Beverley is a nice little place. There’s a massive old church here and the friary—which hasn’t been occupied by friars for hundreds of years—has been converted to a charming hostel.
The warped wood beams, creaky spiral staircases, and stonework are beautiful. There’s a women’s dorm, men’s dorm, and a main kitchen with a huge wood table and tiled floor. Last night the women’s dorm was full of old ladies with white hair. I was the youngest person by several decades. They are all from Wales and are visiting different religious landmarks throughout the UK. I like the old ladies. They all went to bed at about 9:30, but before they put their sleeping masks on they all double-checked that their “torches” were easily assessable so they could safely make it to the “loo” in the middle of the night. I listened to the sound of snoring old ladies and the wind trying to creep through the uneven windows of the friary as I went to sleep.
I left London on Saturday morning, but it feels like it’s been longer than five days. Getting out of London was difficult. It’s a sprawling city and it took me almost two hours to find the bike path I wanted to be on. The bike path went through east London and past the site of the future Olympic stadium. The frame of the stadium has been built and is surrounded by ripped up water mains, exposed dirt, cranes, and temporary chain link fences. I got out of the core of the city and pushed into the poorer neighborhoods where there doesn’t seem to be as much green space and people don’t linger. Then I hit the industrial areas where I smelled the garbage transfer station and saw low-flying planes headed for the airport. Then I got to the suburbs where the houses all look the same and there are two cars in every driveway. Then I finally saw a horse, then sheep, and then cows. When I saw the cows I knew I’d made it to the countryside, but by then I had a dull headache. I’d waited too long to eat. I wanted to get out of the city before I stopped and kept telling myself that I would just push on a little longer, but suddenly I felt depleted and I’d lost the cycle route too. I was in a bad mood; mad at whoever installed these cycle route markers. I sat down in the middle of a deserted sidewalk next to a busy road and made a Nutella banana sandwich. I watched the cars speed by and could actually feel my blood sugar level rise as I ate. My headache went away and I knew that I needed to retrace my steps. I needed to go back to the last cycle route marker I had seen and look more carefully for the next marker. This worked. I had missed a marker, but I was back on track. A small victory.
I pressed on and for about 10 miles the route went along a canal and was very easy to follow. I let my mind wander. I think a lot about my friends and my family while I’m riding. It makes me feel happy and less alone. I thought about my group of girlfriends from Wellesley and how we’re endlessly silly when we see each other—only once or twice a year now. I thought about my best friend from home, Darby. I miss the way Darby tells stories. I miss how it’s impossible for her to talk without making hand gestures. I miss her dirty jokes. I think about how Darby has always been the cool one and usually way ahead of me when it comes to fashion, trends, and what new bars to go to. I think about how cool Darby would look on a Dutch bike with a basket. I had drinks in London with Jim Davis, the founder of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain and he told me that people in the UK “gorge themselves on American culture.” Holland is only a few hundred miles away from London, but Jim explained that, “we have our backs turned to Europe. If cycling became popular in the US, the UK would fall too.” Jim and I were drinking white wine at a bustling bar in Trafalgar Square and we started getting creative. We talked about product placement and how helpful it would be if Scarlett Johansson or Jennifer Aniston rocked a Dutch bike—rather than an SUV—as their primary means of transportation in their next blockbuster film. I don’t know very much about product placement, but I have a feeling it’s expensive. I also have no personal connections to Scarlett Johansson or Jennifer Aniston. The point is that normalizing cycling is hugely important and many of us look to the media, pop culture, or trend mavens like Darby to construct our personal definition of “normal” or “cool.” Jim brought me a report summarizing the results of a three year study done on cycling and walking in the UK. 1 The researchers surveyed almost 1,500 people and found that there were three key factors preventing higher rates of active transportation.
- Concerns about the physical environment, especially with regard to safety when walking or cycling
- The difficulty of fitting walking or cycling into complex household routines (especially with young children)
- The perception that walking and cycling are in some ways abnormal things to do.
Point three reminds me of a story Roos Stallinga told me when I met with her in Amsterdam. One of her Dutch friends had recently been in Atlanta and decided to walk, with her kid, to the grocery store from their hotel. It wasn’t a really long walk, maybe a mile each way, but along a busy road. While they were walking two car drivers pulled over to ask Roos’ friend if she needed a ride, assuming that her car had broken down. The thoughtful drivers were confused when Roos’ friend explained that she was walking to the grocery store—on purpose. I’ve thought about this story again and again. It bugs me because it elucidates just how abnormal utility walking has become in parts of the US.
The UK has the highest obesity levels in Europe and less than a third of UK residents are meeting minimum exercise recommendations. The higher levels of obesity are apparent when you look around at adults—and sadly many children too. I met with Matt Winfield in London who works for an organization called Sustrans. The mission of Sustrans is to get people in the UK to start walking, biking, or using public transportation rather than driving. They did a survey last year and found that 46 percent of children in the UK would like to bike to school. Currently only four percent of children bike, but Sustrans has started a program to work with parents and teachers to develop pro-cycling cultures and bike commute groups at select schools around the country. Sustrans also believes that communities should be designed so that children can be ”free range kids.” A free range kid is a lot like a free range animal. According to Sustrans a free range kid should be able to:
- Walk and cycle safely on their own
- Meet friends and play
- Have access to green spaces
- Live in an unpolluted environment
Shouldn’t adults have access to a free range lifestyle too? I looked at the Seattle Times a few days ago and was saddened to read about the death of another cyclist. I read all 242 comments and felt a range of emotions. It’s hard not to get frustrated when you read comments from people who feel that cycling is just “an unnecessary risk in modern America.”
I met this guy yesterday, Tony. I was lost. I had just crossed the Humber Bridge and, according to my map, there was supposed to be a bike path to Beverly after I got off the bridge. I thought I’d found the bike path until I realized it took me to a highway on-ramp.
I followed another sign and after about ten minutes ended up back at the bridge. I was going in circles. There was no one to ask for directions because everyone was in their cars. I’d originally wanted to make it further north, but got lost a few times earlier in the day too, and I was already feeling like just making it the ten more miles to Beverly would represent a defeat. It started to rain. I wanted to pass the decision-making baton to someone else. I spent a little while paralyzed—not wanting to take the main roads packed with fast-moving cars, but also certain I was never going to find this bike path. Finally another cyclist went by. He actually stopped to put his rain jacket on right in front of me. “You’re not going to Beverley, are you?” I asked desperately. He said he was, in fact, headed to Beverly. I was so relieved and asked him if I could follow him. He said yes, but warned me that it was ten miles. I said that I could handle the ten miles as long as he led the way to the bike path. “What bike path?” Tony said. It turned out there wasn’t really a bike path to Beverley, but I did get to experience Tony’s daily commute. Most of his ride is along a main road with almost no shoulder where cars are going about 50 mph. There were these stormwater drains about every 300 yards and biking over them really jostled my bike, but I was afraid just to move a foot or two to the right to get around them because cars were passing so close to us. While we were riding I kept thinking about how I wasn’t sure I’d be able to handle this commute, but then I saw about five more bikers going in the opposite direction and I started to think that maybe I could get used to this commute because not being able to bike everyday would drive me crazy. Not being able to bike would be risky to my physical and mental health. Tony took me to the entrance of the hostel and I asked him if he did that commute every day. “Yep, it keeps me fit,” he said straightforwardly. Then he shook my hand.
I think people like Tony brave dangerous roads because they have busy lives, but the desire to get outside and move every day, feel the elements, and be connected to nature in some way overpowers the fear. I think it may get down to a very primal level. Going Monday through Friday—week after week—in offices, behind the steering wheel, on the bus, in a stuffy gym, and under the roof of our homes makes some of us feel caged, isolated, and anxious. Some of us can’t wait for the weekend to get outside and move. Some of us feel like we should be able to move our bodies from home to work to the grocery store without the protection of a polluting, expensive, 4,000 pound car. Some of us feel like we should be able to live in a healthy habitat that makes meeting basic exercise recommendations an inevitable and embedded part of our day. Some of us want to be free range humans.