Happy New Year!
2019 has been a year of highs and lows, and one of the many things I’m looking forward to putting behind me, is having to keep a record of every mile I’ve cycled and driven in pursuit of my 2019 resolution!
In case you missed the original blog, or the message that made it onto Radio 5 Live (!!!), I pledged in 2019 to travel more miles by pedal power than car power. The aim was not to become some cycling machine, but rather to be more conscious of my car use and to hopefully reduce my carbon footprint.
But in so doing, I achieved so much more. For one thing, I have become more critical of our bordering-on-the-pathological relationship with motor vehicles. Why do we expend fuel circling the car park waiting for a space, when we could have parked just a short way up the road and taken a quick walk to the shop? Why don’t school run parents see the irony in complaining about how difficult it is to get parked while waiting to pick up their children? Why am I met with hostility when I ask a driver of an idling car to turn off their engine outside the entrance to the neonatal hospital? How can we simultaneously decry the loss of children playing in the streets after school while aspiring to be a two or three-car family, or choosing to buy a car that’s larger than we need it to be?
It’s made me look at our relationship with roads differently. Why has it become normalised for our roads, which make up huge swathes of our environment, to become places to be feared? If all motor vehicles are controlled by humans, the vast majority of whom display no homicidal tendencies in the rest of life, then why should we be conditioned to fear crossing the road? Playing near the road? Cycling on the road? Since when was the car the king of the road? You may have read of ample experiences I’ve documented in my Banterludes, of aggressive driving by people who presumably you wouldn’t feel threatened by if you walked past them in the street or sat at the next table from them at a restaurant. Sometimes it feels like in wearing the camouflage of a big metal jacket drivers become depersonalised, meaning that much like those who hide behind a keyboard to troll online with things they’d never say to a person’s face, somehow being in a car makes us act more aggressive than we really are.
The name Banterlude was designed to be tongue-in-cheek but actually some of those experiences could have resulted in serious injuries. If you’re between 5 and 35 and living in England, the greatest threat of death to you after suicide and accidental poisoning, is involvement in a road traffic collision1. Yet we accept these risks in our pursuit of more freedom, more travel, more speed and more convenience in our lives. In fact, more than that – we expect to be able to scroll through our Instagram feeds, text our partner to tell them we’re on our way home, pick our radio playlist or eat our sandwiches to offset the boredom of being in control of a tonne or two of projectile metal [in excess of three tonnes if you drive a Range Rover] – the most lethal weapon that most of us are ever likely to handle. Our cars are constantly being upgraded to make us feel comfortable at faster speeds, to feel we have more space while we’re taking up more of the road, more gadgets to distract us from the task of driving.
The challenge has made me re-evaluate our relationship with energy. My current commute to work is about seven miles long and involves at least four hills. It’s bloody hard work, creates a lot of body heat, and it’s meant I’ve had to seriously up my calorie intake in order to keep my weight on. When I drive that same journey it’s effortless and I usually need to turn on the heating in order to keep my body warm. The equivalent energy to make that journey by car – no, much more energy, because hauling a car up a hill takes more energy than a person on a bike – doesn’t come from nowhere. That energy has been sent to us by a behemoth ball of fire in the sky and stored up in the earth in the bones of our ancestors over millennia, and if you frame it in terms of how much effort it takes to run or cycle, then we can appreciate that it’s huge amount of energy. This last year I’ve started to think of nonessential journeys in terms of whether they’d be worth the effort to cycle there. In previous years I might not have thought twice about driving back out to the shops to buy an ingredient for a recipe I want to cook, for example. By thinking about the journey in terms of how much effort it would require to cycle, I often find that I can make do without it or else put it off to be done when I’m making a similar journey anyway.
Finally, the challenge has made me reflect on how I think about my body. By no means have I ever been a Lycra warrior and it’s not unheard of for me to have a hissy fit when the hubs has dragged me up one hill too many or I’ve got bum-ache from the saddle because I refused that day to engage in such weird behaviour as going commando in bib shorts or smearing my private parts with chamois cream. But little by little I’ve improved my fitness and lost my fear of an incline. Indeed, it’s often now an opportunity to seek a beautiful vista at the top, or to warm my core on a chilly morning. On my own with the headphones in and listening to my Best of Hot Chip playlist, I can hit a cadence in my own little world, a daily private spin class with fresher air than any gym. My legs and core feel stronger. I can outrun everyone else at work on my way to a crash call. I’ve found myself wanting to look after my body more so I can keep enjoying life by bicycle. I can eat a second breakfast safe in the knowledge that I’m fuelling my body rather than indulging it. We come back from our cycling trips in calorie deficit, rather than feeling bloated from holiday overeating (which we do a fair bit of too). This year I’ve covered whole islands by bike, rode more than the distance from Dundee to London in a week on a holiday. All this cycling stamina was built up by daily commute and errand rides and the occasional longer jaunt at the weekend.
I’m not naive enough to suggest that we can all live without private motor vehicles, or that some people don’t need to rely on cars more due to work, infirmity or rural location, for example. Or that anyone could just jump on a bike tomorrow. But I do believe that we need to change the way we think about travel and the way we organise our lives if we’re going to reduce congestion and air quality in our cities, improve opportunities for children to play in our neighbourhoods and reduce our collective carbon footprint. This will likely make life less convenient, at least for a while as we adjust our schedules and expectations and maybe build up our fitness and confidence.
Fundamentally we’re all opposed to change because it makes life more difficult in the short term. Most people I speak to agree that we need to do something to tackle climate change. The trouble is, ‘we’ often means the neighbours, the government, industry, or somewhere else like China or Brazil. Actually we have more power than we think. We have the soft power of influence over others. In democratic countries who live by a capitalist model we also have the power to shape our society by how we choose to spend our money.
If you’re feeling inspired to hop on a bike but need to build up your cycle confidence on roads or otherwise, you can get in touch with cycling charities Cycling UK or Cycling Scotland for practical advice on acquiring a bike, setting up your bike, and finding adult cycling confidence sessions near you. Cycling UK produce a free app called Essential Cycling Skills, available for Android and Apple. The app offers guidance on bike maintenance, using your bike and road positioning on a bike.
But enough of my spiritual journey. To the cold, hard stats. Despite my nihilistic predictions in January 2019, it turns out I absolutely SMASHED IT with stats as follows:
Car / private motorised vehicle mileage this year: 4852
Bicycle mileage this year: 5708
And so to the 2020 challenge:
~ TREES VERSUS DIESEL ~
This year I’m going to attempt to offset my carbon footprint from 2019’s car journeys by planting trees. According to an online carbon calculator, the carbon emissions I racked up last year by private motor vehicle is equivalent to 0.95 tonnes of CO2 equivalent. It’s difficult to find out from the Internet how many trees I’d need to plant to offset that, but one website suggests that 5-6 trees would absorb the carbon over a 40-year period. I’m not sure how I’m going to do something equivalent in a year, but I’ll keep you posted…
If you know a thing or two about carbon capture or reforesting, please leave your advice in the comments section.
Meanwhile, I’ll continue to talk about my adventures on two pedals!
5 January, 2020
 Public Health England (2017) Health Profile for England Chapter 2: major causes of death and how they have changed. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/health-profile-for-england/chapter-2-major-causes-of-death-and-how-they-have-changed#trends-in-leading-causes-of-death (Accessed 04 January 2020).