I was out cycling the other day following one of the Sustrans routes which have the advantage of generally being away from the main traffic roads and focus on using B-roads which are not only quieter but more picturesque, and for me at least meditative. One of the features of B-roads is that away from built up areas the National Speed Limit applies no matter how wide or narrow the road is, and so people can drive up to 60 miles an hour on them. Now despite being a GB cyclist (slight nod to Team GB track cycling success there), I can’t go anywhere near that speed of course (though I did hit 48 miles an hour going downhill on the same trip – much to my alarm when I looked at my cycling app later) but motorised vehicles do. The result of this speed is something I was well aware of as I went along; there was lots of roadkill. This got me thinking about so called progress and what we lose for the gains.

Bicycles or their forerunners made a dramatic change to the mobility of the population. Before bikes, the average labourer would rarely travel outside the village they were born in. Though bicycles were initially the toys of well to do gentlemen, their popularity and cheapness soon made them available to the much wider population. I am afraid I really don’t know much about the history of the bike’s development and impact on society apart from a few articles I’ve glanced at in the past but my understanding is that they enabled much greater physical and eventually social mobility for the poorer population. The steam train had a similar impact for the masses travelling longer distances and then the motorcycle and motorcar took over for getting most places in this country before cheap air travel allowed the masses to travel abroad too.

When an appointment came through the post calling me to see my consultant I used to travel by bus. It stops fifteen minutes’ walk away from my house and goes direct to the hospital which is around 25 miles away, it takes about an hour all told. The journey is quicker by car, say 30 minutes, but that assumes I pay for parking, or since I am stingy another ten minutes’ walk at the hospital end. Cycling takes about two hours, and involves some significant hills at the beginning and end of the ride with a large flattish section between which can be quite tough if the wind is against me (there if often an onshore breeze blowing on the way there).The train is another possibility though that involves either walking for over an hour to and from stations, or spending a similar time on buses, though the train journey is only twenty minutes or so. According to Google Maps, it would take me seven hours to walk the trip, but since that is calculated along roads I think it would be longer because I would want to use the river side path where it existed.

One obvious aspect of this progress to faster means of travelling is choice. Even for people who don’t or can’t exert themselves, there are three different modes of travel; for me, it often comes down to cost against time and convenience. Driving is on the face of it cheapest for me, but that ignores cost of car ownership and maintenance, and I’ve never worked out the trip costs in that sense. Buses would come next followed up by train. From a convenience and time point of view the order is the same: car, bus then train. Walking and cycling however though cheap (though accommodation would need to be sort for walking – bivvi bag perhaps), the time and convenience aspects have a much greater significance. I would say walking would be a two day adventure and I’ve no idea how tired I would be on the day after that. Cycling I would estimate to have a day and half impact on me (possibly 24 hours if I was fitter) because my body needs a good day to recover its energy levels after such an effort.

The clear divide here is whether an engine is used to cover the distance, or whether I use my own body. If I walked or cycled everywhere then I would be fitter, have more money potentially, and I have a greater knowledge of the area in between (how many drivers realise the extent of the hills between the two cities?). The big cost is time, time to do other things and in particular to earn a wage. Has the reduction in travel time allowed us to earn more money and therefore have a better standard of living? We now live in a world where most of our jobs are desk based, and our leisure time is often spent doing physical exercise to keep healthy. I wonder would more of us be happy if accepted taking longer to get somewhere in exchange for less money?

I went to the hospital not because I had an appointment this time, but because my friend had her first appointment with a hepatology consultant. I went to support her because she potentially has a life threatening disease in an area I have some knowledge. My friend normally lives and works in a remote mountainous Asian country visiting schools. It is so remote that she may walk five days to get to the next village and cross several passes 7000 metres in height; she is very fit, independent and lives off very little money. Her life style may seem so basic and extreme to lots of people, but I think there is an aspect of that which my life could benefit from and perhaps I had a glimpse of it when cycling across to meet her.

Whilst our current life styles may be out of balance with our physical and mental wellbeing, some progress I can’t life without, literally. I can’t live without swift access to modern medical treatment. Sadly my friend may now be facing the same issue. To her I’m sure it doesn’t feel much like progress at the moment.