Peter Walker, a political correspondent for the Guardian, has reported from around the world, including Iraq and North Korea. He has been a regular cyclist since working as a cycle courier, runs a popular bike blog at the Guardian, and is the author of How Cycling Can Save the World.
We corresponded with Walker about his book.
Many of us have fond memories of biking as children. Why do we give it up so easily as we move into adulthood, and what can be done to keep more of us biking as we move through childhood and adolescence to adulthood?
There’s all sorts of reasons people cycle less as they get older, but many are connected to infrastructure – the fact that cycling in too many places either is, or feels, unsafe. As a kid you tend to cycle shorter distances, often in parks or round local streets. Once you’re at college or in a job, it tends to involve big roads and scary intersections, and unless you’re among the minority of people who don’t mind braving the traffic, the cycling tends to stop.
There’s all sorts of other, interconnected reasons as well. In countries without much of an everyday cycling culture, bikes tend to be associated with, well, children. Cars are treated in the wider culture as the grown-up option. Bikes are for leisure or perhaps exercise. Only by making roads safe can we make cycling a normal way to travel about.
You describe a number of exciting initiatives to increase cycling in cities around the world, from creating separated bike lanes to convenient bike share systems. Most of these seem to take place in large cities. What are some things that can be done to promote cycling in our smaller cities and towns?
Many of the same solutions to prompt more cycling in cities also work in smaller places. In many towns and small cities, lots of people still have commutes of a few miles, and children live within easy riding distance of their schools. Aside from the need for safe infrastructure, one disincentive can often be that driving in a smaller town is fairly easy – unlike in a New York City or a London there’s not the congestion or lack of parking to get people out of cars.
Pollution from vehicles, especially diesel engines, is killing thousands. A pandemic of ill-health caused by too many people living sedentary lives is threatening to bankrupt health services around the globe. What one thing can combat all these? Yes, a lot more people on bikes.
But if you do it properly, everyday cycling can have a huge impact on smaller places. Odense, Denmark’s third-largest city, has about 200,000 people, and it’s pretty spread out. But decades of pro-bike policies – it has almost 350 miles of bike lanes and 123 cyclist-only bridges – means it’s crammed with those on two wheels. The city claims more than 80% of children cycle to school. Yes, it takes political will, but it can be done.
What gives you hope that more people will take to cycling as one of their regular transportation options?
In some ways it feels less a hope than an inevitability – that in many places the repercussions of car-dominated towns and cities means governments will feel they have no choice. Traffic congestion is getting worse, and the era of bulldozing buildings to widen roads has gone. Pollution from vehicles, especially diesel engines, is killing thousands. A pandemic of ill-health caused by too many people living sedentary lives is threatening to bankrupt health services around the globe. What one thing can combat all these? Yes, a lot more people on bikes.
It might not be easy for politicians to do this, but pretty soon it’ll be much easier than the alternatives.
In addition to cycling, any other suggestions for how we can “save the world”?
This somewhat outside the remit of the book, but my purely personal view is that people have to accept the problems caused by an expanding and fast-urbanizing global population are going to accelerate in the coming years. Global warming and climate change is the most immediately critical, and this is where agitation and voting makes the most difference. Sure, reduce your own emissions, but this is a problem that can only be challenged on a government-wide level.
And this might not make me hugely popular to all readers, but I’d recommend giving up meat, or at least limiting what you consume. The global meat industry is a vastly wasteful way of producing calories.