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POLITICS AND PEDALING

By Chris Smith

Chris Smith spent 13 months cycling 16,500 miles from Worcestershire to Beijing. Since his return in 2001 he has clocked up a further 25,000 miles by cycling 6,000 miles a year to and from work.

'You must be mad!'

'You must be absolutely frozen by the time you get home!'

'Aren't you out of breath?'

'But that's miles!'

No, no, no and yes respectively. Five days a week I cycle 13 miles to work and the same distance back home in sunshine, rain, frost, snow and gales. It takes me around fifty minutes each way.

The announcement in 2003 by Alistair Darling, the then transport minister, of a 7-billion package to be spent on widening some of Britain's busiest motorways and trunk roads signaled a spectacular U-turn in government policy. Six years earlier in 1997 John Prescott was vowing to reduce the amount of traffic on Britain's roads by improving public transport and enticing us onto buses and trains instead of building more roads, but how many of our politicians backed that policy by using public transport themselves? Politicians invite public derision not so much because they break promises and tend to be economical with the truth, but because they so often fail to practice what they preach. A radical transport policy promoting the use of public transport was spearheaded by a man whose own preferred mode of transport was chauffeur-driven Jaguar and our Deputy Prime Minister famously drove a distance of 200 yards so that his wife's hairdo wouldn't be ruined by the walk. Naturally nobody took this clown seriously and the traffic jams have grown inexorably while public transport all too often remains an uncomfortable, unreliable and expensive alternative.

Although roughly three quarters of all journeys made by car are less than five miles, the bicycle continues to be largely overlooked as an alternative. The 26-mile round trip to work would take me at least twice as long by public transport as it would by bicycle, and it simply wouldn't be possible at certain times of the day. It would also be prohibitively expensive and much less fun. Providing a ready solution to the twenty-first century's problems of increasing pollution, congestion and obesity levels, the bicycle must be promoted by the government not only as a safe, practical and cheap alternative to the car for journeys under five miles, but as a "cool" and "sexy" way to get around.

Politicians can promote and cajole, and introduce helpful legislation and incentives, but the real power for change lies not with the generals but the foot soldiers. Cycling is far more popular on the continent than it is over here, so why are the British so reluctant to get pedaling? I have come across all kinds of excuses, so let's deal with the most frequent one by one.

I just don't have enough time.

If I were to drive to and from work the journey would take 20 to 35 minutes each way, depending on the traffic. Driving is dead time, however; in cycling the 26-mile round trip I am benefiting from a rigorous, twice-daily physical workout at the average cost of only 45 minutes a day. As a result I remain at the age of 45 in better shape than most 30-year olds.

No shower or changing rooms at work.
.

I have considerable sympathy with this one. Provision of a place for employees to wash and change ought to be made a statutory requirement under the Health and Safety at Work Act at all business premises occupied by more than, say, ten people. Public money could be made available to subsidise the provision of showers and lockers at both these places and at other, smaller businesses where the provision of such facilities would be optional. Almost all employers provide toilets; a shower cubical and a few lockers won't take up much extra space. The expenditure involved would amount to a fraction of the 7 billion of public money that has been dedicated to widening motorways, and with more people able to enjoy better health by cycling to and from work, the money would be more than recouped by a reduction in the burden currently borne by the NHS (which spends billions a year on afflictions caused by obesity).

It's too dangerous.

You are indeed vulnerable as a cyclist on today's busy roads, but by choosing to use a car you are only exacerbating the problem. Only once in several years and thousands of miles of commuting by bicycle have I had a serious accident. Three months later, after recovering from multiple fractures in shoulder, wrist and thumb, I was back on my bicycle. The roads really aren't that dangerous - if you are sensible. Wear reflective clothing and a helmet, and use plenty of lights after dark or in reduced visibility.

It's too cold / wet / windy.

The cries of "You're mad!" reach a crescendo in the winter, but I never have starting problems and I don't have to scrape ice off the windscreen or struggle with frozen locks. Vigorous exercise thoroughly warms you from within and I arrive at work radiating heat and energized by the exercise. The wind can be tiresome if it's blowing in the wrong direction, but invest in warm, waterproof and breathable clothing and you won't get cold or wet - whatever the weather. It is especially important to have good gloves and warm socks in freezing conditions because feet and hands are most susceptible to the cold.

When I consider the pleasure and the physical benefits I derive from commuting by bicycle and the money it saves me (after all, there is no need to tax, insure,  put petrol into the bike and no need to take out an expensive gym membership) I can only reflect that my colleagues - most of whom live much closer to work than I do - must be mad not to pedal to and from work every day. On a bicycle, moreover, you are in control of your time: there will be no waiting at bus stops or on railway platforms for delayed or cancelled services and you won't get stuck in traffic jams because you can cycle to the front of each queue; in urban bottlenecks you will often travel much faster than the cars.

I regard the incredulity expressed by my colleagues as a testimony not of my physical prowess but rather their lack of it. The human body is a wonderfully powerful, adaptable and sophisticated engine that thrives on hard work, but advances in technology have led to its neglect and a resulting decline in physical condition. It ought to be well within the capacity of virtually anyone under the age of sixty to cycle a distance of up to five miles once or twice a day, thereby freeing up the roads for freight, public transport and for those who genuinely have no alternative but to travel by car.

Most people already have bicycles but many of them are unsuitable for road use. Mountain bikes may look great but heavy, knobby tires aren't designed for the roads and you will wonder why the cycling is such hard work. Neither are they generally equipped with mudguards to keep road grime away in wet weather or a rack upon which to carry a suitcase or kit bag.

The school run being a major cause of congestion, children should be encouraged to cycle or walk short distances to and from school. Lack of exercise is as much a factor in the current epidemic of child obesity as poor dietary habits; those parents who chauffeur their Little Darlings everywhere and treat them to an unlimited diet of junk food, TV and computer games are giving them the worst possible start in life, inviting medical problems such as premature heart disease, cancer and diabetes. "Irresponsible" is the word that springs to mind.

Radical proposals and long-term solutions require leaders with the guts to see them through and a vision that runs a little beyond the next general election - politicians who stake their political lives on their principles and beliefs instead of executing U-turns at the slightest sign of trouble; such people would be worthy of my respect and therefore my vote. The most inspirational generals are those who lead from the front, so come on Prescott, Brown, Blair and the rest of you: instead of pontificating from inside your air-conditioned limousines about our overcrowded roads and the benefits of public transport, show the rest of us how it should be done!


In August 2005 Chris's critically acclaimed book about the epic ride from the UK to Beijing 'Why Don't You Fly?' (ISBN 1-905203-25-X) was published by Pen Press and is available on line from Amazon.co.uk and from all good bookshops.

For more details of the journey and book, visit www.cycleuktochina.com

 

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08/16/11
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