If you ride a bike – and most sensible people do – you must have pondered ‘how do people without bikes manage?’
I can imagine the details of avelopes‘ daily agendas – waiting for buses or trains, paying for taxis, enmeshed in the troublesome uncertainties of motor-dependence – but their emotional lives are a mystery; so much patience so little imagination.
The parallel question – why don’t they ride bikes? – generates a lot of heat in the toyland world of bicycle politics. Some ideologues like to imagine a general reason why more people don’t cycle, overlooking the fact that most English people don’t need a reason not to travel by bike, any more than they need a reason not to eat horse meat. They don’t do it because they’re normal and normal people don’t do it.
There are certainly English people who’d like to travel by bike but are unable to because of the prevailing motorcentric conditions. Children and young teenagers in particular have their autonomous movement restricted by a system that allows reckless behaviour in public space by the motor-dependent. It’s tempting to over-estimate this suppressed demand. The theory that a large section of the non-cycling public are in a precipitous pre-cycling state – only waiting for conditions to change so they can emerge like butterflies from chrysalides – is attractive because it suggests that flicking some national policy switch will release a popular wave of cycle-travel. A wave that will resolve the persistent political conflict around who owns the road and what streets are for, conflict that’s likely to intensify as we grope toward an exit strategy for motor-dependence.
Meeting thousands of people on the point of taking up cycling has taught me the limits of generalisation. Some introduce themselves by saying:- “Of course I’m never going to ride on the road – I just want to go round the park with my daughter for exercise”, others with:- “I need to learn to ride a two-wheeler because I want to get a motor-scooter.” And everyone knows motorcycles are really dangerous.
BSOs definitely provide a barrier to many at the decisive moment of taking up cycling. I’ve run road-side clinics in some parts of East London where all you see are unserviceable, hardly rideable bicycle shaped objects. Products that weren’t designed to put people off cycling, but might as well have been.
I would never be bold enough to rank – “I’d like to cycle but I bought a bike and it fell to bits in two weeks” – against other stated causes of avelopia but it certainly exists as a significant practical barrier, a reason from somebody who tried, not a justification from someone who wouldn’t dream of it.
Many (most?) English people never think about riding a bike. If they were to say:- ‘Oh my God I’ll never ride a bike!” That would be progress, at least they’d entertained the possibility. When others are passive on subjects that we care about there’s a temptation to project our feelings onto them. The fact that – in all the hot air generated, all the green ink spilled – on the mysterious subject of why more English people don’t ride bikes for travel, the BSO question receives exactly zero consideration, may confirm a suspicion that most theorising on the subject results from this projection.