This week at work we were discussing bike safety, and it suddenly struck me that this is only the second time in my life I have not been cycling to work regularly. In the UK, I often chose not to use my bike (I’m a bit of a fair weather eco-warrior), but I always could if I wanted, except when we made the silly decision to live in Winchester and commute to Uxbridge every day. Sometimes it was just plain silly to get to work any other way – at Worthy Down, we lived 3 minutes’ bike ride from my office. In Wales it was the best way to get around the vast base of St Athan, except on the occasion I missed the notice about the detour in force, and found myself cycling on an active airfield. Halfway along the Southern Perimeter Road there was a telephone on a pole, and it was ringing. I stopped and answered it, and heard the Air Traffic Control Officer, asking me just what the hell I thought I was doing?
In the past I have cycled 20 miles to my boyfriend’s house every day in the school holidays (he couldn’t come to me – he was a classical musician and far too sensitive to do anything so physical as cycling), I cycled to college, I cycled steadily to the pub and unsteadily home again, I cycled when pregnant, and I cycled with children in seats behind. At one time, my husband cycled with one daughter on the Tagalong, another on a crossbar seat, and a third in a back carrier – 4 people on one bike! Move over, Chinese State Circus!
When I mentioned this at the meeting, the general consensus was that cycling is not a part of the Canadian culture. Vancouver is one of the most environmentally aware cities in the world, and there are excellent facilities for cyclists, but everyone agrees that “it’s not like Europe”. They hold countries like Denmark and Holland up as ideals, and hope that one day we can match those levels of bike-use. There are many bike paths, but when the roads are frequently potholed and patched and raised by tree roots, the bikes paths cannot be much better. The weather is a factor – constant grey drizzle in the winter makes it hard to cycle, and hard for drivers to see cyclists, although summers can be great. When cycling is not part of the culture, it means that many drivers did not start out on bikes, and therefore have little understanding of how a bike moves, how a cyclist may react or how much room to give. A driver who has never ridden a bike on the road does not know that the cyclist will avoid stopping at all costs, especially on a hill, because the energy it takes to restart is so draining. When we are sat in a traffic jam, warm and cosy, in our heated pods, we forget that the cyclist outside in the drizzle has just slogged up a hill and is really pissed that we have not left enough room to allow her to pass and keep going. Add the fact that the cars are very big, even if they are not moving as fast as they might do in Europe, and there are lorries and trucks like you would not believe, and the result is not good for a cyclist.
The future, however, is looking better. Most city plans are including more consideration for bikes, and there is a growing understanding that a bike is a good way to commute. We will continue to teach our children how to not just ride a bike, but ride to survive on the roads, and hope that they will inspire others to follow their example.