THE BICYCLE IS BEST

The Big Question: not only is cycling more liberating than any other way of getting around, argues Emma Duncan, it's also more egalitarian

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2014

Transport is a subtly political business. Left-wingers like trains (central planning, low fuel consumption, largely egalitarian seating). Right-wingers like cars (freedom, independence, individualism). Only the bicycle crosses the political divide: it embodies both liberty and equality.

When cycling took off in Britain at the end of the 19th century, H.G. Wells explored its liberating power in a novel, "The Wheels of Chance". He saw that by allowing the working classes to move around the country for work and for fun, the bicycle would lead to social as well as physical mobility. "Every time I see an adult on a bicycle," he wrote, "I no longer despair for the future of the human race." In poor countries these days, just as in Britain then, billions of people who would be trapped in their villages enjoy the freedom that the bicycle confers to pedal around the town or countryside—to buy, sell, learn and love.

Even in rich countries, the cyclist has a greater liberty than any other traveller. She cruises up alongside traffic jams, as drivers fume. When the road is closed and screeching cars make angry U-turns, the cyclist picks up her bicycle, smugly wheels it along the pavement under the impotent glare of policemen, and nips back onto the road when their backs are turned. Visiting friends in the countryside, she hauls her bike onto the train and pedals off at the other end, along paths, through woods and up mountains. If either she or her bike is the worse for wear, most taxi-drivers, asked nicely, will carry them both home, where the bike may be tethered to the railings, left in the garage or parked in the hall.

At the same time, cycling is a great equaliser. Other types of traveller can, if they spend enough, set themselves apart from their fellows. Train-lovers can take the Orient Express; drivers splash out on slick sports cars; a private jet allows air travellers to avoid the hell of the airport terminal. But cyclists are all on a level; all have to meet each other's eyes. Even the priciest bike cannot make cycling glamorous. However much a cyclist spends, he will still look faintly ridiculous—crouched over the handlebars, pedalling furiously, weaving round obstacles, determined to get somewhere, rather as man travels through life.

What's the best way to travel? Vote here in our online poll

Jonathan Raban thinks it's sailingColin Thubron prefers a walk, Richard Holmes the hot-air balloonJoanna Kavenna overland skiing and Oliver August the bus.

Emma Duncan is deputy editor of The Economist

Image © Panos