Sunday 20 October 2013


Last night I sat with the kids watching “Hulk” on TV.  It is a film adaptation of the old Marvel Comics’ “The Incredible Hulk” – you know, mild-mannered scientist Dr David Banner performs an experiment on himself which goes wrong, so that whenever he becomes mildly annoyed he turns into a huge, green, rampaging monster wrecking property all around but somehow managing not to hurt people, even the bad guys?  I assume the author may have taken his inspiration from the classic Robert Louis Stevenson novel “Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde”.
Dial back 12 hours, and I am driving to my weekly Saturday French class.  This is one of only two car outings I regularly do every week (the other is to the gym – don’t ask).  With irregular or ad-hoc outings I probably average four outings a week in the car.  I spend more time on my bike than in the car, although of course I travel less far.
At its very best, with clear roads, in the countryside and with a nice view to admire in front of me, I view driving with mild dislike.  At its worst, in cities, busy motorways, or congestion, I loathe it.  Yesterday was at the worst end.  Forewarned that there was a major tailback on the A3, I decided to take the back roads to Guildford, to my French tutor Anne-Sophie.
Needless to say, the back roads were also congested, thanks to all the motorists rat-running looking for ways around the traffic jam on the main route.  Stuck in slow moving traffic, with queues at every light and junction, I feel blood pressure rising and red mist descending.  I start to mutter angrily, starting off with fairly mild stuff – “Come on, Grand-dad” – and gradually the density of expletives increases.  I am beginning to feel slightly ill, and I start to think “I wouldn’t have to put up with this on my bicycle”.
Indeed I would not.  I could, in principle, get to Anne-Sophie’s place by train.  Guildford is the first stop on my daily commuter journey.  I could cycle down to the station, use my season ticket (valid seven days, used five, per week) get off at Guildford and walk up to her house.  It would take a little longer  - perhaps 40 minutes instead of 25 – but I could read, or relax, on the 15-20 minute train journey.
So why don’t I?  And why do I get irritated about driving?  In either of those respects I am far from alone – I see impatient or aggressive driver behaviour in others every day.  There is probably some psychological research on it, no doubt involving cramming more and more rats into the same small cage.  I see people making car journeys when alternatives would be barely less convenient and certainly cheaper, especially if as so often you have bought the ticket already.
I don’t know, but thinking about my car journey and my impatience and frustration with it, I can’t help thinking of that other famous saying of Robert Louis Stevenson:
"Little do ye know your own blessedness; for to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”

Tuesday 1 October 2013

Why do I cycle to the shops?

The 2011 census figures revealed a significant variation in cycling modal share across the UK.  The average was a miserable 2% or so, and obviously the share was even lower in many places – that is after all the implication of an average value – while some municipalities stand out as having quite a healthy share.  Cambridge, York, Oxford, Gosport (where?  I hear you ask), Hackney, Bristol have double figure percentages of those who travel to work using a bicycle for that journey.

But the Census only reports commuter journeys.  It has no information on other utility cycling journeys – to school for example, or to the shops, pub, cinema or, dare I say, the gym.  If it did, I am sure the result would look pretty miserable, even in the places listed above.

This form of utility cycling is probably largely the preserve of the committed, those who are Making a Point, capital m, capital p. 

But I cycle to the shops, or at least at weekends when I am not at work our household shopping trips are done on two wheels.  Why?

Is it because it is good exercise, and I need the exercise?  Well, yes, I suppose that is a factor – I can feel virtuous about the fact that I am doing something to maintain my fitness, and I can feel clever about the fact that I am multi-tasking, doing two useful things with the same ration of precious time in a busy world.  Of course, I get the same smug feeling about using a bike as part of my travel to work, riding at either end of my train journey into Waterloo.

Is it because I am saving money by not consuming fuel and paying parking charges?  I suppose so – but I am fortunately not one of those whom the RAC Foundation describe as being in “transport poverty” spending 25% or more of their disposable incomes on motoring.  Note that the RAC is evidently pleased that Gorgeous Georgie has again frozen fuel duties, and promises to continue doing so until the next election, to help “the hard working (or is it hard-pressed?  I am never sure what is the difference) motorist”, but is apparently insensitive to the fact that for low-income people, non-fuel costs like insurance and maintenance still account for 70% of their motoring costs, while fuel duty accounts for perhaps 15%, and for more affluent motorists, driving newer more expensive cars, the influence of duty is even less.  No, luckily 80p for an hour’s parking down town makes no meaningful dent in my wallet.

Is it because I save on carbon emissions, greenhouse effect, NO2 (my car is a diesel so this is a factor) and carbon monoxide, not to mention congestion, noise pollution and potential road danger to others?  I guess – I certainly don’t mind the smug feeling I get from “saving the planet”.

However, the main reason I cycle to the shops is that it is easier, and quicker, than driving.

I live 1½ miles from our town centre, an ideal distance on a bike.  Thankfully, the route is reasonably quiet and safe.  The town centre is poorly endowed with cycle parking but as I am in a minority of not much more than one at the moment, it is adequate.

Driving however is a different ballgame altogether.  The small time advantage for getting there is totally lost hunting for a parking space, even if the road is not already jammed up by all those other motorists hunting for a parking space.  This especially can be a problem because in this prosperous town motorists would far sooner find an on-street space (free) than shell out 50-80p for an hour in one of the borough car parks.  In fact illegal parking on double yellow lines has got completely out of control, so that West St, one of the two principal shopping streets, is reduced to a single lane for two-way traffic.  The Surrey Fire Brigade has expressed concern to the council because this street is its principal route out of its fire station responding to emergencies. 

The congestion spreads, around the corner into the High Street which is also a main road, the A286.  Traffic regularly backs up behind cars wanting to turn into West St but unable to because oncoming traffic has obstructed them.

In the main car park, closest to the Waitrose supermarket, motorists regularly drive round and round, going the wrong way through a one-way system, hunting for a space to suddenly become available.  Just because it is about 50 metres closer to the supermarket exit than the other main car park.

I can load up a full weekend’s provisions for a family of four in two wire baskets hooked over my rear rack.  The baskets double as shopping baskets in the supermarket.  They can get quite heavy, which means I have to watch that the bike doesn’t do a wheelie before I set my weight in the saddle, and the gentle climb home feels steeper, but nothing I can’t manage.  I even get a 60p rebate from my bill, to compensate for the car park costs that I haven’t incurred!

Having become involved recently in our “Localism” project, I have been impressed to discover that many of my neighbours would like to do the same as me, if only they felt safe and comfortable doing so, and are arguing for speed reductions and dedicated infrastructure to make that possible.

Not much chance of that while fat c*nts like Eric Pickles move heaven and earth to remove all obstacles to “hard working people” driving a few hundred metres and parking on yellow lines to pick up a newspaper.