Life in the Fast Lane

The first cycle lane in the U.K. was opened in 1934.  It was opened by the Minister for Transport, Mr Hore Belisha, and it ran two and a half miles from Hangar Road to Greenford Road in London.  It was 8ft 6 inches wide.  At the opening ceremony – captured on a Pathe newsreel – one Oliver Deitrich can be seen using the path on his Penny farthing smoking a cigar.

We’ve come a long way since then.  For a start where I live the average width of a dedicated cycle lane is less than a metre.  For those that are deemed ‘shared use’ (with cars) this is usually half that.

When that first cycle lane was opened it was compared by its supporters as being the equivalent of a pavement for pedestrians.  Who could argue with that? The Cycle Touring Club certainly did.  The basic point they made then, and still make today is that by removing cyclists from the road motorists become less conscious of them – and cycle paths are fragmentary meaning that cyclists inevitably have to re-join the flow of traffic at points that are often risky. Shared cycle lanes present particular risks when weaving between parked cars sharing the lane. This means that cyclists appear and disappear from view, making this more difficult for motorists to keep track of cyclists.

Pedestrians’ awareness of cycle lanes also presents risks. Many is the time that I have had call out warnings to pedestrians who are oblivious to my approach on a cycle lane.  Shared cycle/pedestrian lanes are a particularly risky route to take.  What is the difference between this kind of cycle lane and cyclist riding along the pavement?

All this brings to mind the direction mental health services have taken in the U.K. since the NHS and Community Care Act 1990.  This legislation meant that patients in large (often out-of-town) psychiatric hospitals had to move into independent accommodation ‘in the community’.  While it is true that for many this meant a richer, more fulfilling life, for many long – stay patients the transition was often traumatic as institutions which had been home for decades closed.

Today the vast majority of mentally ill people – including those who suffer from severe enduring conditions – like me – live independently in the community.  Do we need separate lanes, too?

I have written about the issues surrounding the visibility of mental illness – or lack of it – before.  As a cyclist I am used to wearing high visibility clothing  – the ‘banana jacket’ – as I like to call it.  But what about the ‘visibility’ of people like me who go about their business in the full glare of the head lamps of society?  Anyone who knows me is aware that I am not shy about talking about mental health issues in general, or my own  health in particular.  It came up the other day at a lunch at my Rabbi’s house.  I was sitting next to a guest from out of town who I had never met before and we got chatting.  The usual sort of banter: ‘where are you from?  What do you do?’  So I mentioned that I am a mental health worker.  Not expecting the conversation to go any further in that direction.  The person I was talking to came from one of the ultra orthodox communities in London – ones not known for their openness on such topics, no matter that like all other communities they are not exempt from these types of problems themselves.  So, imagine my surprise when he asked me to explain more about my work.  In no time we were swapping notes on the pills we take.  Talking to the converted?  I guess so.  But for the others sitting at the table acting like nothing out of the ordinary was happening?  We were having a normal conversation…about mental health.

In a recent conversation with someone he argued that why would someone with mental health problems disclose this in the work place if they were fit enough to work what was the relevance?  Maybe none, I had to agree.  Although, it is important to know that the law (The Disability Discrimination Act) protects people in the work place who have mental health problems.  The point that I made was that having a conversation about one’s mental health at work helps to erode the taboo of talking openly about such things.  Doing so helps to make the topic common place, and much easier to raise when concerns do arise.  What I’m saying is that having low-key discussions about these issues – as we were doing at that lunch recently – shows that it is possible to cope with these things and function perfectly effectively.

Saturday Morning

Everyone who made love the night before

was  walking around with flashing red lights

on top of their heads – a white – haired old gentleman,

a red – faced schoolboy, a pregnant woman

who smiled at me from across the street

and gave a little secret shrug,

as if the flashing red light on her head

was a small price to pay for what she knew.

Hugo Williams (1942 – )

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