Sun 4 Mar 2018
Tebbit senior’s bike would have had a frame of British steel that could batter any potholes which dared argue with it. The only soft part would have been the saddle. The modern carbon-fibre bike has disc brakes, innumerable electrically operated gears and a saddle so advanced it is only comfortable in special padded underwear. It seems to demand a different sort of character.
What poisons relations is when one side – or both – feels morally superior to the other. Cycling in many parts of many cities is frankly terrifying. Yet there is an important paradox here: cyclists are statistically less likely to be killed on the road than pedestrians, although they are much more likely to be injured in accidents. This is not just proof that the health risks of physical inactivity far outweigh those of cycling (or walking in cities). It also highlights a strange fact about the psychology of cycling, since no one feels especially brave when they set out to walk down the road, even if this carries a 20% higher risk of a fatal accident than cycling does. In Britain, 29.5 cyclists were killed for every billion miles ridden in 2016; 34.5 pedestrians died in accidents for every billion miles walked. Of course, children are trained from an early age that cars are dangerous so that pedestrians have now entirely interiorised their own inferiority relative to cars and feel there is nothing unnatural in their vulnerability.
Cycling, by contrast, can be touched with exhilaration. Car driving caters to the same feelings of omnipotence, as any car advertisement on the television shows. But the cyclist in a traffic jam can feel free while the driver is horribly conscious of being imprisoned there. This does not have an improving effect on the character. Anyone familiar with city traffic in Britain will have seen cyclists, as well as car drivers, behaving with disregard for other road users. But when a car driver makes a mistake he is still physically safe. It is the cyclist or pedestrian who pays the price for arrogant drivers. Cycling does in fact have all the moral and physical benefits claimed for it but that should not make cyclists the objects of resentment. Some cyclists, however, need to remember their common humanity with the humble pedestrian.