may start in the Victorian or Edwardian suburbs, but 10 minutes later you're firmly in the Regency, and by 30 minutes you're back in the 18th century.

And it's not just a boon for outsiders trying to come to grips with one of the least planned of the big cities, a place that isn't laid out on a grid or built around avenues spoking out from great plazas.

Philip Mehl grew up in London, but only recently started to cycle to work in Canary Wharf from the north London neighborhood of St. John's Wood. "I'm discovering parts of London I didn't know, even though I've been here since I was born, 41 years ago," said Mr. Mehl, a U.K. marketing director for HSBC Holdings Plc.

Getting to know your city is a way of taming it, and of enjoying it more. It gives you a sense of intimacy, no more so than on summer evenings when the days are long and the trip home takes you through streets thronged with people out to enjoy themselves.

Cycling can also give release from some of the constraints associated with living in a densely populated space. London can involve an awful lot of waiting in line, of shuffling along behind other pedestrians on a crowded pavement, of idling in a cab at a junction that may have worked when horse-drawn carriages were all the rage, and few in number, but hasn't since then.

If you are traveling to work early enough, or coming back late enough, cycling can give you an altogether different experience. Because it's such a rare pleasure to be able to move with any degree of freedom, there is nothing quite like riding at speed around Regent Park's outer circle early on a relatively traffic-free spring morning, or doing the same along the Embankment when the traffic lights are with you, the Thames to your right, Big Ben behind you and St. Paul's Cathedral ahead.

And even without the thrill of speed, cycling can give you the sense of starting the day in control, or at least the illusion of doing so. Because public transport is a passive experience that often involves a lot of discomfort and frustration, just the process of getting to work can leave you feeling defeated.

Of course, traveling by bicycle in a big city like London isn't always a life-affirming joy. For long parts of the year, you start your day in cold and darkness, and end it in cold and darkness. Inclement weather can put you off, even though it rains much less frequently in London than you'd expect given its reputation. And you find yourself wearing increasingly ridiculous clothing, which frightens the children and the cat, although you tell yourself it's practical.

You may also find yourself becoming more interested in your form of transport than you should be. Unlike many of the tools we use every day at home or work, bicycles are fairly primitive machines whose workings you can actually understand. Even for the commuter, there is temptation to upgrade, to buy a machine whose proper place is under someone who weighs half what you do, climbing a mountain in the Tour de France.

That can get expensive, and if you go down that route, you may not end up saving very much money compared to riding public transport. That's even more likely if in the process your bicycle becomes irresistible to thieves. Even the best and most expensive lock won't stop an expert. To combat theft, many workplaces now provide a secure place to keep bicycles, but where that isn't the case, buying a very basic bicycle, or scuffing up one that isn't, can be a deterrent.

One other alternative that has recently become available in London and is widely used in many other European cities, is the bike provided by the public transport system. Here, it is known as the "Boris bike" after the cycling mayor who introduced it. But the bikes are heavy, need to be adjusted to suit your physical shape, and aren't always available at one of the many pickup points throughout the city when needed.

There's no doubt that with the rise in the number of cyclists, drivers have become more aware and generally more considerate. But we've all had our close shaves with death or serious injury, and most of us have a few cuts and bruises to testify to our own misjudgments, or those of others.

It has to be said that cyclists are often their own worst enemy. No day goes by without seeing someone speed through a red light, take a detour on a pavement, undertake a bus, or commit other dangerous follies. Unfortunately, a lot of people have convinced themselves that since they are doing their bit for the planet, the usual rules of behavior don't apply to them.

But for many of us, pedestrians are the major threat, particularly when they perambulate in an iPod bubble. And much as we welcome visitors from around the world, someone has to explain to them that the green paths are bicycle lanes and not spaces that have been set aside for map reading.

Write to Paul Hannon at

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