by Patrick Field
Squall 9, Jan/Feb 1995, pg. 14.
A woman pushing a baby in a buggy, holding the hand of a small child and carrying a bag of shopping, waits at the kerb while a stream of her fellow humans pass in motor-vehicles. The road is obstructed less than a hundred metres away. To stop and let the family continue their journey would not delay any of the drivers, but in their anxiety to keep moving they overlook this. Each one defiantly uses the threatening power of the machine they are piloting to assert their priority. Motorists are not bad people, but city traffic has a personality of its own; ill-tempered, selfish, bullying and pushy.
Motor traffic dominates our streets. It turns the places we live into war-zones, where a moments lapse of concentration can have serious, even fatal consequences.
Attempts to accommodate motor-traffic have dominated land-use planning in Britain for forty years. The car is so central to the idea of freedom and satisfaction through consumption, that huge sacrifices have been made by everyone in futile pursuit of unlimited mobility. Children have lost their autonomous mobility. Local services have been displaced to suburban locations where they are only accessible to the motorised minority. The very air we breathe is poisoned.
Motor-culture has a fierce grip on human imagination. It is hard for people enmeshed in motor-dependence, or whose dreams of power and autonomy rest on the ambition to own and use cars, to contemplate life without the metal plague. Car-culture generates so much spending and earning activity that any prosperous people find the idea of life without its pervasive economic influence frightening.
At the same time the, limits of motor-culture are obvious to all city-dwellers. Advertising for cars becomes increasingly surreal - exotic locations and weird symbolism - as it gets more difficult to say anything good about them that does not demand an ironic response. The image of car as liberator becomes less sustainable every day. Dismantling motor- supremacy will involve problems. It is also a huge opportunity to increase the amount of justice and joy in the world.
If all the tools devised by the restless invention of our species were ranked by benefit minus disadvantage, the pedal cycle would be up there with the sewing-machine, the fiddle and the printing press. The bicycle is a free lunch. It carries its rider at speeds that match any other form of urban transport. It is easy to park, simple to manufacture and maintain with a long service life. The problems associated with its use; exposure to inclement weather, inability to carry children or freight can all be overcome with imagination and technology. A bicycle provides life-prolonging physical exercise. The bicycle is not a free lunch. It is a lunch you get paid to eat.
If human organisation persists for another two hundred years the 20th Century will be regarded as a cul-de-sac where the chimeral promise of unlimited mobility offered by more complex machines briefly outshone the bicycle’s potential to increase the absolute total of human happiness. We are a long way from exhausting the diversity of this potential. We have only scratched its surface.
Critical Mass assembles at 17:45 on the last Friday of every month under Waterloo Bridge outside the National Film Theatre. With participation running at 200 or more it provides a chance for cyclists to temporarily displace motor- traffic from the city streets, enjoy the warm applause of pedestrians and show that it is possible to have a happy time on the streets of Central London at six o’ clock on a Friday evening. Fresh air and fun - yes. Fumes and frustration - no.