We Live in a Beautiful Place Ruined by Cars and Pollution

The beautiful South Downs with the English Channel in the background

We have the sea a couple of miles or so to the south of us, and the hilly countryside about the same distance to the north. You would think that it would be a paradise for cycling in the UK, but unfortunately, that couldn’t be further from the case.

Between the hills and the English Channel are houses, roads and cars as far the eye can see. There are no bike paths, but there are drivers in huge cars who hate you because you’re on a bicycle. The air is thick with pollution from car exhausts, wood burning stoves, petrol lawnmowers, strimmers and chainsaws; even bonfires. I don’t know if the pollution gets worse every year, but it definitely feels like that. And it’s not even just when you’re outside that you feel it. During the summer garden work season, but mostly in winter, you get hit with it immediately upon cracking the window.

It’s really unpleasant, and you really get an idea for how bad it is when you go out at night. I used to like going for bike rides at 10 or 11 at night when it was quiet. At that time, there were almost no cars and therefore no exhaust emissions. But even then, the crisp, cool air was still incredibly smokey. You can only get that kind of continuous daily pollution around here because of wood burning.

In terms of open spaces, our parks are few and far between. They’re small, they’re basic, anti-cycling, unlit (and therefore scary at night); and have barely seen improvement since I was born 34 years ago. There aren’t really any nice sights that you’d find on a casual walk around the town either. It’s nothing like in Japan where you’re never far away from the next temple or shrine, or other beautiful piece of architecture or patch of nature.

In terms of alleyways and other pedestrian infrastructure, they’re narrow, dirty, and dark with high walls. Not the kind of place you’d want to go at night, and not really during the day either. They’re also not cycling friendly as you might expect. It doesn’t compare well at all to somewhere like Singapore, which has its PCN (Park Connector Network). The car free routes connect up parks in the city, as you would expect. They’re wide and open, with space on both sides. It never feels closed in like alleyways here, and Singapore is far from a bicycle friendly city itself. The reason for the huge difference is that a town like Worthing was built to maximise every bit of space for homes and other development. Nothing was left unused. Preserving natural beauty was not considered. They only considered a future of cars and houses. Nature didn’t matter, cycling didn’t matter because cars now existed and were supposedly better in every way.

It’s not hard to see how the way the town was designed and built has lead to one of the least progressive councils in the country, where nothing ever gets done. But the great thing is that, while it would be difficult to fix all of the disastrous design mistakes, there are things we could do to make the best of what we have. Banning private cars, banning wood burning, bonfires, petrol garden tools, private fireworks for example. If we only did these things, the difference would be massive and immediate. It’s not going to happen because of politics, but it can happen because of the climate crisis.

Even just in the last week, we’ve seen widespread flash flooding across the country. We’re seeing it more and more this year and it does feel like something has to give soon. We have COP26 coming up, and while I have no faith in any political action at either the local or national level, as I’ve mentioned many times; it does present a huge opportunity for people to realise that politicians and corporations aren’t coming to save us. We have to boycott business and make the lives of politicians a living hell to the point where they don’t want to stay in office. That’s basically our only chance now.

We Need Weatherproof Bikes, Boards, Scooters and Skates

We know that cars are on the way out, at least in terms of local trips. We know that the climate has changed significantly already (we’re already above 1.5c compared to 1750) and it’s only going to continue getting worse for a long time to come. And that means more rain.

So therefore it stands to reason that people are going to be riding bikes and scooters much more for commuting and fun. And they’ll almost certainly be skating, skateboarding and long-boarding more as well. Every time you get rid of cars, everyone’s out on the streets with the skates or boards they found at the back of the cupboard and dusted off.

The problem is that all of these wheeled objects are incredibly badly suited to riding in wet conditions. There are some bikes that are much better suited to riding in rain and on wet roads, but even they are not perfect. Skateboards, skates and scooters are not even close to weather resistant. Ride any of them on a wet day once and your bearings will be shot. Now is the time for innovation from these industries. You could argue that people won’t skate on rainy days, but I think they will. Dry ground days are going to be few and far between in the wetter months. But even if that were true, people will be commuting on e-scooters, and many of them are currently not designed for wet weather riding either.

As far as cycling, this challenge means a rapid move away from exposed chain and derailleur systems and towards belts or chain cases (which I’ve argued for many times already). But there are many other parts on even the most protected Dutch bike that will still rust and go wrong very quickly when used in the rain a lot and kept in less-than-ideal conditions.

At the moment it’s hard to really see this change happening, especially for the more leisure equipment. But as the demise of the car becomes more obvious in the next year or two, we will start to see something happen. Sales of skates and boards will increase as people get inspired by empty streets, and that will lead to a bigger R&D spend, and hopefully the innovation we’re looking for.

It can’t continue to be the case that products are being sold that aren’t designed to be used in the way the manufacturers know people are going to use them. Just from a pure sustainability point of view this needs to change very quickly.

Bike Tech is Still Unbelievably Boring

The types of innovations that excite me in cycling are things related to reliability, durability and sustainability and cargo. I don’t really care about aerodynamics, weight reduction or high end materials. They’re not relevant to 99.9% of people and they are usually anything but sustainable.

Good things are happening. You just need to look at Riese & Muller, Urban Arrow, Tern, Gocycle, Bosch, Yamaha, Rohloff, Pinion, NUA Bikes, Nicolai and many others to see that. But all the good that is being done is being dwarfed by the stagnation and lack of useful innovation happening elsewhere.

Look at Specialized’s website for example. Every single model they offer is fitted with derailleur gears. They ditched their urban brand Globe many years ago. That was the only good thing they’ve done in my opinion. Everything else has been innovation in the wrong areas. Yeah, the Levo is a great electric mountain bike, but EMTBs aren’t going to free us from cars. They’re just fucking up the world more. Allowing more people to fuck up the countryside than ever before. And driving their bikes out there with their big SUVs.

It’s not enough for belt drives and gearboxes to still be niche in 2020. We need them to be mainstream if we’re going to get rid of cars from our urban and suburban areas. People want bikes that need a simple service once a year, like a car. They want tyres that don’t need inflating once a week, like a car. Schwalbe seems to understand that. I’m very excited about their new Aerothan tubes. But it definitely feels like most of the industry doesn’t get any of this. The U.K. cycling media most definitely doesn’t based on what I’ve seen. They approach everything from a performance perspective. If we’re going to see an urban cycling takeover, it’s not going to be anything to do with them.

But at the end of the day, it always comes back to the car culture. As long as bicycles are not treated as serious vehicles in a society, people will not be willing to spend the money required to get all of the benefits of the type of bike tech I support.

I’m tired of being met with a sea of rusty old derailleur equipped bikes at every bike park. And even at bike shops, seeing nothing but derailleur bikes in 2020. We desperately need change now. As much as I love Shimano, they are hugely to blame for this current situation we’re facing. They need to stop making derailleurs for non-race bikes and strongly push manufacturers to make the shift to gear hubs. And they need to come out with a gearbox, as has been rumoured, that really pushes the bike industry in a new direction.

Personal Green Transportation, what are the options?

This is something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot recently. I don’t own a car and I don’t intend to any time soon but I do want an alternative to walking or taking the bus around.

The obvious answer would be to cycle. And while that was my initial thought, road / pavement cycling laws aren’t clearly defined from what I can tell, and generally speaking, I’d prefer to be away from traffic especially since the area around where I live always has heavy traffic. The stress of not knowing what’s behind you along with the petrol fumes really add up to make it a very un-enticing proposition.

That’s a shame because when I used to cycle to school and college for around 6 years when I was younger I really enjoyed it, and I’ve always had a love of mountain biking and extreme sports so it is disappointing that the local council don’t seem to be too worried about making permanent cycle lanes in order to make cyclists feel safe and get more people out there on bikes and getting fitter.

Once you get past bikes, the only real viable alternative that I can think of is inline skating. Skating is an interesting subject law wise. From what I understand, skaters aren’t classified as either a pedestrian or a road user. This means that technically they should be able to skate on the pavement as long as they are mindful of pedestrians and are courteous. Similarly, on an empty road it should be legal to skate along it while being very careful to watch for cars and bikes / cyclists.

While they aren’t as fast as a bike, they do provide an excellent workout and of course are a lot of fun too as well as being considerably faster than walking and comparable to jogging or running at a medium to fast pace, depending on the surface and effort being put in of course.

Not only that, but generally speaking there’s a lot less that can go wrong with a good pair of skates than a bike with all its brakes and puncture vulnerable tires, not to mention bikes are big and you most likely won’t be able to keep an eye on it all the time in which case theft or damage is a possibility. Skates can go in a bag to be replaced by shoes when you need to switch.

Aside from these options, there’s always things like skateboards but they aren’t very practical at all for anything other than tricks.

If you want to bring electrical based devices into the fray as well, then hybrid bikes are surely going to catch on in the near future and if they can store energy from braking or simply the wheels spinning in order to generate extra power for the battery, then that could be an excellent choice moving forward.

Unfortunately, things akin to Segways will most likely stay as a novelty and for police forces in city centres. They just look too ridiculous and too hard to control for the majority of people to get behind. Plus, Segways aren’t necessarily green depending on where they power used to charge them up comes from.

Maybe sometime in the future we might even see intelligent hybrid skates which store energy to give you a small boost in performance when you don’t have to slow down for a significant distance, or possibly cause lights to glow on the skate itself to improve night time visibility. There are lots of possibilities for the future of personal transportation and as technology continues to advance, we’ll certainly see these new advances applied to tried and tested products like bikes or skates.