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I remember when I was a kid growing up in Wishaw. We'd always be out playing in the street, come snow or shine (okay, perhaps not in the rain). We knew all the neighbours, and there was a real sense of community. Wishaw was a hard town, one of the last Steel Towns in Scotland, but there was a good communtiy spirit there. Same went for Aberdeen, at least when we first moved there.
It's different now. I don't know any of my neighbours on the street where I now live. What happened to change things? The car happened. Our street in Amersham is a rat-run. Despite the Council's best effort at traffic calming, cars still race up and down the road. Nobody goes out in the street because it's dangerous out there. They don't risk being in the street unless they have some armour to protect them - and what's the armour they choose? You've guessed it, the car.
Go outside and smell the air. Do you smell Honeysuckle and Budlia? Can you smell the ozone of an approaching thunderstorm? Can you smell the local bakery? No. The odds are that all you will smell are the unburnt hydrocarbons and combustion by-products which pollute the atmosphere.
This great liberating tool, this freedom has done a lot of damage to society.
There is another way.
There is a place for the motor vehicle in transport; the problem with cars is that they are heavily overused. Instead of jumping in the car to go to the shops, which might be as little as a mile away, why not just walk? Loads of shopping to carry back? Buy a wheeled basket of some description! Got the kids to take to school? Why not walk there with them? Better yet, why not let them cycle to school? Because the roads are too busy? Yes, they are too busy, filled with cars, er, taking the kids to school. If everyone sent their kids to school on foot or by bicycle, then the roads would be a lot less busy and it would be so much safer to cycle. There is a story of a man who wrote to his local newspaper complaining that the roads were now so busy, it was quicker for him to walk the half mile to collect his paper, rather than take his car.
Cars are at their least efficient during the first ten minutes after you start up. A cold engine is an inefficient engine, pumping even more pollutants that normal into the air. At the same time, it is burning more petrol than normal to make up for the cold burn inefficiency. That cold engine is damaging itself, as unprotected bearings and surfaces tear at each other. Your investment is destroying itself. Only when the engine has fully warmed up does it become properly lubricated, and does the combustion become efficient. On any journey less than three miles, it makes sense to not use the car.
As you use the car, the engine is wearing out. As you cycle, the engine gets stronger. To maintain good cardio-vascular fitness, you should exercise so that your heart rate is elevated for half an hour, three times a week. Commute to and from work by bike and you'll have done that. Why drive to a gym and spend an hour on an exercise bike? Exercising whilst you work also saves you time - you won't need to go to a gym. Buy a real bike for the fraction of the subs, and go somewhere while you exercise. That saves on environmental costs as well with the need for another journey eliminated.
On top of that, I burn about 1000 kCals when I'm commuting. Think what that would do for the diet!
Next time you reach for the car keys, stop and think. Do you really want to hasten the demise of your car? Can you afford the extra petrol you'll burn? Do you want to fill the air with carcinogenic hydrocarbon combustion products - polluted air that your children are being forced to breathe as you deliver them to school.
It doesn't stop with the Air Polution. There's Noise Pollution too. Can we ever walk down a road in this country without hearing the incessant roar of near or distant traffic? It's always there, even in the middle of the night. The only way to avoid it is to disappear into the middle of what little wilderness we have left in this country. We have Visual Pollution too. Every small town and village is clogged with traffic. Want to find a car-parking space? Forget it. Those roads are all blocked up. No longer do we see those nice little chocolate-box villages, English country cottages covered in climbing roses. It's all hidden behind a wall of cars and lorries. And the once green and pleasant land, this England, it's all hidden under a blanket of tarmac and concrete.
Just how environmental is a bike? In use the bicycle is an environmentally-friendly machine. There is an environmental cost though. Bicycles, however much they may be the "perfect machine" don't come out of the earth ready formed. They are a manufactured product, and when there is a manufacturing process, there is an environmental cost. There's going to be some pollution created during the manufacture of the bicycle. The mining and refining of the metals, the welding, the painting and finishing, transporting the bikes to the Local Bike Shop. Compared to other forms of transport though, the bicycle creates a negligable environmetal cost.
Coming soon to a town or city near you: The Congestion Charge. Already introduced in London, the Congestion charge is proving to be a great success (at least as far as congestion is concerned). Since Ken Livingstone brought in the Congestion Charge, the amount of Car use has gone down significantly. People are leaving their cars behind, rather than pay the £5.00 charge to drive into Central London. With it, bicycle use has increased. More and more people have realised that cycling is a viable alternative, even in the centre of a major city like London. The air quality is getting noticibly better. There are two stages when the infernal combustion engine is at its least efficient - when it's cold and when it's idling. The majority of journeys made in the capital are short - under ten minutes in duration, and so the engine is barely up to operating temperature when the journey is at an end. Most of that journey is in slow stop-start queueing. With the engine idling, the car is again in a very inefficient mode of operation. A cold, idling engine is the worst combination. Sitting there in the middle of the town, the inefficient combustion is pouring out pollutants. A ten minute car journey could quite easily be replaced by a bicycle journey. The bicycle's much faster in town, so a ten minute car journey could be replaced with a seven or eight minute bike ride. Sometimes that might be a shopping trip, where you may need the car's load-carrying potential - but with a bike trailer you could easily carry the shopping for a week. The trailer may reduce your ability to weave through traffic so you could loose some of the time advantage (remember - in towns bikes don't hold up the cars, the cars hold up the bikes) but on environmental grounds you make huge savings.
Try walking for a change. Use a bicycle. Use the bus, the tube, the train. But for those short journeys, leave the car in the garage.