Mission: To promote driving less so all may live more.
For those who follow cycling, the answer is no doubt obvious, just as “Who is Frank Shorter?” would be for a runner. But for me, Chris Boardman is a new-found national treasure, albeit one that belongs to Britain.
Listen to what he says in an interview on the BBC, an interview occurring in the eighth month of the covid–19 pandemic:
I’m very, very wary of using the term ‘opportunity’ in the midst of a pandemic, where people are dying, but I think we’d be very foolish not to notice some of the things that happened when we effectively turned off global traffic, and I suppose in a sense we started a worldwide consultation on how we use our roads. And we found that when you gave people quiet streets and you can hear the bird song and we took away the traffic—people wanted to ride bikes and they did that in the droves. And we saw an increase across England, I think, Department of Transport tagged it at over 300%.
Lauren Laverne, the host of BBC’s “Desert Island Discs,” rightly sets him up as a spokesperson for biking: “British cycling is currently booming, and he’s arguably the man who lit the fuse.”
On his web log, he writes, “Trained as a carpenter, nobody outside of the sport of cycling would have known who I was until 1992, when I took Great Britain’s opening Gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics astride the infamous Lotus bike.”
After he won the first British gold metal in cycling in 72 years on the revolutionary carbon-frame bike, he became, according to Laverne, the “first Brit to win the Prologue in the Tour de France two years later; then set the UCI [Union Cycliste Internationale] absolute hour record in the now-famous Superman position with his arms stretched out to minimize drag.”
The competitive achievements continue; they are well-documented and well-known. But it’s the non-competitive side that gains the attention of Person vs. Automobile. After retiring from racing and pursuing several ventures (including the creation of his own line of bicycles), Boardman has become the Cycling and Walking Commissioner for Greater Manchester. According to a Manchester government web page: “Cycling and Walking Commissioners from across the UK have today called on the government to empower them truly to do their jobs by giving cycling and walking the funding it deserves, making a political commitment to minimum quality levels and accounting for the true cost of car use to society.” And I ask myself: does anything like this exist in the United States? Or has the love of driving rendered that unpatriotic?
In this role, Boardman says, “I just want people to use bicycles to get around, and I care more about that than gold medals by a million miles. My definition of success isn’t winning; it’s the guy using his bike to go to the shops.”
He continues, stating that being Commissioner of Cycling and Walking has “got nothing to do with cyclists; I think this is the weird, almost perverse bit; this is for people in cars, because it’s not people who already ride a bike that need convincing. You need to be able to look out of a car window and think, ‘Oh, I quite fancy that,’ because if you don’t, why would you get out of the car?”
As was clear to Boardman, what people needed was a safe space, so what they set out to build in Manchester was a fully connected network that could safely be used by a competent 12-year old. It will take 10 years to complete. It will bring Britain closer to the Nederlands, a country successful at self-propulsion because of how they use their streets. Somebody walking has precedence over someone on a bike, who has precedence over public transport, which has precedence over people driving. “Everything they do from legislation to the streetscape reflects that.”
If all were well in the world, this Person vs. Automobile site would not exist, nor would this final biographical note. Speaking to the British television, ITN, Chris Boardman said it was his mother who inspired him to ride. This statement is, unfortunately, part of the story of his mother’s death when she was run over by a pickup truck in a roundabout. Both Boardman’s parents were bicycle enthusiasts. His mother, 75, was out riding and fell off her bicycle. Before she could clear out of the way, a driver, who had 4 seconds earlier been on the phone, ran over her. He went to jail for 30 months and lost his license for about 18 months. This loss of his mother, according to the “Desert Island Discs” interview, is something Chris Boardman continues to grapple with. He advocates for harsher penalties for careless driving, not wanting prison sentences as much as permanent revoking of driving rights.
It is the elderly who are at greater risk of most things, and that may have contributed to the passing of a friend of a friend, Anne Seller, 79. She lectured at the University of Kent in Canterbury throughout her professional life. She visited Boulder several times, teaching at the University of Colorado as an exchange professor. After retirement, she practiced art and “sang in the Amici choir, contributed to reading groups, and was actively involved in the St Paul’s Church community.” On November, 11, she was hit by a van on a street outside a Waitrose grocery store. The street does not look menacing, but only a week earlier a 20-year-old man was struck and killed by an automobile on the same road. Darkness probably played a role in both collisions, happening as they did at night.