Why Don’t We Just Get on Our Bikes?

September 28th, 2019

One of the (many) interesting conversations I have had on Twitter recently has been with Cycle Jamaica, an entity that actively advocates for more Jamaicans to get on their bikes.

I am not talking about those energetic and highly fit people (mostly men) you see out on the Palisadoes and other highways early on Saturday mornings, in their spandex and space-age helmets and riding very cool machines. I am thinking more about the regular bike riders, who just want to get from A to B.

The cool cyclists: the Kingston to Negril Charity Ride.

The cool cyclists: the Kingston to Negril Charity Ride.

About ten years of my life were devoted to cycling. It started in my freshman year at college. Oxford is quite flat and the quickest (and of course cheapest) way of getting around was by bike, over short distances. I had a beloved bike which I painted bright yellow. It did not go fast but it was sturdy.

Later, when I moved outside the town and was earning some money, I got myself a fancy, green and silver racing bike with ten gears. I cycled into town every day – seven or eight miles each way – along a bike path beside a highway for most of the way. I enjoyed it. The bike became an extension of me. It was superb cardio-vascular exercise, and of course did not belch out any fumes.

After moving to the city, I put the bike away in a shed and took a train to work. One day, the bike was gone. I was heartbroken. Thus ended my life affair with cycling, never to be revived.

In Jamaica (unless you belong to one of those uptown biking clubs) there is very little that is cool or enjoyable about riding an ordinary bike. It is what the lower classes do.

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Yes, the way you travel is a status thing. Riding a bike is perhaps slightly above “walk foot” on the social ladder. Just above bikes in the pecking order is traveling on public transport – which would mean a bus of some sort, or a taxi. Next up the ladder is a motorbike, which has a bit of status (especially if it makes a great deal of noise). And then, at the top rung of the ladder is a private motor car – the ultimate goal, whether a regular sedan or (preferably) a gas-guzzling SUV. That’s when you have “arrived” socially.

No wonder our roads are not designed for pedestrians or pedal cyclists; they are the marginalized ones in society, in other words – the poor. Sidewalks are an afterthought, if they exist at all. And bike lanes? What are they? There is no room for them. Roads need to be widened…for cars. That’s the Jamaican philosophy and (climate change emissions and air pollution notwithstanding) we’re sticking to it. Yay for our urban air quality.

Transportation has not entered the equation for our Government when it comes to climate change. The dots have not been connected. Not even trains are being considered. It’s fossil fuel-guzzling vehicles all the way.

Car Free Day in the Cayman Islands. (Photo: Cayman News Service)

Car Free Day in the Cayman Islands. (Photo: Cayman News Service)

On September 22, public servants in the Cayman Islands celebrated a Car Free Day. They cycled, walked, took public transport or car-pooled (well, not entirely car-free, but you get the picture). Next year, their Government wants everyone to take part. Last year, 2,500 cities in 54 countries participated in the day. For Jamaica, it was hardly a blip on the calendar, but Cycle Jamaica says next year something will be organized.

However, we need more than a token recognition that the Almighty Private Motor Vehicle is not the only entity that deserves space on the road. We need proper policies and urban design that will elevate the humble bicycle to the place where I think it belongs. In other countries, bikes are cool. Why not in Jamaica?

Quite apart from the non-existent accommodation for bikes and pedestrians on our roads, whether urban or rural, the fact is that the fewer cars you have on the road, the safer our roads are. Isn’t that obvious? Road safety is certainly an issue. I am not sure that I would venture out on a bike in our roads. Motorists show scant regard for bike riders and so they (and pedestrians too) suffer from a kind of inferiority complex, as Cycle Jamaica points out:

If people feel like an afterthought or like there are no formal rules or considerations for them, they don’t feel a need to obey the same laws. Pedestrians will cross where they like and people biking will do what they want…

Who knows. Pedestrians might get some consideration next. The lowest of the low, about which Bob Marley sang in his pre-BMW days…

My feet is my only carriage, so I’ve got to push on through.

He was singing about Trench Town, where there have been high numbers of pedestrian fatalities in the past few years, by the way (the St. Andrew South Division).

Perhaps we need to import more (and cheaper) bicycles. After all, we have the cheap “Yeng Yeng” motorbikes that annoy us all to death. Oh, that’s another plus for pedal bikes… No noise pollution whatsoever, unless your bike needs oiling and has developed a bit of a squeak.

Or, let’s build a bike factory. Whatever the solution, it’s time bikes came into their own.

Pedal bikes shouldn't just be a tourist attraction.

Pedal bikes shouldn’t just be a tourist attraction, either.

 

 

 

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