Getting about

BMJ 1998; 317 doi: (Published 14 November 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;317:1397
  1. Trisha Greenhalgh, general practitioner, London

    The average speed of commuter traffic in central London today is two miles an hour —the same as it was in 1910. This median value obscures the increasingly frequent experience of total gridlock for minutes, and occasionally hours, at a time. My university office is situated in one of several blocks on a shrinking NHS hospital site whose car park has been taken over by industrial plant “until further notice.” The surrounding streets sport red (not yellow) lines and menacing traffic wardens.

    For all these reasons, I have given up driving to work. Since my morning responsibilities include the school run, I leave the car parked in tidy suburbia, outside the house of an old lady who used to watch darkly from behind her net curtains while I unloaded my folding bicycle from the boot. Now, having apparently excluded sinister motives, she gives me a cheerful wave every morning and has even, on occasion, come to the door to get a better look at the Brompton.

    “Clever, that,” she remarks, as I deftly pull full sized seat, handlebars, pedals, wheels, lights, carrier, and suspension from the impossibly small black object I have just placed on the pavement. “I expect it's Japanese.”

    It's British, actually, and the slick unfolding manoeuvre comes with practice. On my first attempt I managed to get both saddle and handlebars facing the wrong way and a misplaced brake cable hung disjointedly from the crossbar until a passing motorist stopped to help. The three mile trip into work now follows tree lined cycle paths on Hampstead Heath and takes 15 minutes, including repackaging the bike and filing it on the bottom shelf of my cupboard.

    It is an encouraging sign of our times that folding cycles are currently enjoying the status of fashion accessory to the extent that at smart city centre venues, they meet with fewer disapproving glances than mobile phones and can be handed in at the cloakroom in exchange for a raffle ticket. At a recent committee meeting at BMA House, it was heartening to see no fewer than five similar machines lined up next to the briefcases.

    Why is that so significant? Because if a critical mass of our negotiators has indeed discovered the folding cycle, it will shortly become a tax deductible item for us all.

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