What is it that turns a non-cyclist into a cyclist?
In many people’s minds Cambridge and students and cycling are inextricably intertwined. My experience was that cycling is far from being a universal activity among students. I think it’s an assumption that does Cambridge cycling a disservice and I may write about it in future. In fact it was three years after I graduated before I took to two wheels.
I didn’t cycle as a student because everything I needed was within walking distance and I had time to walk.
I started to cycle when I needed to cover distances of more than a couple of miles and in too short a time to walk.
That was it.
But why not drive?
I didn’t have a license and I didn’t have a car. Neither would be quick or cheap to come by and I needed to travel in the meantime.
And I’d never really liked driving. Unlike some of my contemporaries I was in no hurry to book my first driving lesson for my 17th birthday. I was past 18 before my parents started booking lessons for me. A mismatch of my instructor’s teaching style and my learning style contributed to slow progress, and when I hadn’t passed my test by the time I went to university the urgency, if ever there was any, had gone.
I now realise that driving would not necessarily have been quicker in evening commuter traffic. I think I assumed, as I see many people assume every day in the face of the evidence, that private motor transport must be the fastest way to travel.
Why not take the bus?
If you live in Cambridge you probably wouldn’t ask this. If you can walk, walking is usually faster. Local public transport is expensive and slow and unreliable. I think I did look a bus timetable for my journey but there were no buses that would help.
So… Cycling then.
So, a lack of good alternatives was why I started cycling. I evangelise about the benefits to health and environment now, but these were far from my mind when I took it up, and were in any case the same as the benefits of walking. By switching from walking to cycling I had only gained time.
I didn’t think about safety. I didn’t think about weather. I didn’t think about what I needed to carry. I didn’t think about maintenance. I didn’t think about half the things people cite as reasons for not cycling. I had no other options: I would make it work.
Initially I borrowed my employer’s bike, a great heavy rusted thing with a wicker basket on the front. He rarely used it. Within a couple of weeks I had bought my own: £100 new hybrid. I used it for 18 months before getting a more expensive one which I still use now, although I’ve added two more bikes for the fun stuff.
What, if anything, does this tell us about how we can get more people cycling?
Did it help that I lived in a city where cycling is relatively normal? I think so. Almost none of my friends cycled at the time, but I had a cultural awareness that cycling was a mode of transport. The city was covered in roads with shared-use paths and cycle lanes, which I quickly started to ignore, but never-the-less their presence indicated that cycling was an expected activity. It meant that cycling was in my mind as an option, when in another place it might not have been.
People don’t consider new modes of transport on a daily basis. If it were not for the time factor for this particular journey I wouldn’t have re-considered my mode of transport, but once I was used to cycling it replaced and sped up many of my other journeys. It’s when people move jobs, or move house that they will be most susceptible to modal change.
People are short-term self-interested. I didn’t think ‘I would drive / take the bus but it’s not environmentally friendly and will reduce my fitness’. I thought: ‘It’s too expensive and too impractical’.
There are a number of specifics of my situation which are not universal, but there is one principle which made the decision: I cycled because it was the best way to meet my travel needs at the time. Cycling needs to look normal, obvious and easy. How we make it look normal, obvious and easy is the larger discussion.