A queue of cyclists
Photo: 'Is driving the new smoking?' Judith Green

Cars are rubbish for health.  The trouble is, speed, shiny new wheels and Top Gear do still exert a strange attraction for rather too many of us…

Our love affair with a private bubble of transport has been blamed for anti-social sprawling suburbs, a rising tide of obesity, pollution, roads too dangerous for children to play – and war, as the rich nations fight over ever diminishing oil supplies.

But has the car had its day?  A new book by Taras Grescoe Straphanger: saving our cities and ourselves from the automobile suggests it has.  His optimistic travelogue of world cities where investment in public transport infrastructure has held back the seemingly relentless rise of the automobile argues that these are the sustainable cities.  No longer the last resort of those too poor to drive, those metros, trams and buses of New York, Tokyo, Bogota, Paris and Moscow are, argues Grescoe, revitalising our cities and reconnecting their citizens with each other.

Recent articles from the UK suggest we too may be gradually falling out of love with the car. In our study of travel in London, central Londoners apologised for using their cars, and were quick to tout their commitment to ecology, health and sustainability.  As one participant put it: ‘driving – it’s the new smoking’.

And in this moral economy, cycling has perhaps become the new driving – the only way for busy professionals to get about the city, speedily and independently, whilst efficiently boosting not only their health, but that of the planet.   A sociologist Rachel Aldred, in a report titled “On the Outside: constructing cycling citizenship”, argues, cycling enables particular kinds of citizenship to be enacted, allowing the cyclist to meet commitment to themselves and the social collective.  As she puts, this is an alternative ‘view from outside the car’.

But before we get carried away with the end of automobility, and imagine the immanent arrival of pollution free cities with healthy cycling commuters waving at kids cheerfully playing football on the Euston Road, we should remember that only around 2% of trips are currently made by bike in the UK.  For most of the country, the car remains the only viable mode for getting where you need to go.  And even if Londoners thought that cycling was the most moral way to get around – they still thought cyclists themselves were largely smug bastards who terrorised pedestrians.

So, a way to go – but recent sociological studies at least suggest we are all now thinking about how our travel affects not just our own health, but everyone else’s as well.