The public realm is not our battleground
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An amazing thing happened to me which has genuinely changed my life for the good. I’ve been loaned an electric bicycle as part of a government scheme to get people cycling.
With a press of a button the e-bike’s power assist kicks in and, almost regardless of how much energy my legs are contributing, the motor helps propel me up the Isle of Wight‘s hills – leaving me to anticipate the pleasure of freewheeling down the other side.
Because of the speed at which I can now enjoy cycling, I tend to ride on main roads. Yes, there is a (mostly) viable segregated route for my commute between Ryde and Newport but it’s shared with strolling pedestrians and dogs who certainly don’t want me whizzing past at my gravity-assisted top speed of 32mph, however diligently I ding my warning bell.
Despite my e-bike evangelism, my friends are concerned about me cycling alongside cars and heavier traffic – and I understand their anxieties. But, as I am the most vulnerable, surely it is up to the people who can cause me catastrophic harm to be diligent? However carefully I ride, I’d still come off worse against a driver protected in their crush-proof metal box.
The inference that, even as a legitimate road user, I might want to take myself out of harm’s way and cycle apart from traffic, made me think of the wider issue of safety in public spaces – primarily of women. Thankfully I don’t feel particularly nervous walking home alone at night on the Island, but clearly – as recent events have once again tragically proven – some women’s freedom to take a stroll in their neighbourhoods is potentially a dance with death.
Following the recent unnecessary killing of school teacher Sabina Nessa, I listened to MP Kit Malthouse, the Minister for Crime and Policing, on BBC Radio Four Woman’s Hour admit that something needed to be done to improve the safety of women and girls.
“What I want,” said the man in charge, “is not just to catch the murderers, but I want there to be fewer murders.”
Fewer murders. FEWER MURDERS? How about none? No murders. That’s it there; the policy, the aspiration. Something we can all easily achieve every day – by not murdering people.
Extrapolating this simple concept, the public realm could easily be a safe place for everyone. For children to enjoy that first flush of independence as they make their own way to school. For people with decreased mobility to cross the road at their own pace. For lone women to perambulate any time of day or night. And for me and other people on bicycles to safely ride with the wind in our helmets and smiles on our faces.
The solution to everyone’s safety is in all our hands: be kind. Easy, isn’t it?
So if you see a middle-aged woman on a bicycle please don’t drive aggressively or harass her with your horn – her entitlement to be in the public realm is the same as yours.
This article first appeared in print in the Isle of Wight County Press on 1 October 2021 and also online.