Be like Jim: fire up your imagination and help build a sustainable future

This article was published in 2022, in Magazine 154.

Image as described adjacent
Anna Williams

A new year should be a time of hope, yet already worrying signs remind us of the big issues our world faces. Temperatures on New Year’s Day in the UK hit 16.3°C and global carbon dioxide emissions, which fell by 6.4% in 2020, ‘bounced back’ with a vengeance in 2021 and look set to continue to rise.

How are we – as individuals, community groups, organisations, local authorities, governments and nations – going to reverse this trend? Are we going to turn to ‘hopium’, a term much used by scientists in the last few weeks to describe those who cross their fingers and try to will Covid-19 into endemicity? Hopium is something I recognise well from active travel strategies. Ambitious targets are often set without the policies to deliver them; when the goals are missed, shoulders are shrugged. Maybe nobody wished hard enough. A new strategy is set and the sequence begins again. The government wants 50% of urban journeys to be walked or cycled by 2030, but that simply isn’t going to happen with the current level of funding and a host of transport policies that contradict each other. In 1996, a previous government pledged that 10% of journeys in the UK would be cycled by 2012; what actually happened over that period is that the number of cycle journeys went down.
Locally, the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority has pledged to reduce the number of car miles driven by 15% by 2030, yet the majority of items on the agenda at its recent transport meeting involved road building. Hopes are divorced from plans; targets aren’t integrated into reality. Watching the meeting online, I was struck by how much ‘sustainability’ still seemed to be regarded as an add-on. Climate mitigation – let alone adaptation in an area that will increasingly suffer from heatwaves and flooding – was all but lost amid the talk of Outline Business Cases and the need for growth.

Rob Hopkins is just one of many environmental activists who see a failure of imagination at the heart of the climate crisis. Most of us cannot visualise how we might reshape the world in a way that would allow us to live sustainably within it. In his book From What Is To What If, he writes: ‘If we can imagine it, desire it, dream about it, it is so much more likely that we will put our energy and determination into making it reality’.

Members of Anna’s family enjoying the Chisholm Trail.

Twenty-four years ago this March, a local dreamer called Jim Chisholm shared his idea with a room full of members of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign. Looking out of the window armed with maps while on a train traversing the city, he had seen several bits of underused land and some spare arches beneath the road bridges. What if they could be connected into a new walking and cycling route? If active travel journeys from north to south could be made safer and more direct, couldn’t that reduce congestion, unlock children’s independence and bring a host of other benefits? Jim was passionate and persuasive, and the dream spread from fellow campaigners to local council officers, the founder of national charity Sustrans and the funding body Cycling England. The ‘Chisholm Trail’ made it into the 2005 Local Plan and, in recent years, the baton was picked up by Cambridgeshire County Council and the Greater Cambridge Partnership.

On 23 December 2021, the first part of the Trail opened to the public. ‘Am I dreaming?’ asked Jim as he stood on the new Abbey-Chesterton bridge, preparing to cut the ribbon. Since then, many thousands of local people have enjoyed the route. One family I met the first time I used the Trail were excited about the car journeys they would be able to switch to cycling. The spark of an idea seeded on a train journey has become a roaring flame that will form part of the solution to decarbonising transport in our area.

Forget about hopium and fire up your imagination. Take yourself one step closer to a climate solution. In the words of the old song: ‘You’ve got to have a dream. If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?’

Anna Williams is the Communications and Community Officer for Camcycle. This article was originally published on 26 January 2022 in the Cambridge Independent, which features a monthly column by a member of the Camcycle team.