Happy New Year! This is the street on which, with my family, I live. I’ve just a moment ago stepped outside to take the picture. As you can see, it’s been snowing.
I might leave my house through the front door, and go north along this stretch of road, if I’m walking somewhere. The only time I leave by bike this way is when one of my riding partners, Jon Barry, calls – he always comes to the front of the house and so then I go out the same way, on my road bike, which is stored indoors.
I mainly leave the house out the back. Like many people living in older housing in urban north England, we live in a terrace with a back alley.
Most of our household’s bikes, including my day bike, are stored in one of two sheds in our back yard. So this is the way I generally leave the house by bike. And unless Jon has called for me, I leave this way on my less regularly ridden road bike too. I also tend to go this way if I’m walking. You can see the tyre tracks of one of our neighbour’s cars in the snow, but Ray – ‘the culprit’ – is the only person with a car parked on this side of the terrace, so the back alley forms a virtually car-free start to any journey.
As a sociologist with a keen interest in how everyday lives get organised and reproduced, I’m fascinated by different routes into and out of houses, and the consequences of these ‘household permeabilities’. But that’s not my intended topic today, so let’s get back to the weather, and specifically the snow and ice, which was the reason why I took these photos just now.
Now I’m sure that for any Canadians and Scandinavians out there, this is just a smattering of snow, nothing to write a blog post about … But I’m writing from a UK perspective, and snow in Lancaster is not that common. And anyway we’ve not just had snow, we’ve had almost a month of very cold weather, which has resulted in lots of ice. And whilst particular societies and different individuals within those societies will cope with snow and ice in specific ways, it’s undoubtedly the case that snow and ice has a significant impact on many people’s desires and abilities to cycle.
It seems fairly safe to say that if the weather was always like this, we’d see less cycling. Snow and, especially, ice make cycling a more hazardous, scary prospect. But that said, snow and ice make any mode of mobility more hazardous and scary, except perhaps skiing, tobogganing and such like. So perhaps what we should instead say is that weather like this, in the absence of any attempts – whether individual (e.g. appropriate equipment, such as spiked tyres) or collective (e.g. gritting of cycling routes) – to deal with it effectively, will produce less cycling. But that situation is not inevitable. Indeed, if a society is serious about promoting cycling, it will continue to promote cycling even during such weather and road conditions. So that, actually, it’s perfectly conceivable that cycling could become more rather than less attractive at such times.
For myself, I’ve become very reluctant to get on my bike this past month. I did a beautiful 80 mile ride through the Yorkshire Dales with two friends, Will and Jim, on the 11th December. We left early, and just 5 miles out of Lancaster – at Caton – our wheels slipped slightly beneath us, so that we thought carefully about the wisdom of continuing. We did, and it was a beautiful day – full of sunshine, scenery and comradeship. Nonetheless, a vague but nagging nervousness accompanied me all day, to do with the ice and the potential to come a cropper. I’ve not done a proper ride since then.
I’ve become so frustrated with not getting out that a couple of days ago I did something I’d not even have contemplated a year or two ago, though it’s true that back then I was less preoccupied with being fit and going fast than I am now – I ordered a turbo trainer, so that I can ride indoors, and start to build my fitness for the coming season in spite of my fear of all this snow and ice.
The process of buying a turbo trainer has really illuminated to me how cycling is about so very much more than getting from A to B. It is that; it’s my main mode of daily transport – the way I get to the shops, to work, and to a whole bagful of destinations in the Lancaster and Morecambe district. But it’s so very much more than that too – it’s my exercise, my freedom, my sanity, my re-creation, a big part of my social life, my key way of spending time outdoors and in the countryside. Last year I rode 5,500 miles, but only 250 of them were ridden during December and during the second half of December I did not ride at all. I feel claustrophobic and flabby; the bike is my cure … I need to get out, on my bike …
Not everyone is so cowardly as I currently am. The Monday nighters’ plan for the Solstice was to ride 100 miles. What better way to celebrate – or is it perhaps to try to beat – the year’s shortest day? I had planned to go, but I saw the forecast (very cold and lots of snow) and bailed out. The others – more committed, braver – gave it a go. The snow made riding 100 miles impossible. But, despite the difficulties, they managed a ride, and – by switching to mountain bikes, except John who is now riding with spiked tyres and so didn’t need to – they still made it to the pub, the hard way.
With two young children and a fortnight’s Christmas holiday, the snow and ice have actually been wonderful – we’ve had some truly magical winter day’s out – walking, sledging, sliding and snowballing around Silverdale, Arnside and Windermere. Here’s my son Bobby on Orrest Head, above England’s longest lake, looking for all the world like he has that world at his feet.
But what effects do snow and ice have on mobility? Some of our elderly neighbours are struggling, both with getting out and with the social isolation which results from not getting out. Today in Lancaster, in many places we have fresh snow covering a layer of sheet ice. Conditions are potentially treacherous for everyone, and fewer journeys are undoubtedly being made by all modes. But what worries and angers me most is it’s the sustainable modes – walking and cycling – which are hardest hit, and who can say that journeys on foot or by bike are any less ‘essential’ than journeys by motorised modes?
Around here the bigger the road the more likely it is to get gritted. But of course, the bigger the road the less likely people are to want to cycle – let alone walk – on it (for even on the biggest roads the pavements lie untouched by the gritter’s mechanical hand). The pavements, like the off-road cycle routes, are ignored. Cycling and walking – these modes of mobility do not matter, people travelling on foot or by bike do not count. It’s that simple, that blatant, that unjust …
So people walking either stick to (or rather, don’t stick to, but slide along) the pavements and risk a fall, or walk in the road (where it’s astonishing to see a small minority of drivers, as if incensed by the pedestrians’ ‘intrusion’ into ‘their’ space, showing them not courtesy but contempt). Many people, of course, ‘simply’ stop walking – which might be fine for them if they’ve got a car. But it’s rubbish for them if they haven’t, and it’s rubbish for society either way.
Many people stop cycling. Last winter I cycled the 4 miles into work and back every day, whatever the weather. I often got angry that, on icy roads, cars came past me as fast and as close as they might ordinarily do, seemingly oblivious to the extra risk which I viscerally felt. On such icy days I was forced into riding on the car-dominated A6 because the main cycling routes in this district are not designated by our Highways Authority, Lancashire County Council, as ‘essential’, and so they are not gritted and they become, as they have over the last few days, virtually impassable.
We have here a magnificent Millennium Bridge over the river Lune – it’s for people travelling either on foot or by bike, and it is immensely useful and extremely popular. Every year, when it gets icy people struggle to walk and to ride across it. Every year people fall from their bikes and people complain that it needs to be gritted. We are a cycling demonstration town, supposedly promoting cycling. Yet I suspect that most people need only to fall from a bike once to be seriously put off cycling, perhaps for life. You have to ask, exactly what kind of cycling promotion is it that fails to grit key routes on which people ride?
You can do as I tend to do, and ride on the main roads. But given most people would not dare to do that under ordinary circumstances, they’re unlikely to start doing so when it’s icy, slushy, dark and the roads are full of motorists who lack the skills and equipment to negotiate the tricky conditions effectively. Watching the cars skating over the ice, an Icelandic friend of ours today expressed serious concern at the lack of driving skills on display; another friend, having seen cars careering out of control on a patch of black ice at the junction outside his house, stood outside for two hours, warning motorists to take especial care.
Of course, I recognise that cold, snow and ice make life difficult for everyone. People are struggling either to maintain movement-as-usual, or else to cope with being unable to move as they usually do (which is something we’re all going to need to become better at, as our lives get re-shaped by the realities of a world transformed by climatic changes). I understand that to some extent we all need somehow ‘just to get on with it’. But I know that I’m not alone in finding the current situation, in which routes for cars and trucks are so clearly prioritised over routes for walking and cycling, really quite disgraceful.
For a while I’ve been thinking very vaguely about the notion of ‘mobility inversion’. It’s an intuitive concept which I want to develop, not for its own sake, but because it just might – in ways I do not and quite probably cannot know – be somehow useful. You just don’t know where ideas will go until you try …
UK towns and cities remain centrally designed around the car. Even now, well into the twenty-first century, the car gets the centre of the road, walking and cycling the margins. Routes for cars get priority, and walking and cycling routes are pushed into having to find their ways around them, having to negotiate the city of the car. When it comes to mobility, our towns and cities, in other words, are quite simply the wrong way round.
I’ll return to this example at another time, but it’s less than a kilometre, maybe half a mile, between our house and Lancaster city centre. Lancaster’s train station is about half way along this route. It’s an incredibly busy walking route, but I’d guess that motorised vehicles currently get about 90% of the available space and almost all of the priority whilst pedestrians must make do with rubbish pavements, limited space, and drivers who have been taught that they have the right of way. With no facilities to help them at all, cyclists simply have to survive – dodging the potholes. It’s atrocious and it’s where we live, but similar and worse situations are everywhere.
We need mobility inversion here. If motorised vehicles are allowed, they ought to make way for people on foot and on bikes. People on bikes and on their feet should not have to stop to make way for trucks and cars, the cars and trucks should make way for them. There should anyway be only minimal space for trucks and cars, and lots more space for people walking, cycling and simply hanging out chatting to their friends, acquaintances and neighbours.
In the current context – thinking about moving around during periods of snow and ice – the concept of mobility inversion can be applied equally simply. It’s so obvious that I can hardly believe it’s not already being done. Grit the cycling routes and grit the pavements, but don’t grit the roads – rather than encouraging people who normally walk and cycle either to jump into cars or not to move at all, we can then encourage people who normally travel in cars to walk or cycle, or else to not move at all … and isn’t that exactly what we want?