Opinion: Anna Williams

This article was published in 2019, in Magazine 142.

Anna Williams
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Make balanced transport diets easy to create a healthy, sustainable city

It’s the beginning of the year and as new leaves are being turned across the city, a question arises. Is it better to run every day, renounce sugar and rid the cupboards of alcohol, or should we follow my mum’s favourite maxim: ‘Everything in moderation’? Personally, I think there are a few spaces in life that nothing but a good chocolate biscuit can fill – a dark chocolate digestive or Tim Tam (find them on the Caf-fiend cargo trike in Eddington market square) dunked into a hot drink is guaranteed to put a smile on my face. However, I have to avoid buying chocolate biscuits too often as, once in the house, they don’t last for long. I’m definitely not the kind of person that ‘forgets’ they have sweet things in the cupboard for weeks on end!

What has this to do with cycling, you might ask (apart from the fact that some pedal power might help burn off the food belly you’ve grown from all the sweet treats)? Well, crazy as it might sound, sometimes I think cars are a bit like chocolate biscuits. There are lots of great things about motor vehicles and there’s certainly a place for them in our world, but they shouldn’t make up the majority of our transport diet, particularly within cities. Just as with food, we should be aiming for the majority of journeys taken within urban areas to be the healthy options: active travel choices such as walking and cycling, followed by less-polluting choices like public transport. This is easier said than done though when we live in an obesogenic environment with a human brain that is wired to prioritise instant rewards and habit over long-term gains. If a 5-year old is offered a chocolate pudding at his Cambridgeshire primary school, would he find it easy to opt for the apple alternative? If driving to school seemed safer than walking or cycling there, which option would his parents be most likely to choose?

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With a steady stream of new developments popping up all over the Cambridge area, the debate rages on the number of car parking spaces appropriate for each dwelling. Should people have a right to own a personal motor vehicle that is conveniently parked outside their home or should access to public transport, cycleways and car clubs be equally – or even more – convenient? Do we forget too easily the rights of residents to be able to walk directly to where they want to go, breathe clean air and cross roads safely?

Woe betide someone who comes between me and the chocolate biscuit in my hand; however, if it was my diabetic friend who needed it to help treat an episode of hypoglycaemia then I’m pretty sure I could live without it. For those with reduced mobility, car journeys may be essential, but many more of us could work towards a more balanced ratio of transport methods aided by political decisions which lessen the temptation of unnecessary car journeys (thereby reducing congestion for those who really need to travel by car).

Decision-makers could learn from my local supermarket, which gives free fruit to children who are accompanying their parents on a shopping trip. My children (who love chocolate biscuits as much as I do) rarely fail to gobble down an apple or banana while we’re there as those healthy options are placed right in front of them: it’s easy. Cycle lanes and bus stops should be like this too. As we work together to rebalance the transport diets of those already a little too reliant on their cars, let’s focus on growing strong new communities which adopt sustainable transport choices from the beginning, thanks to infrastructure that is ready and waiting before residents move in. Successful diets are based around habits and helping people form the right ones at times of change will be essential to achieving a healthy and congestion-free city for all.

Anna Williams is the Communications and Community Officer for Camcycle. This article was first published on 23 January in the Cambridge Independent, which features a monthly column by a member of the Camcycle team.

What’s your opinion on transport in Cambridge? We recommend reading more about the issues on Smarter Cambridge Transport’s website at smartertransport.uk and joining the discussions on cycling on our members’ discussion site, Cyclescape, at cyclescape.org where you can also find out how to get involved.