How cycling can change the world

peter wlaker and book
Screen capture The Guardian/ Penguln

Peter Walker writes for the Guardian in London, often about cycling and cycle culture. We quote him often on TreeHugger, because he is just so sensible about bikes and urbanism. He has written a new book, just released in North America, and the title says it all: How cycling can save the world.

Walker describes in a couple of sentences in the introduction, also well-titled with "not everyone on a bike is a cyclist", how the world has changed in the last few years from when cyclists were usually guys in Lycra going very fast, to where cycling is seen as a legitimate form of transportation, accessible to everyone.

The big changes—and they can be huge— happen when a nation doesn’t see cycling as a hobby, a sport, a mission, let alone a way of life. They happen when it becomes nothing more than a convenient, quick, cheap way of getting about, with the unintended bonus being the fact that you get some exercise in the process.

It is not something that happens on its own, but requires a change of mindset and a change of infrastructure. Bike transportation systems take work. "They need planning, investment, and above all the political will to take space from motor vehicles- elements that can be all too rare."

In London, bike lanes are particularly political and divisive; one politician even blamed the recent terrorist attack on bike lanes. This review will be illustrated with some of the more bizarre tweets about bike lanes to come out of the city, mostly via Mark Treasure of the GB Cycling Embassy


Walker reiterates the point that I have made, that Mikael Colville-Andersen has made, that we are never going to get everyone out of their cars and on to bikes- and we don't have to. But if we just got the percentage up from the 2 percent he says is the average in the UK to, say the 25 percent that the Dutch achieve, it would make a huge difference in so many ways:

In public health

Many people are afraid to bike, thinking it dangerous. But like much of this book, when you look at the bigger picture, the hard data and aggregate numbers, you learn that "watching television can be far more dangerous than riding around in the truck-clogged streets of a major city." But in fact public health experts confirm this.

Here’s Dr. Adrian Davis, a British public health expert who is a world expert on how various forms of activity affect our health: “When people say cycling is dangerous, they’re wrong. Sitting down—which is what most of the population does far too much of—that’s the thing that’s going to kill you.”

In reducing road deaths

But in most of the UK and North America, cycling is a lot more dangerous than it should be, not only because of a lack of cycling infrastructure, but a conscious effort by the motoring world to get bikes off the roads, and to create a culture of “normalization”:

Even in the relatively cosseted modern world of richer countries, where fatal epidemics are rare and bad, and workplace injuries a cause for lengthy investigation, killing or maiming someone on the roads is still seen as tragic but inescapable. It is, to use a ubiquitous and linguistically poisonous term, an “accident.”

Walker shows how since the thirties, Britons have been trained, literally like animals, to keep out of the road. In one shocking 1947 book condemning the motoring culture of the time, J.S Dean, author of Murder Most Foul, described how pedestrians had to be educated, taught that if they were hit or killed it was their own fault.

“Put the idea of death and destruction deep into their minds,” he wrote. “Never let them forget it. Fill their lives with it. Teach them fear. Make them frightened and keep them frightened.”

distracted walking poster© University of Regina School of Nursing

And as we know from these nurses in Regina and policemen from Florida, this is still the lie, the message, the technique used today.

Walker covers in much greater detail, and with much better writing, the issues we have tried to in TreeHugger about the role of bikes in our cities. There is a great quote from New York bike activist Paul Steely White that one can only wish was standard planning dogma, especially in Toronto where I live:

Paul Steely White believes it is high time cycling infrastructure becomes viewed “not as an optional amenity that is open to local veto, but really as a necessary public safety improvement that we now make in these modern times.” He argues persuasively: “It would be akin in the time of cholera saying, ‘We’ve got this engineering approach that involves separating our water from our sewage, and it involves digging up the street—what do you think about this? Are you okay with this?’

“There’s a way to design streets now that kill many fewer people and are much fairer, more equitable, and more efficient, and we’re just going to do it, dammit.”

Walker then covers the other issues, from the obligatory discussion of helmets in a chapter titled “If Bike Helmets Are the Answer, You’re Asking the Wrong Question.” He includes Nick Hussey’s great line about the argument, (also on TreeHugger here)

“That’s more or less what the infamous helmet debate has become,” Hussey lamented. “Shouty strangers shouting at other shouty strangers for choices that don’t affect the first shouty stranger’s life. It’s a bit weird, definitely a waste of energy, and not a fun place for cyclists to share space in.”


Walker goes on to explain why people on bikes sometimes break the rules, (and notes that they really don’t do it much more often than anyone else, also on TreeHugger here) and why he is not crazy about so many of the crazy Kickstarters for electronic bike accessories (I don’t think he likes my Zackee Turn-signal gloves). He does see the benefit of e-bikes, particularly with an aging population. “..they can help older people stay mobile even beyond the age where they feel unable to drive.“ Like me, but not like the Province of Ontario where I live, he sees a big difference between a little boost to a bike and a big electric scooter.

In a previous post, I described Elon Musk’s presentation of The Future We Want. In fact, Peter Walker’s vision of the future is a lot more realistic and accessible to a lot more people. He asks a few experts about their visions of the future; Klaus Bondam of the Danish Cycling Union: “The private ownership of a car—that will end in the next ten to fifteen years. I think it’s going to be a combination of shared cars, of city cars, of public transport, bicycles, electric bicycles, of freight distribution by electric cargo bikes.”

Janette Sadik-Khan: “Transportation is almost going through a Copernican revolution,” she said. “There’s a tremendous change in understanding that our streets are incredible assets, and that they’ve been underutilized for generations. The potential is really hidden in plain sight.”


And the last word goes to Peter Walker, who describes the best reasons to ride a bike instead of a Tesla:

Cycling is also by far the best way to get to know a town or city, fast enough to cover a lot of ground, but sufficiently sedate and open that you can take in what’s there, stare through shop fronts, observe the gradual ascent of new buildings, lament the disappearance of old ones, smile at toddlers, wave to someone you know.

Electric cars won’t make better cities, but bikes really can. Thanks for a terrific book, Peter Walker.

Tags: Bike-Friendly World | Bikes | Biking | Book Reviews

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