Saturday, 6 December 2014

Passing the Test...

"She's passed her driving test!", my partner said to me last week. Her younger sister Jenny* had been taking lessons for several months and had failed her first attempt a few weeks prior.

"Great news," I responded, gritting my teeth slightly as I said so, "I'm made up for her".

For the avoidance of doubt, it's not that I grudge her the acheivement. Passing the driving test is, for many people - especially those not academically-inclined - one of the only times they will attain a valuable, universally recognised qualification since completing secondary education. The simple boost to one's self-esteem shouldn't be discounted either: despite falling levels of ownership, particularly amongst the young, driving remains a key life skill, representing freedom, independence and self-reliance.

In my own case, I started taking lessons at a time when circumstances in my life seemed quite bleak - coming on the back of a failed long-term relationship, a still-born post-academic career and the prospect of festering in no-prospects, minimum wage job. Thus, obtaining a driver's license was - alongside getting a new job and leaving home - a transformative and empowering experience, helping to kick-start both my life and career. Doors open for you; distance and time shrinks; your life stops revolving around bus timetables or the eternal patience of parents; and if (like me) you get a van, you find yourself in demand as your friend's and family's de-facto removals person - all of a sudden, you've become useful.

The problem is that none of this comes for free. Getting regular access to a vehicle also coincided with not insignificant weight gain on my part - I went up two trouser sizes in as many years post-qualification and have never gotten back down to my optimum weight ever since. All those lessons weren't cheap and neither is fuel - just keeping my old jalopy on the road took a fair old chunk out of my disposable income. I still shudder at the memory of parting with the best part of £200 for vehicle recovery after a midnight breakdown on M8.

Then there's the the longer term consequence of driving: its difficult to stop using the car, even if other options are available. Where you might once have jumped on a train or a bus for a short journey, now you inevitably take the car - why risk your new-found skills deteriorating? Thus one ends up locked in a cycle of continuing (and often unnecessary) car dependency. Lastly, you become a constituent part of the bigger problem -  yet another single occupancy vehicle amongst the morass of traffic clogging our arterial routes, choking our air with noise and toxic fumes.

Jenny works for a supermarket just over a mile from she lives in the south-side of Glasgow. She works the night-shift, gathering the various items people have ordered online for delivery later that day. As one might expect, it pays marginally better than a daytime equivalent. The problem is of course getting to work - public transport is either patchy or non-existent when she needs to commute. In addition, she (understandably) feels fearful of walking the 25 minutes from her home to the shop, as the route passes through an area relatively high in crime and where a number of attacks and sexual assaults on women have taken place even within the last few months.

Up until now, she has depended on friends, colleagues or her parents for lifts to work, with the occasional recourse to expensive taxis if need be. Now that she can drive, Jenny has shelled out for a little pre-owned Fiat 500, for which she'll pay upwards of £115 per month, plus tax, insurance and maintenance costs - a significant outlay for someone of already modest means - to make that 1.2 mile journey every day. I doubt she'll do over 5000 miles in a year. In a sense, she is now in the curious position of working a job at unsociable hours in order to make the extra money required to pay for the car to get her to work during those unsociable hours!

The above absurdity simply highlights the fact that, try as governments of all levels might to "encourage" people onto bikes, cycling is neither a realistic option nor even something that would occur to her (or many others in similar positions) as a feasible alternative. Her sister's boyfriend might cycle to work, but he's a weirdo - only misfits and cranks cycle after all...Joking aside, the roads of Britain are just too unfriendly, unwelcoming and dangerous in appearance for the majority of people to envision using a bike for anything useful like commuting.

Surely something is wrong with our transport system if a young woman feels (for whatever reason) that she is obligated to drive a distance which is self-evidently cycle-able in under 10 minutes. It's all very well for me to advocate for cycling as a force for the public good but when it comes to the rational decisions of individuals regarding their safety and convenience in the current transport environment, I cannot in all good conscience criticize her for making the rational and informed decision to become a driver.

The only bone-fide method that's proven to get people out of their cars and onto bikes in significant numbers anywhere in the western world is to build a high quality, comprehensive, well-connected network of cycle paths and other cycle infrastructure such as exists in The Netherlands. In the mean time, until the vexing question of how to persuade people like Jenny to cycle instead of driving can be answered, all efforts by governments (local and national) to get more people to travel in an active manner are doomed to failure.

(*) not her real name.