It was early Saturday night, and I was heading out for the evening with a friend. He was over visiting from Mississippi, a hot and humid state where the pace of life is considerably more laidback than here in London. Heading up the High Street to catch the bus, I became aware that he was no longer by my side. He was, as I saw when I turned to look back, a good few paces behind me.
“C’mon!” I urged. “Can’t you walk a bit faster? We’re going to be late!”
“Can’t you walk a bit slower?” he replied as he finally caught up with me. “Why d’ya need to rush everywhere?”
I don’t rush, no matter what my friend might think. Admittedly, I don’t dawdle either. I walk at what I like to think is a purposeful pace, one that gets me to where I’m going in a timely fashion – and one that can leave friends and family trailing behind me.
(I blame my dad – it’s the legacy of a childhood spent trying to keep up with his own purposeful stride.)
Given this, it’s hardly surprising that I cycle at a similarly purposeful pace.
I’m not the fastest cyclist on the roads – I’m always being overtaken, usually by blokes in Lycra riding sleek road bikes. But equally I’m not the slowest. I regularly overtake other cyclists: men and women, casual and committed cyclists alike.
What I emphatically do not do is pootle.
So I was ever so slightly offended by Meg Hillier’s recent comments that I, along with other women, should have a slow lane so I can pootle to work. According to the Hackney South MP:
“It can be quite scary with all these people whizzing past you and you are afraid you are going to fall over. When cycling is planned ideally, you have a fast and a slow lane, so those that want to pootle along at a normal pace can do so.”
Once I got over my ‘I am woman, watch me charge’ annoyance, I got to thinking about speed – more specifically, why I cycle at the speed I do.
Essentially, there are three main reasons. The first is simply that getting to work on time requires it; I could slow down, but that would mean leaving the house earlier, which in turn would mean getting up earlier – and I definitely don’t want to have to do that.
The second is that it’s good exercise. I actually quite enjoy working up a sweat and getting out of breath, because I know it’s helping me to stay fit and healthy. It’s also what means I can indulge my cake habit without feeling guilty.
The third reason is a bit different from the previous two. If I’m cycling in traffic – if there are cars whizzing past me at close to the speed limit, and if there are other cyclists speeding past me – then I tend to pick up speed. It’s often not a conscious choice. My legs just do it automatically.
On the other hand, if I’m in a cycle path – such as the Tavistock Place one – or on a quieter side street, I tend to slow down. Again, it’s not a conscious choice. My legs just seem to relax automatically.
I’ve often wondered why this is. It’s not as though I need to be more careful in these places, or there’s more for me to watch out for. Of course, there are more obstacles slowing me down, such as speed bumps or other cyclists; interestingly, the latter don’t annoy me half as much in a cycle path as they do out on the open road (unless they’re going really slowly).
Now, though, I’ve think I’ve worked out why. When I’m on the main roads I’m on high alert, and my body is tense and ready, programmed into fight-or-flight mode. But away from the traffic there’s no need for me to hurtle along at full pelt. I can slow down, and relax a bit more. In other words, I can become more Mississippi, less London.
So I’d like to think that, if the transport planners ever get their fingers out and build us a network of safe, well-designed, segregated cycle paths, there’ll be no need for Meg Hillier’s fast and slow lanes. There’ll just be one lane, and everyone who uses it would be travelling at the same relaxed, unhurried pace.