There is a relatively new charity called Cycling Without Age which has an innovative way of bringing pleasure to the world. It enlists volunteers to take older people too frail to use a bike themselves for rides on cycle rickshaws. Originally started in Denmark in 2012, it now has branches in 30 nations.
The charity’s motto sums up one of the joys of cycling: “Everyone has the right to wind in their hair.” This sounds more evocative still in the original Danish: “Alle har ret til vind i håret.”
Often the debate around cycling, and why people do or don’t ride bikes, can become embroiled in slightly arcane and technical discussions about separated lanes, traffic light phasing and speed limits. But there’s another, vital dimension, one epitomized by that motto.
Yes, when I ride a bike it keeps me healthy and helps make London, where I live, a slightly less polluted, congested and dangerous place than it would otherwise be. That’s all important. But it’s not the main reason I do it.
I use a bike because it has a near-magical ability to get me to my chosen destination in a crowded city within a matter of a couple of minutes of when I expected, usually with a grin on my face. Arriving at work after cycling I am invigorated, awake, alive. Do it by train or bus, and it’s not the same.
Cycling keeps you in immediate, daily touch with the grip of the changing seasons, something that huddling in a coat to dash to a subway station, let alone driving a car, never permits. Preparing for a chilly winter ride is a reassuring ritual of assembling the various layers of coats, gloves and other essentials to keep you just about warm enough as you set off, knowing even slight exertion will soon get the blood flowing. A summer ride, the warm breeze pressing gently against you, is a more straightforward joy.
Walking carries many of the same benefits, but there is, of course, one big difference: you can travel much further on a bike. A three-mile crosstown trip will take up the best part of an hour on foot; get on a bike, and even a sedate cyclist will struggle to spend more than about 20 minutes on the trip.
Cycling is by far the best way to really get to know a town or city. It’s rapid enough to cover a lot of ground, yet sufficiently sedate and open enough that you can take in what’s there, stare through shop fronts, observe the gradual ascent of new buildings, lament the disappearance of old ones, smile at toddlers, and wave to someone you know.
Unlike cars or even public transport, riding a bike helps you interact with your environment in a spontaneous way. That’s why, contrary to the common fear of shop owners, more bike lanes are good for businesses. Cyclists can’t carry as much in one go, but studies show they tend to spend more overall—stopping on the way home, or on a whim, able to make a quick detour without worrying about parking spaces, or where the nearest bus or rail stop is.
This is not to say public transport, let alone walking, have no role to play in towns and cities. But the paradox of cycling is the way a technology which has stayed fundamentally unchanged for more than a century is so well suited to a modern era of unprecedented urbanization.
The bike has a unique capacity to work with the streets, not fight against them, to complement people, not seal them away, or make them suddenly a mortal danger to others. A town or city rebuilt for cycling is one no longer created for the benefit of anonymous, speeding metal boxes, often carrying a single person for a laughably short distance. It is, instead, one intended for the needs of human beings.
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