Coordinator’s comment

This article was published in 2012, in Newsletter 103.

Judith Green is a sociologist. She works in London and wanted to learn more about travelling in the city. So she asked: ‘How do you get around?’, ‘Tell me about your commute’. And then she listened. She wanted to hear the moral judgements and the social values associated with our transportation choices (Sociology 46, 272- 289).

It did not take long for the bicycle to come around the corner in these conversations. Again and again, her subjects asserted that they really should be cycling. That they would be cycling. That they will be cycling. That they did cycle back then. Without prompting, almost all her car users made it clear that in their own mind the bike is the better option. And yet, they did not pedal.

If you have to provide transportation in an urban environment, the overwhelming affirmation of cycling as the preferred option is now a given. The challenge is how to offer your drivers the opportunity to pedal, how to allow them to act in accord with their beliefs. Green shows how drivers in London are deeply conflicted, tormented by a bad conscience, by unhappiness and guilt. They represent a huge pent-up demand for cycling, which is released whenever the circumstances are right: the success of the cycleway along the guided busway is one example of this, as it offers a route away from cars. The Big Bike Ride organised by the local newspaper also taps this repressed reservoir as it provides a sense of community of cyclists which makes the road seem less threatening.

This demand for cycling, and for a less car-dominated city, has been seen in cities all over the world including those where Ciclovia events have been a great success. Gil Peñalosa is credited with inventing Ciclovia, the Sunday street closures in Bogotá, Colombia, during his time as mayor. His recent keynote address at the 2012 Velo-City conference reminded planners that bicycle infrastructure does not work when delivered in little disconnected steps. We know they want to pedal. We also know they fear car traffic and want facilities away from traffic. Why waste your time giving them anything else?

In Cambridge, opportunities for boldness remain. Our network of bike paths across commons and along the river, especially once the Chisholm Trail finally closes some gaps, is a real asset. But on-road solutions for cyclists, for your eight year-old daughter or son and for your eighty year-old grandparent, remain precarious in too many places. Between Newnham and Newmarket Road, a supercycleway is clearly needed. Our local pride in being the most cycled city quickly evaporates as you go along East Road and Lensfield Road. Elizabeth Way Bridge was opened in 1971, surely a bold and daring solution back then. Now is a good time to recover some of this boldness and provide solutions for the repressed demand for cycling which makes our drivers so unhappy.

On a different note, the Campaign’s committee has started to think about how our work could be improved by employing a person to work more closely with our members, to encourage them to become active, and to turn cycling into the unstoppable popular movement it really ought to be. It is early days, and many questions remain open, but the topic will feature at our next monthly meeting.

Michael Cahn, Co-ordinator