Fall out of love and cycling will flourish

A common sight in Copenhagen - will it be repeated in Welsh towns and cities?

A common sight in Copenhagen - will it be repeated in Welsh towns and cities?

This month Cardiff enjoyed a car free day in the city centre, and new funding was announced to improve access to active travel across Wales. Following on from the declared state of climate emergency in Wales, it’s truly encouraging to see real momentum happening to improve infrastructure for cycling, and to have events that show how the City transforms when cars are excluded.

Does this mean we’re doing enough? If the aim is to create a Wales where significant numbers of people become regular cyclists who use their bikes as part of their everyday life, there is also a need to break the love affair with the car. This won’t be easy to achieve for a number of reasons, and some of these are detailed as follows.

Recent decades have seen urban sprawl that has resulted in housing estates, business and retail parks being built in locations that are in many cases inaccessible by bike and poorly serviced by public transport. These have been cost effective for developers, and have supported a way of life where you drive from your home to place of work and/or to the shops. Often this can be a drive of considerable distance as people need to work to earn money, and commuting by car is still an affordable option for many. However, in terms of effectively tackling climate change this way of life is going to become increasingly unsustainable.

So can we successfully challenge this way of life? Yes, but it would require a comprehensive rethink in terms of how we make effective use of our existing the urban infrastructure to bring people closer to the things they do in everyday life as a means of minimising the need to use a car. This does however, also present the perfect opportunity to bring business and people back into town and city centres, that in many instances are still served by the rail network.

The allure of the car. We’ve created a car centric society and to service it, the car industry has flourished. As a competitive industry it doesn’t sell functional machines, instead new cars are marketed almost as accessories to reflect individual lifestyle aspirations. The growth in popularity of the SUV is clear example of this. In truth very few people need a big car, or a car that’s brimming with features, but with cars being purchased on three year finance plans there’s an in-built obsolescence that only serves to encourage people to keep changing their cars for the latest model. Currently the industry is investing in the development of electric vehicles, and ironically we could see many perfectly usable petrol and diesel cars heading to the scrapheap as consumers make the switch to be green whilst overlooking the environmental impact the manufacturing and transporting of new cars has on the environment.

From the perspective of the economy, the car industry is important as it employs thousands of people in what are often well paid jobs. This may make it challenging for politicians to fully push for a reduction in the use of cars. However can we be certain we have a choice considering the rate of climate change the planet is currently experiencing? A considered approach could entail acknowledging that, if people use cars less and start to demand less cars the industry will decline, and on that basis start to proactively develop new industries to take their place. For example, the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon proposal, in addition to generating renewable energy, had the potential to see Wales become global leaders in this form of energy generation. In turn this could have seen new jobs created in a new and growing sector.

This starts to raise fundamental questions regarding our approach to tackling climate change. For example: Will it be sufficient to create a carbon neutral Wales that is in essence a “green” version of the way we live today? Or, in order to ensure a genuinely sustainable future: Is there a need to make far more radical changes to the way we live?

The former offers the comfort of taking some action to make a difference, yet is still based on high levels of personal consumption. The latter is more disruptive, and would require significant personal behaviour changes, along with changes in the way we plan, build and work. I can’t help but think that the most appropriate solution is to take the brave decision and look to create society that becomes as un-reliant on the car as possible.

Yet we have to acknowledge where are are today. Put simply: How will people who live on an edge of town estate, and drive to another town or city to work ever be able to switch from driving to cycling? For office based work, is this the time to get serious about remote working? It may not be the ideal solution but would certainly be quick and relatively low cost to implement.

As for people who live close enough to cycle to work, improved infrastructure will help, but to see a significant increase in cycling the love affair with the car has to be broken. This in essence requires a change in behaviour, and to achieve that will require innovative and truly engaging campaigns.

Affordability is a further issue, and for people on low or no income buying a bike will simply be out of the question. I’d like to think there is a real opportunity here to run a pilot scheme to provide say 100 bikes for free to people who can’t afford to buy one. With a little support and encouragement these bikes could prove transformational for their users, and would be positive way to ensure that all members of the community are included in the adoption of active travel.

It’s truly encouraging to see the measures being put in place in Wales to make it easier for people to adopt active travel in their daily lives. At the same time this momentum needs to continue, and that will mean challenging the dominance of the car as the default transport choice. To do this means challenging the way we plan and develop our urban environments, to create spaces that make it easy and desirable for people to move away from their dependence on the car. Most importantly, people need to be taken on this journey too, through genuine discussion and consultation to fully identify the depth of their dependance on their cars, and to find the environmentally sustainable ways to overcome this.