In 1981 Norman Tebbit, then Employment Secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, famously said of his father, facing unemployment in the 1930s:
“He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking until he found it.”
The image of the bike here does a lot of work: it’s a symbol of thrift and self-reliance, personal responsibility and individualism: one man literally making his way in the world through his own effort.
Pretty much the same kind of image is promoted these days by the highly-paid executives who choose to cycle to work. Their choice, in the land of the ubiquitous car, is a representation of muscular individualism. One of the many interesting points made by Elizabeth in her talk in the last Sunday Assembly is that a lot of the pressure for cycle lanes in London is actually coming from companies like Google, where employees are positively encouraged to come in to work on bikes.
According to Elizabeth, however, the case for cycling goes way beyond these individualistic instances, into more progressive realms. Indeed, she began with the bold claim that cycling is the solution to everything. It turned out that this was a mite hyperbolic – it is not, for instance, the mysterious unifying principle that unites theories of gravity and quantum physics – but she argued, based upon published data, that it could make a big difference to each of health spending, congestion, pollution, economic stagnation and climate change.
To expand on these points: regular cyclists are generally healthier. This cuts costs both to the NHS and to regular employers, since they take fewer sick days. They are more willing and able to take local trips, which fuels local economies. They do not add to car congestion – no bikes on the elongated car-park called the M1 – and bikes are obviously non-polluting, both in terms of greenhouse gases and particulates.
Of course, one thing that puts people off cycling is the crazy car folk, who love to turn left without checking their mirrors and seem genuinely offended that people in more basic forms of transport are let loose on their beloved tarmac. But some very interesting stats were provided by Elizabeth, showing that not only do the health benefits of cycling far outweigh the risks, but also that the more people cycle, the lower the individual risks get, due to an increased acceptance and understanding of cyclists. Some countries are particularly good in relation to cycling – Holland being an obvious example – and it seems clear that Britain could reap similar benefits. (And then perhaps in place of the prolific ‘Fast and Furious’ film franchise we might end up enjoying the much more uplifting ‘Slow but Cheerful 6’ at the local pedal-in cinema).
The Sunday Assembly was hosted with gusto by Jen, which aroused mixed emotions. On the one hand she was great at it, all enthusiastic and amusing, but on the other hand this was her last Assembly for the foreseeable, since she’s off to teach English to foreigners (and can’t cycle back of a weekend).
The band is also on hiatus at the moment, as it’s examination season, but we hope to have them back fairly soon, to welcome in a new set of exciting speakers.
And that’s about enough from me: look forward to seeing you all at the next Assembly!