Can Cycling Connect Communities?

The Edinburgh Festival of Cycling has been on this week. One of the events I went to was a screening of ‘Why We Cycle’, a film about the impact of cycling on Dutch culture.

As cyclists, most of us are aware of the Dutch approach to cycling. We are envious of their incredible infrastructure and the sheer numbers of bikes out and about on a daily basis. In the Netherlands it seems that everyone cycles.

I dream of living in such a culture.

Whenever I see anything about the Dutch approach to cycling, it makes me want to move to the Netherlands. In fact, Mr Mummysgoneacycle and I did give some serious consideration to doing just that, not so long ago. I think that essentially we lacked the courage to make such a big move. Sometimes I regret that.

I didn’t really expect to learn anything new through watching the film. After all, I know all the benefits of cycling. I will talk at length to anyone who will listen about the benefits of cycling.

Really, going to see the film was just an evening off putting my kids to bed.

I was wrong.

What I took away from the evening was just how profoundly a society can change in a way that I had never considered, when everyone cycles.

This change was around the connections between people. What the Dutch have found is that people are far more connected to each other when they cycle rather than drive. It is blindingly obvious when you think about it.

Much of this comes down to eye contact. When you cycle, you make eye contact with the people around you. They see you and you see them. When you drive, others see your car and you see their car. How often do you make eye contact with another driver?

If you are on a cycle path and others are coming towards you, the natural thing to do is to look at each other and in this way have a kind of unspoken conversation about who is going to move to which side so that you can both pass. This is exactly what happens in the Netherlands, but on a huge scale. All those people connecting in tiny ways with each other. And these connections are made every moment of every day.

In the film, this was illustrated by the kind of organised chaos of a cross roads. The traffic at the cross roads is controlled by lights, for bikes and cars. The system is that there are advance lights for cyclists so that the cars have to wait and the bikes go first. All of them. The lights go green for all the cyclists at the same time. In every direction. As the lights go green, hundreds of bikes start to move in every direction at once. But nobody crashes. Nobody barges through. Nobody feels that their rights are greater than anyone else’s. People watch each other. They connect with each other. They cooperate with each other. The whole system works on responsibilities, not rights. It is absolute poetry to watch.

I never thought I would describe traffic flow as poetry.

There are other, more obvious reasons why cycling encourages human connection:

  • If you see someone you know when you are on a bike, you can easily stop for a chat.
  • If you meet others who are travelling the same way as you, you can chat as you go.
  • When you travel by bike, you see more. You take in your community and those around you.
  • When you travel by bike you make connections with others by waving or smiling. You see them and they see you.

In society now, we are all incredibly well connected in the virtual world.

I am in no way anti social media. Without it, nobody would read my blog.

But virtual connections are no substitute for flesh and blood connections. We are wired to need human connection and I think we sometimes lack this with our cars and mobile phones. We occupy our own space in our own car. We occupy our own virtual space where we present what we want others to see and where we see what others want to present.

This can be incredibly lonely.

The point about connections and communities was brought sharply into focus for me on the way home.

I cycled home. Obviously. I used to use the bus whenever I had to go to the city centre. But then I learnt the better routes and I discovered that cycling is the quickest way from the centre of the city to my house. I rarely use the bus anymore. If I do, there is usually a fair amount of alcohol involved.

As I was cycling, I noticed a couple on a driveway and glanced over, as you do when you are on a bike and the roads are quiet. That was when I realised that, in addition to the couple, there was an elderly lady on the driveway. And the elderly lady was covered in blood.

It turned out that the lady had been putting out her bins and had tripped. She had been really unfortunate that she had landed hard on her nose on a concrete lip running along her driveway. She had been really fortunate that the couple were out for a walk and had been passing her house just after this happened.

The three of us did what we could, and waited with the injured lady until an ambulance arrived. It must have been a busy night as this was a two hour wait.

The road that this happened on was part of the local ‘quiet route’. It is indeed quiet for the two hours before midnight on a Tuesday evening. In all the time we were there, just three cars came past.

None of these three cars stopped.

This is not a comment on the morality of the drivers of those cars. I am absolutely certain that those drivers would have stopped if they had seen that there was somebody hurt. There are very few people who would not stop and offer help.

The drivers simply could not see.

When you drive a car, you are very much focused on the road ahead, even if the road is quiet. You frequently cannot hear what is going on around you and your peripheral vision is limited by the physical structure of the car.

Other than the three of us and those three cars, nobody passed.

It made me wonder what would have happened if only cars had passed that evening. The injured lady lived alone and her neighbours were all in bed. She was of a generation who generally do not take a mobile phone with them to take out the bins.

Two hours was a long time to chat. I met three lovely people that evening. People who I would not normally connect with in daily life. But I was near home and even nearer my children’s school so there is a good chance I may bump into them again.

When I do, I will stop my bike and ask how they are.


5 Replies to “Can Cycling Connect Communities?”

  1. I love reading your blogs Diana – you have so many interesting points to make and you make them in a fun and inspiring way – go you!!!

  2. Totally agree with everything you say!! We live in a tiny village in Oxfordshire (originally husband worked on farm, then made redundant, still live in farm accommodation, so we’re not one of the rich ones!) and most people here just go in and out in their cars/enormous 4 x 4s. There are many people who live just yards away who I have never set eyes on, because they never WALK out of their houses (let alone cycle!). Every house has at least two cars, many have several.

    When I cycle into town 4 miles away, like you I can stop and chat, or just wave. And it’s not only on the journey there when I have that connection with people, as my cycling has given rise to conversations with people in town as well. When I have to drive in, in husband’s car, for whatever reason, I just don’t feel the same connection that I do when I cycle. I have become far more aware of what’s going on in my locality since I started cycling regularly 6 years ago.

    I’d love to see that film, but I see that it’s only got one other screening in the UK, and that’s in London, too far for me.

  3. Nice post – good observations! The connection to the community is one of the things I love about being on a bike. Not cycling related but your post made me think of a time a few years ago when the main roads and most side roads around where we lived were cut off by snow. That meant you had to walk, ski or sledge to get anywhere, so there were people everywhere, many pulling sledges full of groceries or firewood, and lots of “hellos” and opportunities to chat and help each other. Then the snow cleared and it was back to the cars and hardly anyone walking anywhere again. I thought it was sad that people went back to their old ways so quickly especially when some, like my neighbour, actually commented how nice it was and how it didn’t take her much longer to get to work – but still chose to drive instead of walk every day! People are strange.

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