Politics in Motion : Londoners on BikesCorrespondence Bicycles Monthly highlights Urban Cycling
Cycling used to be a little bit deviant. We used to wait – a few of us – at traffic lights on sunny days, and alone on rainy ones. People on bikes were often a bit different, or at least from the margins: environmentalists, aspiring pro riders, people with little money or, at the very least, a very British type of eccentric. In London that’s started to change – slowly at first, and now ever faster. The city’s residents have started to demand air quality that doesn’t kill them, transport options that don’t cost an arm and a leg, and – very often – simply roads to cycle on safely. Cycling now says no more about a Londoner’s identity than the fact that they want a nice, convenient way to get around their city.
In turn, London cycle campaigns have begun to point out that Amsterdam and Copenhagen were not always pro-bike places, and Seville and San Francisco have also done plenty to show that pro-bike cities don’t have to be a northern European thing. So now those campaigns face new questions. If cyclists are no longer only those people that are a little bit deviant, or at least quirky, will they still be the same sort of people who’ll sit down to block a busy road in order to demand better provisions for bikes? We should be able to take good, safe bicycle infrastructure for granted, but if people actually do, will we ever be given it, or will we lose the things we’ve fought for? The cycling community used to be so strong partly because it was small. We always wanted it to grow, and now it has, so what comes next for bicycles in our city, and do we lose our community?
Londoners on Bikes was a response to some of these quandaries. It is a voting bloc of cyclists, telling the candidates for Mayor of London that people want to ride bikes, and that those people are also voters. Riding a bicycle in a city built for cars (despite the fact that only 30% of Londoners own a car) was always itself a small political act, but it should never have been a dangerous one. Nobody should have to face the news that somebody they love is at hospital, and not at home, just because they chose to cycle to work. More than that, nobody should have to sit on a cramped, expensive bus or train carriage, when they’d rather be cycling but are afraid of being harassed, aggressed or injured for doing so.
There were regular cycling charities who championed these same goals, but – as charities – their hands were always tied at elections; they were barred from being as political or as determined for change as many cyclists wanted. Londoners on Bikes is a group of everyday Londoners who, at election time, give up evenings for the belief that a city built for bikes and people would be a better one to live in, for everybody. Londoners on Bikes give out fliers at junctions, attend hustings, write to mayoral candidates and make the case for an improved city that does more to accommodate cycling. Riding a bicycle in an urban area, whether London or elsewhere, used to feel like a tiny act of rebellion. These days when you pull away from the lights on a spring afternoon, it’s more like you’re joining a revolution … one in which everyone is on the same side.
It used to seem to me that cyclists were the world’s idealists. So if more people are cycling, does that mean: that your average cyclist has become more normal and less idealist, or that (my preferred understanding) everyone is an idealist at heart, and the bicycle helps bring it out of them. Is the bicycle an idealism-generating contraption, perhaps if only for its ability to show us how quick, efficient and graceful we can be, whereas the rest of our lives we are required simply to plod about. The Italian cyclist, Fausto Coppi, was always said to be somewhat awkward and hunkered off of the bicycle, whereas on it his pedalling cadence and ease was thought of as a motion set in perfect proportions. From my own experience, cycling across continents, the bicycle made the world around me feel so gently humbling, and always very human. On a different scale, the same happens when cycling in a city … we need our cities to be human, and in urban spaces that were built for cars, cycling will always be political.
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