Fear of the unknown

Jim mentions the difficulties of bicycle maintenance and repair as a barrier to cycling. It’s one of several minor barriers to cycling — nothing compared with the problem of the uncomfortable, intimidating and dangerous environment that is so many of our roads and streets, but a real effect nonetheless. It’s actually part of a larger barrier: a combination of not knowing how it’s done, and not having adjusted to it. How do you know what clothes you need? What do you need to see by and be seen at night? Do you need special shoes? How do you carry things? On a rack? But then, how do I know which one fits this bike? Isn’t it a hassle having to unlock the garden shed, move the lawn mower out of the way, and carry it through the house to the front drive every time you have a journey to make?

Stephen discusses the perception that rail travel is expensive, and Simon the idea that it’s difficult and unpleasant. Everyone knows that a train journey costs hundreds of pounds, will be very late, and you’ll be standing in the corridors with smelly and possibly dangerous strangers, but they wouldn’t know, if they were to ever have to use a train, how to find out the times, how they would carry and look after their luggage, how they’d make their connection, or how to complete the final mile from the station. They’d spend ages looking for the right ticket type and checking they were pressing the right buttons on the ticket machine, and they wouldn’t be able to find the right exit at the big city terminus. It’s just so difficult and complicated. Similarly, buses are very difficult: you’re not sure exactly where to get one, how to pay, what to say to the driver (is one supposed to leave a tip?), how to make it stop — or even where to make it stop — and how early to get to the bus station to ensure you don’t miss the last one home.

Obviously all this is nonsense. Bicycle maintenance is almost as easy as riding a bike: you just wheel it down to the bicycle mechanic’s shop once you’ve learned it by making a few mistakes, you always know how. Train travel even easier. Of the countless (certainly well into three figures) assorted train journeys I’ve made in the past year and a half, including travelling most of the length of the country and back five times (I am a bad person and do not endorse such hypermobility), I’ve never paid more than £56.75 (PNR-EUS after a last minute change of plans), rarely paid much more than £15, stood in the corridors for a total of about half an hour, missed a booked train once, witnessed one fight (MCV-TOD on a sat eve), and had to change plans due to total service failure (GLC-ADS) once. Mostly they have been easy, relaxed, delightful, productive, or, at the very least, fine. And much of it excellent value — especially the three pence per mile for the Highland Sleepers, with bed, lounge, and tea in the morning included. You just need to know where and when to book in advance, who to go to for help, and which journeys would be quicker on a different line or cheaper by leaving half an hour later, or with a rover or season ticket. Those aren’t things that require lessons or study or investing time and effort. You don’t have to make many journeys before you just remember that trains always call at X, Y and Z minutes past the hour, the cheaper services start at 08:Z, and the ones at Y minutes past are quicker, or have more seats, or one of those other things that one picks up without any effort.

What must really be difficult and expensive is driving. I wouldn’t know where to start. Well, getting lessons and a license, I guess, but how do you go about doing that and how much does that cost? At least, judging from the competence of much of the driving I see, you’re not required to actually be very good at it, otherwise I doubt they’d ever let me do it, even if I wanted to: it looks complicated and I’m not sure if I’d really get the hang of it. And then getting a car. What kind? There are so many different makes and models — presumably all for different uses. I wouldn’t want to accidentally buy a racing car or mountain car if what I needed was a utility or touring car. And I’ve heard about car manufacturers and salesfolk. How do you know it’s good quality, ethically sourced, and not a scam or stolen goods? And drivers keep moaning about things like “road tax”: how do you know all these different bits of bureaucracy you need to get and pay for? What happens if you forget one of them? Are they for life, or do you need to remember to renew? What do you do if something breaks? It’s surely far too complicated to fix it yourself. How do you even do the refuelling thing? Perhaps there’s a tutorial on YouTube…

That’s all before you’ve even started driving it. How do you time the journey right? It’s obvious when trains and buses are due, and the average speed of a journey by foot or by bicycle has little journey-to-journey or day-to-day variation — we can all make a reasonably accurate estimate of a foot or bicycle journey time, it’s like language: just a skill we pick up over time as kids. But drivers seem to get themselves into all sorts of time-consuming queues that fluctuate during the day and over time according to patterns that I have difficulty following: I assume they have to pad all of their journeys to take such unpredictable variation into account? What do you do about the motion sickness? Doesn’t it get smelly, the confined enclosed space? What about when it rains: how do you see out of it? How do you find time to write blog posts if you can’t do them while on a long journey? Doesn’t it get boring having to just sit there concentrating on the job of driving? And don’t you get fat? How do you stop that? What about storing the thing? Judging from what I’ve seen around town, you can just store your car on any vaguely flat surface, and there are a lot of them, but what do you do if you get to your destination and there isn’t a convenient bit of road, footway, cycle path, field, park, cemetery, village green, or somebody’s front garden available that doesn’t already have somebody else’s car stored on it? And it must be a lot of hassle organising everything around having to return to the spot where you stored it. It all just sounds way too complicated.

Even leaving aside the expense and sheer impracticality of motoring, the complexity of it and the the length of the list of things you would have to find out about, learn how to do, and remember each time you wanted to make a journey — the known unknowns that I’ve listed and the unknown unknowns that might come as a shock — is frightening. The idea of adopting a new mode of transport is genuinely overwhelming. You’d have to adjust your whole life to it, and there are a million better things you could be doing with your time. Give me a simple bicycle and a railcard every time: you always know where you are with those.

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10 responses to “Fear of the unknown

  1. Don’t most people see car ownership as a rite of passage and status symbol? Hence I suspect the reason that I casually rode past a few £millions worth of metal (including a grey Ferrari sat idling in a fairly long diversion traffic jam) this morning on my £450 bike? Yeah that sounds like a great way to show what a “success” you are…..

    It is amazing when you lay it out like that just how willing people are to learn to drive, pay all the associated costs and devote so much time to it. Then there are the on-going costs which could never be described as small!

    Bike maintenance isn’t “that bad” but then I’ve always been a rather practical person. Given that most of the moving parts on a bike are visible I think it’s fairly obvious how they work and given the condition of some bikes I’ve seen and owned even if they are neglected they can still be used with either no outlay or after having some relatively simple parts replaced (chain, tyres, inner tubes etc.) anything more complicated can be dealt with fairly cheaply at a LBS if you don’t have the tools (as I recently did with my headset replacement) Compare that to the teeth sucking car garages and their insanely high labour charges it’s a wonder people use cars!

    • I find bike maintenance really hard physically (both on the strength side and the precision work side); fortunately I have a LBS 5mins walk from my work who charge extremely reasonable prices to wrestle the bike into submission – compared to the amounts that my parents pay to keep their car going the cost of the occasional tyre change is tiny.

    • Here in the States, it tends to break down when you hit the the smartphone generation. Then the portable electronic gear that you have and the length of your follow list on various social media are competing status symbols, and driving is more something that makes it tricky to respond to a text.

  2. I find bike maintenance is usually delightfully easy, but I’ve seen evidence (rescued trash bicycles) that this is not true for everyone.

  3. Possibly the best post ever on the barriers to driving.

    We need a government initiative to help overcome these. I propose tax breaks (say, by presenting the costs as X, when ignoring all the externalities, Y, which are funded by the tax payer in general), coupled with massive subsidies (a.k.a. “investments in the future”) for all industries involved in building cars or roads, or anyone who’s anything to do with creating employment in the oil & gas industries. Also, by law TV & print media should be forced to carry the subliminal message that “driving a car = success” at every possible opportunity.

    Oh, hang on a minute. I’ve been beaten to it by every single government for the last sixty years. Damn.

  4. I do actually feel *exactly* that way about cars. Just too bloody difficult and complicated and scary… That’s what happens if you wait till you’re almost 30 to get your licence.

    • Aye. I think some readers thought I was taking the piss (well, maybe I was, just a little bit, with the seeing out in the rain stuff), because clearly they’re so used to motoring that none of these things are “unknown” to them and they can’t imagine them being unknown to others. I’m entirely serious: from here, taking up driving looks ridiculously complicated, time consuming and expensive, and not remotely worth the hassle. It could surely only make life more difficult and less enjoyable.

  5. I never even thought of bike maintenance as a real barrier. The reason I didn’t cycle even when it would’ve been the fastest way to get to work is lack of bike storage at home, except lugging it up to my small fifth-floor apartment. In New York every bike that’s left on the street will be stolen within the hour, so in-building bike storage is a necessity.

  6. Most of my regular social circle are non-drivers. Oddly enough, the ones who have decided to invest in the ‘freedom’ afforded by personal car ownership are often the ones I see least often. I’m not sure if this is a result of the extra costs from driving (the ones which aren’t footed by the rest of us that is) eating into money spent on socialising, or merely that car ownership breeds car dependence, with being the only stone-cold sober one in the pub because you chose to drive there taking some of the fun out of that kind of socialising…

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