Saturday, 23 February 2008

Car sharing: why can't we think beyond cars?

Car sharing is in the news again as various cities look to ease congestion by reducing the number of cars with only one person in them (four out of every five, according the the BBC report).

The BBC's article includes someone from the AA trotting out the most common objection to car-sharing, which is that it obliges people -- who often won't not know each other well -- to adjust their working patterns so they start and end work at the same time. With the sorts of jobs so many people do, this isn't possible. Therefore, people conclude, car sharing cannot work.

What a staggering lack of imagination! Why on earth don't people see that there are any number of solutions that just don't involve a car at all? It's pretty odd, when you think about it, that people spend so much time travelling alone in vehicles designed to carry five, and which fill up the road just as much to carry one person as their full complement. You wouldn't book five seats in a cinema if you were going there alone. So why don't people consider single-occupant vehicles, such as scooters and motorcycles, more often? Again, it has to be that the car is so amazingly dominant in our collective psyche that their use is totally habitual and alternatives, despite their being plentiful, much cheaper and logically more appropriate, simply never occur to people. So everybody carries on using completely, wildly, infuriatingly inappropriate vehicles to get around and our cities get less and less pleasant and accessible.

Or is it, to build on a conversation I had last night, something to do with labeling? Perhaps most people do not consider a motorcycle, for example, because they simply cannot conceive of the label 'motorcyclist' applying to them? Answers on a postcard, please.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Slippery manhole covers get the push, and not before time

Whilst cycling over the years, I've had quite a few close calls with manhole covers. When wet, or polished to a mirror-finish by thousands of passing cars, these can be as slippery as... well, I can't think of a colourful simile: as slippery as something really quite slippery that definitely shouldn't be in the middle of the road, is what I'm getting at.

One of the big problems is that because all manner of pipelines and conduits follow the same courses as the roads, manhole covers are particularly prevalent at junctions: they meet one another underground just as the roads meet one another on the surface. This is a nuisance, as junctions are already a threat to vulnerable road users and we don't need them to be made any worse. Slippery bits at a junction are a particular hazard as the turning forces make cycles and motorcycles ever more likely to fall.

In 2005 I carried out the Oxford and Cambridge Cycling Survey, and the responses we received were full of reports of people coming a cropper on manholes, so I'm very excited to learn that slippery manhole covers could soon be a thing of the past across Europe. But it's really interesting to consider why they have existed as long as they have. The clear explanation is that small slippery spots on the road just don't pose a threat to cars - if one wheel is on a slippery spot, the other three will compensate - especially on modern cars with clever traction controls that will quite literally compensate for the lost grip under one tyre. Since cars aren't affected by little slippery spots, Mr Average Public has never seen them as an issue.

When you ride a single-track vehicle, however, such as a bicycle or motorcycle, I can assure you that small slippery spots on the road are really quite a big deal. It's pretty difficult to escapable the conclusion that the problem would have been sorted decades earlier except that it was a problem only affecting minority road-users. It's one more reason why everybody should have to spend a few months cycling before they are allowed to drive. Yes, my friends: that's the master plan and I'll explain it another time.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Sheldon Brown

I've just learnt from the CTC's newsletter that Sheldon Brown has died. If you don't know who Sheldon was, then all I can say is you have probably never repaired a bicycle. For years Sheldon's website has been the first port of call for anybody seeking answers to difficult or esoteric questions about bicycle building and maintenance. And what they found there was practically an encyclopaedia of incredibly well-informed material which Sheldon shared selflessly with the world. There are probably thousands of people internationally who have learnt the difficult art of wheelbuilding at his virtual knee. Surely nobody in the last decade has dealt with a tandem without seeing what he had to say about the subject first.

Sheldon was intelligent, witty and wonderfully eccentric. And with his interest in language he would, unlike my spellchecker, even have appreciated my spelling of 'encyclopaedia' in the last paragraph. He'll be much missed. Thanks for everything.