Cycling gives us kudos, especially at this time of year. Out there in the cold and moving under our own steam – zero emission, no pollution – who wouldn’t think we’re doing a good deed? On top of that, it is a mode of transport that makes incredibly efficient use of road space (it is 100% occupied every time it is used!). If you cycle, there should be cause enough to feel a little smug about your contribution to the environment. Perhaps, as I heard somewhere on the radio, cyclists now occupy the superior moral ground while driving has become the new smoking? It seems to go without saying that we are more environmentally aware than your average Joe: more conscious of our surroundings so keen to preserve them (not the London grime, mind), using fewer resources, healthier so less of a burden on society. We’re green heroes!
Personally, and putting aside how much fun it is, cycling is a logical step and, although that wasn’t my initial motivation, it is directly linked to my concern with treading lightly on the Earth and using sparingly our dwindling resources. I would find it utterly absurd to drive to a nature reserve, for example. Plus, for me, less is more. I find the idea of a simple, low impact lifestyle extremely appealing (no insurance, no parking tickets, no bus timetables, no MOTs, no waiting…) and am never tempted to go for ‘three for the price of two’ offers when I only need one. There is of course a limit to this train of thought: no-one could really argue that the top cycling event of the calendar, the Tour de France, is low impact! But I’ve come across many examples of thriftiness in cyclists, from a plastic bottle cut in half recycled into a mudguard to a friend who has made his bicycle lasts fifteen years in London. Reusing or recycling bicycle components, instead of sending them to landfill, giving them a new lease of life or even a second life through creativity, re-thinking the use of everyday objects and imaginative design, is a bit like getting the best of both worlds. We know where they’re coming from but they’re also new, taken out of their natural environment and transformed. I love being surrounded by all things bike in my house, be it a chain recycled as a brilliant photo frame, a chainring as a clock or tyres and inner tubes as belts and wallets by the lovely people at Brixton-based Velo-re.
But this point of view is not necessarily shared by people on bikes as a whole. If what attracts you to cycling is speed and performance, you will want the best that money can buy, the latest, lightest model and the most efficient specialised clothing. Some of us are big spenders and possibly not interested in where and how the materials were made. That cycling is good for the environment could be a bit of a cliché. A cycle tourist will fly to holiday destinations, a competitive cyclist will take her car to the sportive, and a mountain biker will erode bridleways that will incur costly repairs. As I’ve written here, buying a brand-new bicycle and parts manufactured in Asia is not exactly environmentally friendly but there are other options, such as buying second-hand. Our carbon-footprint depends on a lot more than our mode of transport: on our outlook on life.
But cycling helps. Mostly by omission, by what it doesn’t do: no damage to the roads; no increase in noise levels or air pollution; no wasteful use of space and resources (between 70 and 100 bicycles can be built with the resources required to build one car). The comparison with the motor vehicle here is implicit – in fact, comparing cycling and walking doesn’t work so well. The London Cycling Campaign once listed the mind-boggling costs of motoring to society: congestion, death and serious injury, air pollution, reduced public health, noise, CO2 emissions, severance of communities, degradation of landscape. One researcher may have somewhat perversely argued that as cyclists tend to live longer, they will end up using more energy over their lifetime. But in truth, cycling provides an invaluable alternative, not just to the way we get around but also to the way we go about our lives. Getting on a bike lets in a breath of fresh air and gives us a different perspective from that of the majority: hopefully it encourages us to think outside the box. And that can’t be a bad thing for the social environment we are part of.