Travel & Transport

Deepest disappointment and glimmers of hope…

I wrote a while back about how I hoped people’s travel behaviours – both locally and on a global scale – would change in the post-pandemic world. This is the first in a short series of posts to reflect on those hopes and on my own travel actions and aspirations.

Many cyclists, walkers and urban residents alike will relate to the sense of relief and satisfaction that came with the quiet roads of the lockdown period. What a joy to be able to enjoy travelling by foot or bike without fear of being squashed at any moment, and to be able to move freely by car on those occasions when you really needed to. Oh, how I thought people would realise how much better life was for spending so much less of it in a car, realise the rewards of active travel, recognise that so many of their usual trips were unnecessary, and that life as it returned back towards ‘normal’ would lose a little of its car-centricity. This felt like such a tangible, almost inevitable outcome during those early weeks, and yet, as far as I can see now, couldn’t have been further than the truth of the situation that transpired.

What happened, in fact, was that as soon as people were allowed out and about again, the volume of traffic on the roads very quickly returned almost to pre-lockdown levels, compounded no doubt in my area by the combination of scorching summer weather, the proximity of one of Europe’s best beaches and the proportion of people still furloughed or off school. What gets to me though isn’t the number of vehicles on the road per se – disappointing as that is in itself – but the behaviour of those in charge of them: there has been a palpable upturn in aggressive driving, the proportion of inconsiderate and frankly dangerous drivers through the roof compared to pre-lockdown times (and it wasn’t great in these parts before).

Why is this? Understandably some groups of people are perhaps more stressed than usual, and hot weather is known to bring about higher levels of anger and antisocial behaviour in general, not just on the roads (case in point: the major incident that was declared in Bournemouth & Poole during the heatwave  at the end of June). But what of the supposed increased sense of community spirit and greater good brought on by the pandemic? I’m struggling to see evidence of this anymore and am instead faced with ever-growing polarisation and individualisation; every person out for themselves, getting from A to B as fast as possible no matter the consequences. An avid cyclist, I’m bordering on frightened to go out in my local area because of how things are on the roads, and historically I’ve been one to suck it up and, keep my wits about me and deal with the dick-moves when they come; all part of being a ‘roady’; but it feels like it’s gone beyond that point now and that the level of risk is tangibly high enough to avoid certain areas at all costs.

This isn’t, however, meant as a sob story about my own life. Five people a day – cyclists and walkers – are killed on the roads my motor vehicles in the UK every day, a sad fact that is under-reported and not at all adequately dealt with. What’s more, this figure will inevitably increase if people’s driving doesn’t become more considerate.

And that’s not to mention the environmental impact brought on by the sheer volume of traffic on the roads: it has been reported that during lockdown – which obviously involved a huge reduction in all forms of transport, notably flying, as well as car driving – globally there was just a 5% decrease in carbon emissions (though this could be as high as 8%). Bearing in mind that the level of reduction required per year to limit global warming to acceptable levels is 7.6% per year this decade, you can see there is a long way to go. If a global lockdown barely generates such a reduction in emissions, as life returns to what people like to call ‘normal’, some drastic changes are needed in the way we live those normal lives, with the way (and amount) we travel being a key part of the puzzle.

In an encouraging development occurring as a direct result of the pandemic, local authorities in the UK have been able to draw on funding to make walking & cycling more practical and appealing. With a progressive council leadership currently in place in my own local area, this has led to rapid and meaningful action to stand up new bike lanes and ‘modal filters’ which make active travel more attractive and, crucially, will encourage people to think twice before making short journeys by car (because certain residential streets are no longer usable as through-routes by motor vehicle).

Whilst having a mixed range of impacts – making angry drivers angrier being a possible by-product, for instance – such measures are fairly quick and simple to implement yet could transform a local area once they’ve had time to bed in. our own local council is running consultations on new schemes which may lead to their becoming permanent as positive feedback comes in. at the same time, those people who would prefer to drive everywhere (but are physically able to do otherwise) may slowly come to terms with the ‘new normal’ and discover the benefits of active travel for themselves.

So there we have it: for me, both deepest disappointment and glimmers of hope in terms of the influence of COVID-19 on people’s travel choices. Of course, my views are shaped by my own frame of reference, both in terms of existing beliefs & values and the unique experience of my own local area. How do you relate to what I’ve written here, if at all? What were your own hopes ad aspirations for the impact of COVID-19 on the world, and have these been realised? I’d love to hear about it…

Travel & Transport

How the e-cargo-bike as a second vehicle has transformed my life

From food shopping to date nights, here’s how the e-bike has changed my life forever…

I once heard of an argument between a couple of friends when one of them had bought an e-bike. A protagonist reprimanded the buyer for ‘cheating’ on the bike by having pedal assistance. This is a common critique of the e-bike concept, but completely misses the point. The e-biker in question was using it for a daily 34-mile round-trip to work. Considering the proportion of journeys less than 2 miles that are done by car, this is staggering and, in my view, pretty impressive. The e-bike in this case does not substitute a regular bike; it takes a car off the road, and for that should be hailed.

E-bike as car alternative

In a world where it seems that nearly every household has a car per person, my partner and I like to do things a little differently. We have a small, relatively economical car (which we barely use – more on this in a later post!) – and an e-cargo bike as our second vehicle. Technically the car is mine and the bike is his, but we essentially share them both to get best use out of each.

Jason has always been an active traveller and buying the e-bike – a Tern GSD – was an inevitable extension of this because he carries a lot of gear for work. It’s an amazing machine which carries up to 200 kilos, rides like a dream and turns heads everywhere it goes (not least because of the colour!). Whilst gaining access to the Tern was, for me, a mere by-product of Jason’s choices, I wouldn’t want to be without it now. Quite frankly, it’s changed my life.

For Jason, this bike is an extension of his personality and of the lifestyle he’s led for decades as a ‘utility cyclist’. For me, it’s a game-changing tool in my quest to live sustainably. And for both of us, it’s an absolute joy to ride.

GSD stands for Get Stuff Done. That’s a pretty apt strapline, and I’d like to tell you a little bit about some of the stuff we get done on the Tern (and where we might like to take it next!)

Shopping & deliveries

I used to despair over food shopping because I simply couldn’t carry everything on a regular bike (bulky items like loo roll soon fill up a bog-standard rucksack or pannier!), which forced me to drive to the supermarket more often than I’d like. Whilst my guilt was tempered by the fact that I barely used the car outside of this, it felt so wrong doing such a short trip by car.

The Tern has transformed my weekly routine into a much greener one.

With two huge panniers and a front rack, my days of being unable to carry a bulky food shop are over. Sometimes it takes a bit of careful arrangement to fit it all in securely – cue anecdote of the time I went over a bump causing several items to bounce out of the front and scatter across the road – but by and large the machine carries everything with ease. If I’m doing a big shop I’ll take a rucksack as backup, and have been known to transport wine in the bottle cage!

The e-bike has been especially helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic, when we’ve shopped less frequently and collected groceries for relatives occasionally. We were particularly pleased by how the box of Corona we picked up – which was on special price because of damaged packaging, not because of its connotation! – fit snuggly in the front crate on one such occasion! (We don’t actually drink that much; I promise!!)

E-bike date-nights

If we needed to, we could actually carry a massive crate on the back as well as the panniers. Such is the versatility of this machine though that it transports more than just cargo. Fitted with a comfy removable pad, the back of the bike doubles up as a people carrier! A GSD comfortably carries two kids (with the right configuration), or in our case one delighted, child-like adult (me!).

On these occasions we tend to stick to gender stereotypes, with Jason piloting and me riding on the back. (We tried it the other way round once when J needed a lift to the station with a chunky weekend bag. This was before the front rack had arrived and the bag wouldn’t fit in a pannier, so he had to hold it on his lap whilst riding. The movement of the bag as we travelled kept shifting the balance of the bike and making me wobbly. Not an experience I’d recommend!)

These ‘couple-trips’ – visits to the cinema and the like – are some of the most fun times on the bike, and by far the most head-turning. We literally watch people gawping at us, open-mouthed in astonishment, as we go by. Whilst I’m far from the type who seeks to be centre of attention, it does make us chuckle and we get a glimmer of satisfaction from being a bit out of the ordinary!

Wedding taxi!

My favourite example is the time we used the Tern as our taxi to and from a friend’s wedding reception! The ceremony and reception were 8 miles apart; not a distance I’d expect any wedding-goer to make by bike. Fortuitously, both venues were situated conveniently: the church nearby my parents’ house, where I happened to have stayed the previous night to cat-sit, and the reception just a couple of miles from my current abode. So, post-ceremony, we strolled back to my family home, hopped in the car and popped home to grab the GSD. We landed at the hotel just in time to see the bride & groom arrive, and didn’t have to stress about tackling a jam-packed car park. It was a beach location on a glorious day so the road was teeming. We enjoyed being waved and called at by car-dwellers edging their way towards the sand as we glided past on two wheels.  

Hopes & dreams

Having the GSD in my life has undoubtedly changed it for the better, but I think we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible with this ingenious machine. When the time is right I’d like to test its limits and see what more it can do for us. We’re particularly keen to see how it handles a weekend away or camping trip…

Watch this space for more on my e-bike adventures!