It has been a tragic month for London’s cyclists. Five of us killed on the capital’s streets in the last nine days alone. (Nota bene, Boris!) I say ‘us’ because every Sunday I brave the mockery of my children, pull on my Rapha high-end, merino wool (NOT lycra!) cycle gear and head off for a bracing 60k ride with a few other weekend warriors in a gentlemanly peloton through the rolling hills of North London.
On my way home today, congratulating myself on having avoided a heart attack for another week, a 7-seat Lexus veered alarmingly towards the cycle lane. I avoided a collision but was furious and caught up with the car at the lights preparing to give the driver a short, sharp lecture on awareness. However, what I saw through the passenger window left me speechless. A mum plugged into a mobile phone, with the radio on full blast, windows closed, with a toddler in the front seat – smoking!
I realised there wasn’t time for what I needed to say. And anyway, where would you start?
The idea that people entrusted with a piece of complex machinery can be so profoundly unaware is scary. And I don’t mean a car, I mean a human body. For years I have been watching my fellow citizens wandering through the streets, eyes glazed, minds elsewhere, screening out the real world with blaring earphones – on autopilot. Which got me thinking.
What if we stopped and really connected with our environment? Not the rural, but the urban one. After all, that’s where an increasing number of us are going to live this century. What if you didn’t have to travel to the Rajasthan or the Okavango to find insight? What if our own streets were full of answers to questions we never bothered to ask? The street is the space between our home identity or our work one. Effectively, we’re anonymous there. Wouldn’t that make it the perfect place to explore other identities, different logics, unusual ways of seeing the world?
I started experimenting with events around the world and found that the street is full of learning, an invisible university, if you know how to look. Many years and many streets later the idea is gathering real momentum. With some pioneering friends, including the delicious crew at Upping Your Elvis, I have set up a new non-profit venture called Street Wisdom so anyone who is interested in really waking up can have a powerful experience and then teach others. We launched it last Friday and I was hugely bouyed up to see how much 60 open minded people could learn in just three hours. And really encouraged by the enthusiasm of our new alumni to run Street Wisdom events of their own.
But today’s near-miss experience reminded me how far we have to go. There are millions of people out there with whom we are sharing our street, cities, countries and our planet. And I have a hunch that many of them are asleep at the wheel.
What do you think? What experiences have you had of others on autopilot. And when did the street teach you something you’ll never forget?
Sign up for a place at the next Street Wisdom. It’s totally free. At a time when education is becoming increasingly commercialised, this is one learning experience where you don’t pay a fee – you pay attention.