This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility
Riding home recently on a “Boris Bike“ – so named after London’s inimitable mayor, Boris Johnson, credited with conceiving the new bicycle sharing scheme – I witnessed a phenomenal collision between two riders that resulted in one of them flying several feet through the air at head height. Spectacular! Moments earlier, I had felt a prescient discomfort as I rode behind the perpetrator of the accident that was about to happen. Just as I am ultra-wary when I see motorists maneuvering half a ton of steel while speaking on a mobile phone wedged between shoulder and crooked neck, as I approached this chap in his late 30s – wobbling around on his Boris Bike like a 3 year old – I decided to give him a very wide berth as I overtook. He was apparently enjoying himself as his front wheel invited him to randomly explore the full width of the road ahead. On hearing the surprisingly loud collision behind me, I turned in time to see a Lycra-clad helmet-wearing cyclist launch from his mangled racer in a graceful arc towards the road surface. Ouch!
Apart from feeling immense sympathy for the poor victim, my thoughts turned to what can happen to us when our environment suddenly changes. If this seems an unlikely mental leap, I should explain that I’m currently engrossed in a fabulous book called Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzalez that explores, among other things, how human beings respond to unexpectedly changing circumstances. Gonzalez recounts the tale of MP William Huskisson, run over and killed by George Stephenson’s famous Rocket steam locomotive on its maiden journey along the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in 1830. Until that moment, it is conceivable that Huskisson’s only experience of locomotion had been the humble – and relatively slow – horse and cart. Perhaps he was so taken aback by the dawning railway age that his survival instincts failed to prepare him for this sudden change in his environment.
In the case of my cycling anecdote, the appearance of thousands of Boris Bikes on London’s roads in the last few weeks has introduced a rather exciting random element to navigating the city streets: numerous spirited folk who probably haven’t been in the saddle for their entire adult lives. I’m expecting a string of early casualties, both cycling novices and other road users coming into contact with them. Paris went through a similar experience when it implemented its own bike share scheme three years ago.
In the future, adapting to our changing environment will be – as it has always been – critical to our survival. This of course means adaptation to the impacts of climate change, resource depletion, water scarcity, migration, etc. But it also means adapting to the technologies and systems we develop in an effort to mitigate those impacts.
Take electric vehicles. It’s now almost universally accepted that their high energy efficiency and compatibility with the full range of sustainable carbon-free energy sources make EVs an essential piece of the sustainability puzzle. But already one of the unique selling points of electric vehicles – that they’re incredibly quiet and therefore reduce noise pollution – has been portrayed as a grave danger for pedestrians, in particular the blind and partially sighted. In response, Nissan is fitting a synthesiser to its forthcoming LEAF EV, to warn bystanders of its impending arrival.
I have to question whether implementing technology fixes atop technology fixes might be distracting us from the larger challenges facing us: we need to redesign our urban landscapes so that low-impact mobility modes that already exist (walking, cycling, and mass-transit) are preferred by the majority because they’re safer, cheaper, nicer, and more convenient than higher-impact alternatives. At the same time, we will inevitably need to behave differently in order to thrive within our changed environment. And along the way, we need to be prepared for a few bumps in the road.