Friday 29 November 2013

The cost of travel

The other day I stumbled on this webpage on the site of the Money Advice Service.

The Money Advice Service, which advertises as “Ask MA” on TV, is a Government sponsored, impartial and free advice service on personal financial matters.

Now I suppose it is my good fortune that, due to some academic ability and years of hard work, but also  - more than both of those together - simply buckets of good luck, I have spent years in an interesting and lucrative job.  I am fortunate that I don’t really need to “Ask MA” myself, but I wholeheartedly applaud their aims, providing counsel to people who have debt problems – my mother, for many years a volunteer counsellor with Citizens’ Advice Bureau, told me that by far the biggest source of problems brought in by their clients was difficulties with debt – and advising people on how to make their limited money go further.  So that they could afford to eat and heat their homes at the same time, for example.

But what am I to make of this?  Their advice on travel seems to me to be heavily weighted towards car use – not only most of the page, but also the whole top part of the page is devoted to a travel mode which nearly half of all households have no access to, and no doubt among those who need to "Ask MA" the most, a good deal more than that.  Advice about public transport or active travel is there, but right at the bottom.

And in any case, their advice is really tinkering around the edges.  First up is “Shop around for cheaper car insurance”.  Well, doesn’t everybody do that, even overpaid gits like me?  How much impact does it have on the overall cost of car ownership?

And then there is “Cut cost of fuel – saving just 5p a litre…could save £100 a year”.  No shit, Sherlock!  But where are you going to find this cheaper fuel, and how many litres will you burn driving around looking for it?

In fact, there follow several suggestions on how you could improve your fuel consumption – like not driving too fast, or braking/accelerating hard, and making sure your tyres are correctly inflated.  I know these work, as I can see that the rolling-average MPG display on our car dashboard can drop about 5% when I am driving instead of my other half, but  this is hardly a game changer, is it?

The one glaring omission in their advice is this:  first of all, before anything else, ask yourself - does this journey really need to be made by car?  How far is it?  How much weight or volume of stuff will you have to transport?  If you are just “popping in” to your local 7-11 a half-mile down the road for a pint of milk or a newspaper, why are you even thinking of driving?  Couldn’t you walk instead?  Save yourself all of the fuel that journey would normally take!  Save yourself paying for parking! Quite possibly save some time not having to hunt around for a parking space.  Get a bit of colour in your cheeks!

And if the journey is more than a mile, but less than say 3 or 4 miles (let’s not over-reach ourselves at the start) why not cycle it?

The site does, to be fair, cover use of public transport and cycling, but the latter is covered in a bare two lines.  There is no discussion of the alternatives to short car journeys.  There is no mention of the lamentable fact that nearly a quarter of all car journeys are under a mile, half are under three miles and two thirds are under five miles – all distances which are ideal for cycling, and indeed up to 2 or 3 miles are probably quicker by bike.  There is no mention of the health benefits, which could also save you money or reduce your risk of sickness absences which might muck up your overtime earnings or even in the worst cases pose an existential threat to your very livelihood.

For a Government sponsored, free unbiased and independent service, would you not expect better than this?

Friday 22 November 2013

An infamous anniversary

This post really has nothing to do with cycling.

50 years ago today, 22nd November 1963 (also a Friday) US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated, in Dallas, Texas.

I first heard of it the following morning.  The shots were fired at about 1pm, Dallas time – 7pm UK time – and death was confirmed about an hour later.  By the time the news percolated to the BBC, as an eight year old child I was no doubt tucked up in bed.

They say everyone remembers where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had died.  In my case, certainly, that is true.

I was sitting in the back seat of my parents’ car when I heard it on the radio.  My father was driving, and my mother, brother and sister were not with us.  We were on the High Street in Lee-on-Solent, just passing the library.  I asked “Daddy – who is President Kennedy?” and my father told me that he was president of America.  I don’t recall feeling any great emotion over this news, but it was plain to hear that it was a truly momentous event so it must have struck me somehow.

The car was a Morris Oxford, sky blue, registration XXB 273.

It was unusual in those days for cars to have radios, and in fact ours didn’t either, but it did have a shelf on the dashboard to rest your home transistor radio, and an aerial lead to plug into the radio’s aerial socket – a fairly common arrangement then.  I assume my father had it installed because he used to drive down every week to his posting at the Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose, not far from Falmouth in Cornwall, and would appreciate having something to listen to.  (Driving then was even more male-dominated than it is now, and married women must have been used to not having use of a car when their husbands were at work)

I don’t really recall what we were doing in the car, or where we were going (it was a Saturday, so not to school) or why the rest of the family wasn’t with us.  What remained etched in my mind was just the scene.  How likely is that I would recall such trivial details, so long after the event, if the event itself  had not made a profound impression?

On a lighter note.

Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the first screening of “Doctor Who”.  The first episode was in black and white, and starred William Hartnell.  The Doctor had an assistant even then, but I don’t remember who.  As a scene-setter, the Tardis departed 60s London and arrived in what was evidently the early stone age, outside a structure which might have been inspired by the houses of Fred & Wilma Flintstone and Barney & Betty Rubble.  Which is not to say that Dr Who had the comic overtones which it started to acquire in later years.  As an eight year old, I was quite frightened.
I understand the BBC have made an anniversary episode linking back to William Hartnell, played on this occasion by David Bradley (Filch, in the Harry Potter movies) as Hartnell is long since deceased.  Bradley is a fair likeness, if a little craggier and somehow harder in appearance.

Who can tell me, in which episode did the Daleks first appear?

Answer: Episode 2.

Thursday 14 November 2013

Going to the Library

Off today to the British Venture Capital Association’s Tax, Legal & Regulatory Conference at the British Library.

I am sure the excitement must be almost too much for you!

Anyway, first thing this morning I was checking the weather forecast to see if rain was expected during the day.   I will ride my Brompton to work in any weather, all year round – except heavy snow when it gets too slippery – but for commuting I would be wearing waterproof trousers and jacket if necessary.  The BVCA TLR conference is very much a suit & tie affair, so I had to be able to ride in said suit & tie, for which I need no expected or recent rain – a wet road kicking up spray from passing HGVs is if anything worse than water falling out of the sky.

I have to say that it was with some apprehension that I contemplated today’s ride, reflecting on the events of the last eight days, in which there have been five tragic fatalities of cyclists at the hands of buses or HGVs – and one miraculous escape when a car turned across the path of a lady cyclist, flipping onto its side in the process (how on earth could that happen, on a busy London street with a 30mph limit?) and her plastic hat apparently was able to bear the 1.5 tonne weight of said car resting on her head and “save her life”. 

(I submit, m’lud, that what saved her life was the several public spirited members of the public, including some whose names would no doubt have the Daily Mail slavering about immigrants and islamist fanatics and all their other hag-ridden fantasies, who bodily lifted the car enough for her to wriggle free).

But, with dry roads, no anticipated rain, and a route which mercifully involves no Cycle Superhighways and goes nowhere near Bow Roundabout, although it does go closer than is comfortable to Kings Cross, I set off.
Almost all of the route takes me through the Bloomsbury district of London – High Holborn, Red Lion Street, Lamb’s Conduit Street (no motor vehicles) and then Brunswick Square and Judd Street.  I finally emerge at Euston Road but fortunately my destination is literally just across the street so the logical thing to do is walk across as a pedestrian when the traffic lights go red.  That isn’t particularly pleasant though – there is no green man at the lights, the red-phase for traffic in each direction is short, and you can’t cross in one stage, instead you must wait on the central reservation for another break in the traffic.

From unfold to re-fold, including waiting for every red light to turn green – natch – and the walk across Euston Rd and through the courtyard at the Library, took under 15 minutes, at a leisurely, suit-wearing pace.  Coming back, with a very slight downhill and a brisk, cool following wind, took less than 10.  There is no way I could have done that in a taxi, much less so by tube.

So, while reflecting on the personal tragedies of the last week, I am still convinced that my bicycle is the best and fastest way of going about my business, professional or personal.  I would, though, like some #space4cycling.

You can support the #space4cycling campaign by joining LCC – look here.