Cars and Bikes
I’ve learned a new term to describe my relationship with the future. Apocaloptimist. It’s someone who knows the world is going to shit but thinks it’s all going to turn out ok, anyway. I don’t know who coined that neologism but whoever you are, thanks for that.
Recent news, however, is making it even more challenging to keep a positive mental attitude. A recent UN report says we’re dangerously near a “state shift” in the planetary environmental system, a tipping point that would guarantee loads of suffering and species extinctions. Another study reports that CO2 concentrations in the arctic are already at 400ppm. The International Energy Agency now predicts a business as usual scenario of emissions doubling by 2050 and says, “Please take our warning seriously.”
So, why are we still driving cars? There are many explanations. Psychological inertia – despite the best of intentions, people are just slow to change. Psychological resistance – despite the evidence, people are unwilling to believe the science and believe instead the lies their tribal heroes tell, or that they tell themselves. Evolutionary psychologists would have us believe that we’re simply not wired for abstract and distant threats, so no matter how much science or who delivers the message, we are simply not going to get it.
On the other hand, the car for homo automobilis is an extension of the self. It’s wrapped up in a complex of image, brand, and passions that creates personal identity and social status. It delivers a chemical hit of speed or transcendence or potency that’s as addictive and necessary as dopamine, requiring barely a conscious thought even to turn the key. Inside, time and space change shape. Feelings of entitlement and privilege swell. It’s obvious that the material world would be adapted or designed specifically to enable, enhance, and preserve this relationship. Where once there were farms, forests, trolleys and trains, there are now sprawling suburbs, multi-lane motorways, traffic, and car parks. The auto and oil industries aim to keep it that way.
I like to ride my bike, but in Totnes and surrounding hinterland, it’s stressful and dangerous. Cycle paths are few and far between, so if one is to ride, it must be on the road with the cars, buses, and lorries. Roads are narrow, drivers under a spell and not to be trusted with my safety. The Times Cycle Safe campaign is loaded with statistics that confirm that rural cycling is many times more likely to result in death or dismemberment than urban cycling. What’s more, diesel exhaust causes lung cancer.
Infrastructure is a good place to start. Besides the fact that building bicycle infrastructure is a more potent employment stimulus than building roads, creating more cycle paths and places to park bikes creates more cyclists. If you build it, will they cycle? Yes. In Copenhagen, they’ve measured the overall socio-economic impact of their cycling habit - a net gain DKK 1.22 per cycled kilometre, versus a net loss of DKK .69 per car driven kilometre.
In Totnes, there is modest progress. After a lengthy campaign overcoming the objections of merchants and market stall traders, the district council have finally installed two new bicycle parking rails with the capacity to lock up about four bikes. Apparently there’s a shed full of bike racks waiting to be installed once additional merchant obstructions have been cleared. It’s a start.
More inspiring are a host of initiatives that will eventually deliver a bigger result. The most ambitious is Totnes on the Move (TOTM), a Devon County Council funded initiative that aims to create more sustainable transport solutions. It has been a community-led process and has now moved into a new “delivery and execution” phase, leading ultimately to implementation in a few years. Julian Burn, long-time resident and champion of bicycle issues, has been one of the notable leaders advocating numerous proposed changes and additions to local cycle paths. A hired consultant, bicycle infrastructure guru Eric van der Horst, produced an extensive study for Totnes that, for example, calls for reduced car access to Bridge Hill Road, a “shared space” repaving of the Old Bridge, cycling priority for the roundabout on the Plains, and making the cycle path that crosses the entrance to Morrison’s much safer. The public event held in April indicates huge local support for these proposals and many more.
In a related development, the county have proposed to close a small portion of Plymouth Road leading from the Narrows, in an effort to reduce “rat runners”, people who cut through town via the High Street, rather than use the Western Bypass. It will make it less convenient to drive, and therefore, much safer to walk and cycle.
In addition to TOTM, the new Green Bike campaign also looks poised to make change, aiming to create clearly marked safe for cycling rural roads around the town. For the next couple of weeks, the county and district councils will be promoting some cycling events. And in September, Totnes will host Car Free Day, an event led by Devon County Councillor, Paula Black.
Our species has a big hill to climb. But change is not linear, at least change in human affairs in not linear. If the global environmental system teeters on the brink of a tipping point, perhaps an analogous cultural tipping point could be near. Manchester seeks to become the UK’s number one “cycle city”. In Totnes, our local initiatives offer some reasons for optimism, too. Is it enough to balance all the other things I know? It is for now.
Images: car exhaust; Critical Mass; Totnes Market Square bike racks with my silver taped 1996 Specialized Stump Jumper