Life, etc

Letter from The Hague: Cycling as society’s great leveller

By Yves Vanderhaeghen 1 December 2015

Cars, when they are not smashing into each other, wreak havoc on our sense of human solidarity and connectedness. To be in public is to be exposed; exposed to strangers. Cycling as a way of life, as it is here in Holland, makes that less scary. A shared affluence does help. By YVES VANDERHAEGHEN.

Two bicycles and a car converge on the same point. You know what happens, right? Wrong. Smiles all round, the driver mea culpas his hands, and all three carry on along their way. Road rage Dutch-style on a bridge in Amsterdam.

The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything may be 42, if you take Deep Thought’s word for it, but I reckon it’s more like 18 million. Bicycles. That’s how many of them there are here in Holland (population: 16,8 million). It’s obvious that they are an answer to traffic congestion. But they are also the answer to social harmony and, I venture, the future of democracy itself. It was striking, when I first arrived in Holland, how liberating it felt to be among all sorts of people in public all the time, where the rich are not all cocooned in their cars, and everyone else is not, by definition, poor. This was in large measure due to the experience of cycling.

Back home in South Africa, one tends to lead a life cosseted in middle-class spaces that are not public. Home, obviously, and work, and the mall and in the car between them all. The mall does not count as public space; it’s private property, policed by private security, a space inimical to a range of undesirables most notable among which are various social leftovers and what have quaintly been called “deficient consumers”, in other words those who can’t spend. The result is that one is permanently insulated from HPV, the hoi-polloi virus. How we, collectively, carve out our space and who we share it with gives shape to inequality and exclusion, and determines our experience of each other (or lack of it). Oppressively sterile buildings and gated suburbs do their own kind of damage to co-existence, and foster an aversion to strangers.

Cycling as an integral element of daily life (as opposed to a mere lifestyle question) breaks down some of these barriers, but it does so in Holland because of a through-and-through engineering of landscape, cities and laws. It is not just about following the rules and being nice; being nice follows from having things in place which make it possible, almost automatic. It comes from being able to take basics for granted. The blueprint is an integrated national cycle path network of 35,000 kilometres. There are cycle paths across fields and dunes, through forests, in cities. But there are also cars and trams and, of course, pedestrians that come into the picture, and yet traffic flows relatively seamlessly according to laws of common sense as much as regulation. If we’ve heard half a dozen hooters in a month, it’s a lot.

I think it must have something to do with vulnerability, and how the most vulnerable are protected and deferred to. Cars stop for bikes, bikes for pedestrians, cyclists pause for each other. We cause the locals some irritation when we stop even when we have right of way, simply because we cannot get it into our heads that as we approach crossings cars will stop for us. Not maybe, not sometimes, but always. Maybe the fact that the law makes drivers responsible for the cyclists’ safety has something to do with this. It doesn’t favour the strongest. The result is that the weakest are safe to venture out. It’s not uncommon to see a mother cycling with a tot in the handlebar seat, while father herds two more little ones behind, like ducklings.

The risk, therefore, is not high, and so the need to be defensive towards other road users, and by extension other people, is low. Cycling helmets are a rarity, and seen only on sports cyclists out training, or tiny children starting to learn the rules of the road. Even the most common bikes, omi-fietse or granny-bikes, encourage an upright, open-chested riding posture. It’s comfortable, inviting, exposing and yet secure in its vulnerability. This makes contact with others direct and personal. How often we feel, and how often we hear others say, that this is such gentle place, full of gentle people.

There’s plenty of research showing that drivers of cars feel entitled and able, shielded by tin, vanity plates and tinted windows, to behave anti-socially and with impunity. Cars, when they are not smashing into each other, wreak havoc on our sense of human solidarity and connectedness. To be in public is to be exposed; exposed to strangers. Cycling as a way of life, as it is here in Holland, makes that less scary. A shared affluence helps.

It is not that everyone is all matey all of a sudden, just because their bums are in the saddle and not all in the butter, which, truth be told, they mostly are. It’s that, every day, there is a regular opportunity for what the philosopher Hannah Arendt called “warm impersonality”. Driving in a world where cars and trucks own the road encourages us to be irrational, angry, to make everyone else the idiot, summed up by a Facebook friend’s quip the other day: “You have to love New York, where drivers yell sarcastically at pedestrians – who happen to be middle aged British tourists – for not crossing the road fast enough.”

Cycling in a world where bicycles and pedestrians rule encourages co-operation and courtesy, and where it is the powerful who defer to the weak, doesn’t solve inequality (which is hardly visible here), but it does create an egalitarian common ground where diverse lives intersect as a matter of course, without accident. One where it is more common to assume that someone’s made a mistake because they’re having a bad hair day than that they’re an idiot. That seems a good basis for building a better society, than to be screaming “You *^%^#&**” all the time. DM

Photo of The Hague by Lisa via Flickr.

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