When I was an academic philosopher, one of the questions my colleagues and peers used to be obsessed with is: ‘What is it like to be a bat?’. Bats navigate by echolocation – creating little sounds and measuring the time it takes for these to rebound from surrounding objects – which is a sensory system quite opaque to the human imagination. And therefore the nature of a bat’s experience is a subject perfect for speculation by philosophers, who are attracted to mystery like iron is to a magnet.
Since those days, I’ve departed the gilded cage of philosophy and ventured into the penurious expanses of running a cycling business. The mission of Cycle Lifestyle is to promote cycling to non-cyclists, so I now find myself asking a new question: ‘What is it like to be a non-cyclist?’
To most cyclists, the answer to this question is just as mysterious as a bat’s experience is to a philosopher. Partly, no doubt, this is because cyclists are not – let me put this as delicately as possible – renowned for their levels of empathy and sensitivity. Cyclists tend to be solitary types, more interested in mechanical, chronological and geographical matters than people.
But, even so, the question of what it is like to be a non-cyclist vexes the most empathetic of cycle campaigners. Choosing not to cycle seems perverse, especially in a city like London. Why would anyone choose to sit in a traffic jam or a cramped tube or a rickety bus, getting stressed out and paying for the privilege, when they could be cruising through pleasant streets on a bicycle, getting fitter and happier, and saving money? It’s a delicious mystery, one which I can’t resist speculating about. You can take the boy out of philosophy but you can’t take philosophy out of the boy.
As it turns out, the mystery evaporates pretty quickly upon investigation, due to a fundamental difference between people and bats: people can talk, so you can ask them about their perspective. Given this, it is sad that many cyclists are tempted to prejudge the mystery’s answer: "non-cyclists are stupid". This is a boomerang of a comment: it says more about the utterer than it does about the target.
So I’ve asked a few non-cyclists why they don’t cycle, and a few answers recur: it’s too dangerous, it’s too hard to navigate, it makes you too sweaty, it’s too cold, it’s too tiring, it takes too long.
I’ve looked into the eyes of people making these kinds of pronouncements, and I think I can see in the reflection where they’re coming from. When you stand beside the road, with vehicles barrelling past, the cold air swirling around, the city sprawled out in all directions like a labyrinth, and cyclists occasionally weaving their way through as delicately as their breath hangs in the air, you suddenly see how intimidating cycling looks to the uninitiated.
Of course, we cyclists know that there’s very little to worry about. The dangers of cycling are overegged, especially when you use backstreets or parks and canals; navigating is simple once you’ve built up a knowledge of useful routes; you don’t sweat too much on a bike, especially if you take it easy; cycling doesn’t make you cold, it warms you up; it’s no more tiring than walking; and usually it’s quicker, door to door, than other modes of urban transport.
Sadly, anxious people have a habit of plugging their ears to rationality. No matter how much you try to convince non-cyclists, they may struggle to empathise with you. To them, you might as well be a bat, with an incomprehensible way of getting around.
Have we reached an impasse? No! To demonstrate to a non-cyclist that cycling isn't quite what they think it is, you need to lead them to the holy grail of subjective experience, the ultimate acid test unavailable to bat-curious philosophers. Take non-cyclists out for a ride. Reassure them that you will keep them safe and take care of the technicalities. Let them see for themselves that their preconceptions are mistaken. Let them appreciate first-hand the joys of cycling.
I’ve been receiving a lot of emails recently from cycle campaign groups asking for money – money which they will no doubt spend on apocalyptic PR, which only further frightens non-cyclists.
This Christmas, if you really want to promote cycling, then organise a bike ride for your family or friends – Boxing Day or New Year’s Day would be a good time. If they don’t own a bicycle, buy them one. Show them how beautiful the world looks from a bike. Show them what it is like to be a cyclist.