When the City of Brotherly Love tried and failed to ban cars from its streets, it was clear that something significant was afoot. By then, bicycle-friendly policies had spread to virtually every corner of the world. In fact, the road, the multiple roads, that Los Angeles suburb of Chatsworth currently has appears to have been constructed for them. Consider other examples, too. When Shanghai allowed 60 super-light bicycles to be temporarily chained up in the busy main drag, the bicycle rental agency suddenly realized its own shortage of available bikes. When Havana started promoting “bike ports” on the roofs of government buildings, the government decided that private-sector operators should also get permits to run one. China moved from “one child” per family to no children, and two years later, researchers noticed that they had far fewer babies, on average, than before. Before we were asking why the Brexit referendum turned out so badly, it was readily apparent that we should welcome an end to the immigration policy that was kowtowing to a relatively small number of immigrant voters while ignoring the real needs of citizens.
Problems are, of course, easier to solve than they seem at first blush. Bicycle pricing, even if wildly tilted in favour of those who ride, is different from giving free passes. One more of those services, though, must be offered, to show that, yes, this really is that simple. Paradoxically, perhaps, that’s what’s happened. Up until recently, bicycle use had been lagging behind that of car-dependency. Bikes, on average, may be less fun to ride, and need expensive gear to get up the hills, but they are way faster.
That’s an advantage as traffic speeds have risen, too. In some places, bike-friendly policies seem to be raising speeds, while slowing motorists. In London, almost everyone I know has to worry about getting into an accident. But in Sidcup in Kent, only a third as many of the roads are underused as in London — and it has the highest bike-commuting rate in the UK. One intriguing reason for this is the lively bike culture of the city. The numbers are still small, but they are growing fast. I can’t find comparable figures for a long time. In 2007, Jonathon Porritt, the founder of the Environmental Audit Committee, told the Daily Telegraph that bicycles were: “Most impressive thing about London right now is their attitude to bicycles.”
At the World Bicycle Summit in Barcelona, of all places, he admitted that, “Where people are realising it, I think, is in the formalised way. … It’s not just about the streets. It’s about the way London has the attitudes of places like Barcelona.” The Madrid conference took place a year after a similar push in Barcelona. There’s something else going on here that makes people want to stick with a bicycle over a car. After his trip to Europe, I wrote: “The wisdom of cyclists is becoming ever more evident, becoming at the same time less unreasonable.” Mostly, that’s a function of the new technologies, especially cheap computers and GPS. They have made cycling more fun.
Then there are new ideas about how to live. In London, the declining car-dependent economy allows more and more non-drivers to live in the city, which is already one of the world’s top cities for walkers. And with electric cars becoming more common, there are more and more people who simply don’t need a car. Bicycles still occupy a cultural role, perhaps, but the world is going a different way.
It is already closer to Rome than Paris for bicycle-friendliness, but unlike Paris, even Rome no longer has much chance of reestablishing car dominance, because it is so rich and and by contrast energy-efficient.
As the economic forces mentioned above combine, the United States, which was the world’s greatest car-dependent country for so long, should be able to make the same kind of transit switch that has now happened in so many of the poorer countries. Whether that transit switch stays on track is likely to depend to a great extent on what happens in the coming years in Brexit negotiations. Much of what we hear from Europeans about Brexit sounds like hand-wringing about how awful it is for Brits to be leaving the European Union, but, we should remember, all they really care about is that once Britain goes, the whole union will stop. The thing is, in the long run, the only thing that matters is what happens to British car sales. The EU is not going to stop being viable if Britain ends up crashing out with no deal. Britain could end up learning the painful lesson that Europe isn’t really a threat.