Walking to Sainsbury’s

After a few days of not leaving the house, I went to the Sainsbury’s on the other side of town. A big box by the dual carriageway [1], the trip to this mahoosive shop felt a bit like a holiday, or at least a day trip. Such are the narrowing of one’s expectations during a pandemic.

Big fan of concrete water towers.

Usually I cycle, but I decided to walk this time. It’s not like I was in a hurry to get back.

I tried to keep to back streets, and crossed the road whenever I saw a pedestrian coming the other way. I’m not quite sure if this is a sensible precaution or Covid paranoia, but either way it kept the excitement levels up, as I played human frogger between the drivers, many of whose cars were seemingly built without indicators.

It wasn’t a pleasant walk. Much like pretty much every British town, Herne Bay is not designed for pedestrians.

One mysterious side-effect of my crash last summer is how it’s made me a much more anxious urban walker. The noise of revving engines, speeding, idling, phone use at the wheel: all these behaviours stress me out a lot more than they did before. Which makes sense, except: the crash occurred while I was on a bike. And on a bike, I feel as confident as before. Why is that not the case when I’m on two feet?

I think the answer is the illusion of control. I am what the kids like to call a “vehicular cyclist” [2]. Young [3] and fit [4], I can keep up with traffic, take the lane when necessary, and “keep my wits about me” in the manner Boris Johnson, the stupid person’s idea of a clever person, said was needed to cycle safely in London [5].

This doesn’t stop people from left hooking me, or driving into the back of me, or speeding and losing control of their Audis. But it does at least make me feel less passive, and therefore – logically or otherwise – more in control.

When I’m walking, I feel quite the opposite. Whether it’s inching into the road to get around vans parked on the pavement, or trying to navigate a busy roundabout with zero pedestrian crossings, post-crash I have never felt more vulnerable.

Good luck crossing here.

With this, I’ve probably been given an early insight in what it’s like to be an older pedestrian. When the time provided to cross at the lights is never long enough; when your wheelchair or mobility scooter is constantly forced into the road due to drivers parking on the pavement. And when the infrastructure, impatient and angry drivers, and our car-centric culture all combine to make you feel less and less inclined to step outside your door.

Some members of my family think of me as a “cyclist”, and like to hold me responsible for the naughty, annoying, and in some cases even illegal actions of other cyclists. But you can’t write to the chief cyclist and ask them to tell us all to wind our necks in. I am not responsible for anyone apart from myself, just as a car driver is not responsible for any other car driver.

But “cyclist” *has* been a big part of my identity over the years. And I refuse to be bullied off the road by irresponsible drivers. But I am also a pedestrian; a lover of long train journeys to the coast, and of sitting on the top deck of a bus listening to a podcast or quietly writing down overheard conversations to anonymise and stick in my writing. Heck, I’ll even ride a hovercraft if I’m allowed.

The bike is just one of many modes of transport I choose to employ. And once we finally emerge, blinking, from this terrible pandemic, we need to do everything we can to make walking, cycling, scooting, hover boarding, and even pogo-sticking the obvious, pleasant, and most direct options for local journeys.

And eventually, maybe, the fear will recede and our cities, towns and communities can re-emerge and recover from the virus of motor vehicles.

Des res on the path to the megastore.

Footnotes

[1] Whereas a duel carriageway is where you fight dandy highwaymen.

[2] If you design cities so that only people on bikes acting like cars can cycle, your city is not going to attract a lot of cyclists.

[3] Ish.

[4] Ish.

[5] Johnson later U-turned, as he is wont to do, and did eventually commission some genuinely segregated cycle lanes, to his eternal and only credit. But it took a heck of a lot of protest and campaigning to achieve even those meagre concessions. There’s so much more that needs to be done.

Published by jamesofwalsh

My past blogs haunt the internet like ghost ships on a digital sea.

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