‘Being back on a bike felt natural’: local resident Debbie Mitchener.
Photograph: courtesy Debbie Mitchener

In August, I was seriously considering that I would have to leave Hackney because I didn’t want to be dictated to by the borough’s transport boss Cllr Burke any longer.

I only learnt to drive in May 2016, and I completely fell in love with it, using my car for every journey I could. Living in Controlled Parking Zone D meant I could drive the very short distance to Hackney Central, park, shop and come home. Tie this in with some health issues and soon I went from a size 16 to a size 24 and was staring down the barrel of longer term problems.

I was lazy, out of breath, fed up and miserable, but I loved my car. I bought a new one in December 2018 and all I wanted to do was drive. I knew all the statistics around health and pollution, and also the links between driving and weight.

In the forty years prior to passing my test, I had only walked, cycled or taken public transport. I went on holiday with my two kids using public transport all the way to northern France three times a year to see my parents. I walked and cycled my kids to school every day for over 12 years across Hackney, most of the time for two hours a day with all the dropping-off and collecting. I used to cycle to work in Soho, Kensington, Holloway and elsewhere and never blinked.

I thought I had banked enough years to be selfish for once and enjoy having four wheels to myself.

The introduction of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) was more of a blow than I could imagine. I live right in the middle of the London Fields scheme and I only have one way in and out that is open to me all the time. It has been horrendous and has meant leaving the house at 6am to get to my studio so I didn’t get stuck in traffic for 45 minutes just to travel three miles. I still thought I was fine to travel by car as I was not one of the people running a short journey of 1.5 miles. However, I knew that my time was up and I needed to look at what was actually happening.

The Low Traffic Neighbourhood in London Fields. Photograph: Hackney Council

I was angry. I really despised the council for doing this to me. I told myself I would vote them out in May 2021. But one day, I decided I would walk to my studio to see if it was possible. It was possible. It took me an hour as I had to keep stopping – my back and my lungs complaining at the sudden demands being put on them. I also walked back, again slowly and with stopping, but I got to see a full sunset, enjoy fresh (well, fresh for London) air and walk through areas that before would have been choked with exhaust pollution.

I got a scooter and tried scooting to work, though I’m not sure that will stay as it really hurt my leg muscles! I walked to work in Upper Clapton and back and really enjoyed it. I began walking again with my neighbour for pleasure, to catch up and see a friendly face.

Late on a Friday night a couple of weeks ago, I booked a bike lesson. I was scared when I booked it. I didn’t think I could get on a bike as I was too heavy, but the instructor said it wouldn’t be a problem. I thought about cancelling several times but Sunday came and I made it to Hackney Downs for 9am in the freezing cold and went for it.

I had the best time. Being back on a bike felt natural – the speed of getting around and the ease was so simple. I had not forgotten how to use a bike. A bit rusty on some of the safety, and the highway code, but it was the best time. I now need to get into my shed and dust off my bike.

My son is going to book a lesson and see if he can start cycling to college, and I am telling everyone I can to use the free bike lessons on offer and get on two wheels.

Will I thank Cllr Burke and his colleagues? I am not sure yet. There are reasons why I do not entirely agree with what has been done. I have neighbours on low incomes and with health issues who need a private vehicle to take them places – without that, they are stuck indoors. One neighbour I spoke to had not been out for seven days.

We need to look at encouraging bike taxis or something similar. I know a scheme in Rotherhithe which allows volunteers to take elderly neighbours around on a bike. We need some of that here.

I also know what it is like trying to drag your shopping home from the supermarket with no car, young kids and limited time. So I sympathise with people.

I really wanted to get a decent cargo bike when my kids were younger and I could never afford it, and you cannot just say to people, ‘Give up your car and buy one’ – it never works that way when you are on a low income. To save £1,300 for a decent bike to move your family around is not easy at all. And let’s face it, cars are not going to be worth anything soon. Besides that, I live on a housing estate in a flat and have nowhere large or safe enough to store a cargo bike. The council as a landlord needs to look at safe storage for family bikes on estates.

So there are things that need to be discussed without the name-calling and shutting-down on both sides – and I mean both sides.

I for one though am seriously considering hanging up the car keys and enjoying the walking.

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