The great GMT/BST debate

This article was published in 2015, in Newsletter 119.

Hobson Street.
Image as described adjacent

As this newsletter comes through your door, it’s probably around the time the clocks are going forward, so not the time of year the great GMT debate normally happens. That is when the clocks go back in the autumn and people moan about it suddenly being dark before 5.00pm. The popular press blame those ‘up north’ or ‘the Scots’ for us having to have GMT at all, since surely BST all year round would be fine in the South. Keeping BST all year round is said to be positive in that it would allow us to use the daylight better, but in reality it would have significant disadvantages.

I’d like to explore how not reverting to GMT in December and January would affect us in this relatively southerly location and particularly those on bicycles, especially children cycling to school, who are of course never considered.

As far as I can tell from observing traffic and parked cycles in the morning, most schools in Cambridge seem to have their registration shortly before 9.00am, some perhaps as early as 8.30am. My general experience of ‘rush hour’ from various times of cycling to work is that the morning one is extremely intense between 8.00 and 9.00am because schools and most jobs start around a similar time. However the evening one is much more spread out, with many schools finishing as early as 3.00pm, and none finishing later than 4.00pm. If I am on the road around 4.00pm the motor traffic is noticeably less than it is at either 5.00pm or during morning rush hour. I’d also say that I tend to experience more bad or inconsiderate driving in the morning than the evening, as people have somewhere to get to ‘on time’ so tend to be less patient, so I would argue that having the morning rush hour happen in daylight is more important than for the evening rush hour.

Assuming that a child has a 20 minute cycle ride to school, which is probably far longer than most, it is only around the period of the solstice when sunset is before 4.00pm. Therefore it is probably only in December, and the first week or two of January, that they will even need lights, let alone have to cycle in conditions of total darkness rather than dusk. For the darkest two weeks of the year, the schools are closed. So having extra daylight in the evening wouldn’t necessarily be of great advantage to them for travelling to and from school.

Let’s consider the mornings. In early January, when the schools went back, it was still dark at 8.00am – that’s 9.00am in BST. Not great for cycling to school. By mid-January, there was what I’d call semi-light at 7.40am. Or in BST terms, about when most children seem to be arriving at school. By 11 February, it was actually just light at 7.30am, or the BST registration time for some schools. So that’s well over a month of cycling to school in darkness or semi-darkness. I think that’s a month when parents will be more reluctant to allow their children to cycle to school.

What about us workers? For that same month or so, we’d be cycling to work in the same conditions. But as our day tends to be longer than a school day, we’d still be going home in the dark or near dark even with ‘longer evenings’ which would extend to 5-6.00pm rather than 4-5.00pm. As many of us have a longer commute than children, that would be a lot of extra cycling in the dark, and not getting to see any daylight. I really appreciate my morning daylight ride to work as it’s the only time I’m out in the fresh air and actually get to see daylight at all.

There was, in my opinion, a spurious argument made last October when the clocks went back that the ‘longer evenings’, if we stuck to BST, would allow children to do outdoor sports and this would be good for obesity. If the pitches aren’t waterlogged I suppose. Walking or cycling to and from school is probably just as good for health and the prevention of obesity, and that could be a daily occurrence, setting good habits for a lifetime in work. I think the number of children who would be disadvantaged by dark mornings would outnumber those who really wanted to play football or hockey in the evenings after school. One aspect of this which I do think needs changing in any case is the date of the spring switch from GMT to BST. In the autumn, we are a month past the equinox when the clocks change. In fact, on my very early work mornings once a week, these are uncomfortably dark by the time the clocks do change. But the clocks go forward in spring around a week after the equinox, on the last Sunday of March. Looking at my diary, by 1 March, the sun rises at 6.46am (7.46am BST). From the point of view of those cycling home from work, wanting to play football after school, and gardeners everywhere, I’d campaign for BST to start the first Sunday of March, as I can see so many benefits to that, and very few disadvantages.

Heather Coleman