Back to the future

Take a snapshot of today’s conditions and breaking the cultural, and physical, domination of the automobile seems like an impossible dream. In a longer historical context it may be safer to assume it’s inevitable?

“The Motorcar ended the countryside and substituted a new landscape in which the motor car was a sort of steeplechaser. At the same time the motor destroyed the city as a casual environment in which families could be reared. Streets, and even sidewalks, became too intense a scene for the casual interplay of growing up.  As the city filled with strangers, even next-door neighbors became strangers. This is the story of the motorcar, and it has not much longer to run.”

Marshall McLuhan 1964

2013 was a great Summer. Not just because I passed my big test (a subject I will almost certainly return to during the dark days of Winter) also because I can’t remember a formal Sunday ride which didn’t mingle with at least one other event. Everywhere it seems people are grappling with the – so far unanswered – question; how do you ride a bike?

Highlights included the twentieth  Start of Summertime Special…

…in April, which for some distance entwined with an  ‘epic sportive’ from Newmarket. The thrill of meeting other pilgrims enhanced by the knowledge that these neophytes were paying £28 for a 100 miles, while us leathery old-timers enjoyed 210 kms for £6.

In June the magnificent Three Coasts,…

…a nice little ride out of Mytholmroyd in the West Riding, included a sunny afternoon on the Fylde which – apart from ominous views of distant uplands – was like being in the Netherlands, pan flat with untold people of all ages out on their bikes.

People in cars seem to be getting used to sharing roads with blocks of happy pedalling pilgrims. Maybe not content – hyper-mobility and contentment don’t often go together – but at least resigned to relatively long periods moving at human-scale speeds. Perhaps the popularity, the ubiquity, of the new golf is finally eroding  the traditional view, that people on bikes are a low-status out-group?

Early this year 20 mph became the default speed limit in the London Borough of Islington and lately the City of London has declared it will follow.  The Borough of Haringey – which bestrides the jagged coast between bicycle paradise Inner London and the great doughnut of inaccessibility that is Outer London – is currently consulting on the subject. If you live in, ever pass through or visit this unwieldy administrative area feel free to chip-in here. The consultation runs until 31/10/13, why not fill in the questionnaire now?

Some may complain that 20 mile per hour speed limits are currently unenforced and, so widely ignored that they’re meaningless. I prefer to take a long-term perspective.

It’s worth remembering that the British state’s first reaction to the modern automobile was a universal speed limit of 20 mph under the Motor Car Act of 1903. The campaign to smash this restraint, led to the formation of the Automobile Association who undertook non-violent direct action to subvert enforcement. The AA sent paid scouts on push bikes to sabotage police activity by warning criminal drivers to slow down where there were speed-traps.

The 20 mph limit lasted until 1931 but in latter years it was so irrelevant that bus companies published timetables that could only be met by vehicles moving at illegal speed. Descent into the asocial brutality of mass motor dependence was marked by a long period where a 20 mph limit existed but was ignored by almost everybody. Perhaps progress to more efficient and convivial living systems will see the process reverse? Let’s get the 20 mph limit in, even if hardly anyone – police or sofa-jockeys – take much notice, then we can start nudging behavioural norms and the thinking that informs them. That’s what happened with drunk driving. It used to be normal, there was no legal limit for blood alcohol before 1967, now it is generally considered a menace to society and ‘criminal’ behaviour.

Occasionally when flogging down the Islington section of Green Lanes – the A105 – between Manor House and Clissold Park, where motor-traffic sometimes runs free and fast, I’m surprised to find a motor-vehicle, usually a rented van, maintaining a precise 32 kmph on the wide, open road with the big white ’20’s painted on it. It’s usually on a week-end morning and is – I suppose – just another bike fancier moving house?

One of the – many – good things about riding a bike is that you don’t have to worry too much about cars. The worst thing is probably having to listen – and maybe even offer a facsimile of sympathy – when primary victims of motor-dependance explain, at unnecessary length, their difficulties ‘getting through the traffic’ or finding somewhere to park their vacant saloons. It can be hard work trying to affect sincerity while you’re actually wondering how they manage to combine so much patience with so little imagination? It is – however – also currently true that motor traffic dominates a great deal of public space. We are all secondary victims of motor-dependance and the freedom – of children in particular – to travel autonomously is disastrously restricted.

In the 1980’s senior officers of the Department of Transport argued that it was illegal to put speed-humps on public roads. Now those little manifestations of conflicted motivation can be found all over the place. Armed only with a snapshot of today’s conditions, breaking the cultural, and physical, domination of the automobile seems an impossible dream. In a longer historical context it may be safer to assume the end of mass motor-culture is inevitable?

Marshall McLuhan may have under-estimated the longevity of motor-dependence, but most of his predictions seem to come true in the end. If you’re reading this in Seattle it’s probably not worth responding to the Haringey speed-limit consultation. But welcome to the Global Village.

It won’t happen by accident. There is work to be done. Go ride your bike and set a good example. And for people with a critique of the prevailing, inhuman, highway conditions, who lack the chutzpah to enjoy riding their bikes on roads shared with motor-traffic, there’s a new potential hobby; join a car club and put in some miles playing the radio while diligently observing the ‘new’ civilised speed limit.