My paternal grandmother Elizabeth Lacey was born on a farm in the middle of the countryside in Co. Wexford (SE corner of Ireland) in the 1890s. Her only method of transport as a child was either a horse and cart or walking. If memory serves me right, she had to walk 3 miles (5 km) to school every day. Sometime in her early 20s she bought or was given a bicycle and from then on the boundaries of her world as a young woman opened up. Suddenly she could go to and return from the nearest big town of Wexford in one day. Even more interesting was the possibility of cycling to the crossroads dance 10 miles away (a wonderful Irish tradition which fell victim to the car). At that time in rural Ireland 10 miles away was like another world – new sights, new faces and of course, lots of interesting young men she had never met before! She always said that that bicycle brought her freedom.
But what does the bicycle mean to us today here in central Europe?
Since the 1960’s the car has been sold to us as an individual freedom for anybody (who could afford it) to go anywhere at anytime. And unfortunately our politicians, our civil engineers, our city and town planners have spent much of the last five decades creating a landscape and infrastructure catering almost solely to the needs of that car – the wide streets, the highways, the car parks, the garages, the filling stations.
When my grandmother and my mother were children, they just opened their front door and went out on the street to play. It was their playground. Today no parent in their right mind would leave their kids go out on the street unsupervised. If they want to play outside, they need to be escorted to a playground and if Mom and Dad don’t have time to go there, the kids have to stay inside. Basically all because of the car.
If, on an evening, you want to enjoy that „driving off into the sunset“ (as in the car ads), then it is very advisable to calculate how much time you’re going to spend in a traffic jam into the equation of when you’re actually going to get there. Basically because of all the other cars.
And don’t forget how much the blinking things cost – to buy, to maintain and in car tax, value-added tax, environment tax, fuel tax! Basically because of all the things cars need.
More and more, I think we’ve been HAD by the car industry and their image makers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not totally naive. I do realize there are times and places and situations where almost the only alternative is to go by car. But do we really need them as much as we use them? Has the car actually brought us that freedom promised us in the glossy ads?
And what’s this got to do anyway with cycling a bike you’re probably asking? Well for me personally in my everyday life, the bicycle has given me back the freedom the car took from me. On it I can go almost anywhere at any time. And thankfully, not just in Erlangen, planners and (some) politicians have started rethinking our infrastructure and reappraising how we can make our towns and cities more livable in. More and more we’re hearing: „The car does not belong in the city!“
This is where we (you and I, ordinary citizens of the place we live in) come into play. Through our decision today and on as many days as possible, to leave the car in the garage and take our bike instead, we can bring about a change in the quality of life in our towns and cities. Through our ever increasing numbers, we can demand a realignment in our infrastructure – more cycling paths, narrower lanes for cars on urban streets and roads, fewer parking places for cars and more for bikes. And don’t forget that local elections are coming up next year in March. We can make it very clear to candidates seeking (re)election that cycling has to be put high up on their list of priorities.
So let’s go out there and get on out bikes and regain our freedom!