There Goes the Neighbourhood
My friend, however, shook his head in happy disbelief once they were out of hearing range. "You would never see that in Derry 5 years ago."
"Is that so?"
"Derry folk on ordinary bikes in the town? With children? You're joking!"
The family we'd watched had gone about their activities so matter-of-factly, that I'd failed to process the scene as in any way unusual. But he was right of course. Even today, Derry - a small, very hilly, and rather isolated city straddling the North/South border of northwesternmost Ireland, is not exactly teeming with bicyclists. But the rise of everyday cycling, even compared to when I first got here two years ago, is visible. Not only are the numbers of people on bikes increasing, but the types of bicycles they are riding are changing from sporty to utility-oriented, with choices in clothing following suit.
At least one cause of this change in Derry is the Peace Bridge - a new pedestrian/cycling bridge across the river Foyle with an accompanying network of mixed-use paths. Completed 3 years ago, this bridge links up two previously severed parts of the city through a series of walking and cycling trails. The bridge now also makes it very easy to access the city center from residential areas in the outskirts, as well as from the train station. When I arrive in Derry by train with my bike, directly from the station I enter a world of idylic riverside trails completely separated from motorised traffic, allowing me to cross the bridge and roll right into the city center without so much as seeing a car, let alone dealing with intersections and traffic circles. It is actually a remarkable bit of cycling/pedestrian infrastructure that I hope will be all the more widely used in the years to come.
Still, infrastructure is only a part of it and must go hand in hand with cultural changes that normalise cycling. And the cultural changes can take time to catch up. I remember when I started cycling in Boston in 2009, the genuine shock on some drivers' faces when they would see me out on the roads. "But honey, you're not allowed to do that! Get on the sidewalk, I'm begging you, before you get killed!" I remember a woman pleading with me in this manner - as upset by the sight of me as she would by the sight of a stray, disoriented cat stumbling along a busy street, destined to become roadkill.
By 2012 that dangerous, unfathomable road I'd been riding on had become one of the more popular cycling routes in the Boston Metro area. Come time for the morning and evening commutes, the procession of cyclists along it would seem unending. There is now a bicycle lane there along this road as well - although whether its appearance caused the influx of cyclists, or was prompted by it, no one can say for sure.
While it is easier for cultural normalisation of bicycling to gain momentum in cities, it is not impossible in rural areas either. Two years ago, local farmers would stop when they'd see me pedaling home in the rain. "Hop you in, poor thing, and I'll throw your bike in the back!" Similarly when I used to walk the 1 mile down my lane to the shop along the main road (because, you know, sometimes walking is nice too!), every single neighbour passing me in their car used to stop and offer me a lift. Each time I would explain that I was cycling/walking deliberately and enjoying it very much, and each time I'd be met with a look of disbelief and pity (maybe I could not afford a car and was just saying this to save face?) followed by several iterations of "Are you sure now?" before I'd be allowed to continue on my way.
But as time went by, seeing me pedal past their houses with an idiotic grin on my face must have taken its toll. Because now most of these very same neighbours do some cycling and walking themselves. I had not realised quite the momentum this practice had gained until, one sunny evening not too long ago, I opened my upstairs window to take in the laundry hanging outside, and saw, with some surprise, multiple figures making their way along the lane in the golden light. There was the farmer, pedaling jauntily on a crusty mountain bike toward a neighboring field. Not far behind was Lady M. cycling home with a basket of groceries. Further in the distance the young couple down the road strolled beside their small twins on tricycles. And way out there I could even spot Mr. W. astride his son's old 10-speed.
"Well," I thought, closing the window with a huge smile on my face, "There goes the neighborhood!" Then I got on my bicycle and joined the happy procession before the corner shop closed.