When I speak to people in some parts of the world, they are very surprised to hear that I ride my bike to work. (Well, actually, I get the train from my home in the countryside to London, and then ride from the station to my office.)
I’ve been told that riding a bike in London is foolhardy, dangerous, unhealthy – and even that the Secretary General of an organisation like mine shouldn’t be seen riding a bike.
I beg to differ.
London is a great place to ride a bike. We have miles and miles of dedicated cycle lanes, traffic lights that have been designed specifically to let bikes go ahead of other traffic, terrain that’s pretty much flat – and it doesn’t rain nearly as often as some people might think. (Though I do keep a set of waterproofs crunched up in the saddle bag of my bike, just in case.)
The tube in rush hour is ghastly. People are all crushed together, sweaty and bad tempered. Above the ground, fellow cyclists say good morning to each other when we stop at crossings; I get to ride through two of London’s beautiful Royal Parks; and the journey is actually quicker than taking a cab, a bus or the underground.
There is a risk of injury any time you cycle on the road and it is true that in London, that risk is greater than in many parts of the country – but in real terms, cycling in London is statistically very safe. Although the risk of an incident may be higher, the vast majority of Central London has a speed limit of 20mph, and collisions at that speed have a very low fatality rate. Riding a bike in London simply requires you to be that bit more vigilant.
I’m not alone. The number of daily bicycle journeys in London has increased by 170% since the 1990s, from 270,000 daily journeys in 1993 to 730,000 in 2016.
Commuting by bike is great for my health, I get a low-impact workout twice a day. I’m not sure it really helps me to keep my weight down, but, according to the government, regular exercise like cycling also halves your chances of suffering from heart disease, and helps to prevent strokes, diabetes, and some kinds of cancer. My blood pressure and resting heart rate have both improved since I started riding regularly, ten years ago – and I arrive at work feeling much less stressed than when I’m forced to leave the bike at home.
People do worry about the fumes from cars. But a study at Queen Mary’s University, London, has shown that cyclists actually breathe better air than people in buses and cars, even if they are travelling on the exactly same route at exactly the same time – and that there are many less carbon particulates in the air above ground than in the tunnels of the tube.
As for the issue of status, well, phooey. Loads of business people cycle in London. The Prime Minister of the Netherlands cycles to work. And, as the head of an organisation whose young participants are contributing to the UN’s sustainable development goals, I think it’s right that I should try to set a good example.
But most of all, I cycle to work because it’s fun and I enjoy it. Every morning, as I pedal out of Marylebone station and head for Hyde Park, I am 12 years old again. And I arrive at work twenty minutes later, always, with a broad grin on my face.