in Wandsworth

Walking in someone else’s shoes (or pushing a pram, or riding a bike)

When I first became a councillor it seemed the big issue – everywhere – was controlled parking. I found myself put onto the Regeneration and Transport Committee, where every meeting was dominated by parking issues.

As a non-driver I won’t pretend I found it anything but dull. Of course, there was a degree of being the callow youth – I’d got on the council to do things, not talk about parking. But perhaps most importantly I’d not fully understood Tip O’Neill’s famous dictum: “all politics is local.” I’d failed to appreciate that, for many many people, this was the most important issue they faced. I was lacking empathy.

Now you could argue they should have had bigger issues, and that might be a perfectly valid argument, but my youthful zeal didn’t even get there – it didn’t interest me and that was that.

I happen to think that my empathy skills are fairly good, and that I just wasn’t employing them. You would certainly think that being older and wiser I’d be much more attuned to them. But my stint of being a new man has made me realise I’m not.

For a start I’ve realised that life as a responsible parent is much much harder and more tiring than I ever expected. Having to give all your attention to a little one who isn’t quite as keen as you are on not making a mess and staying out of danger is, frankly, draining – especially as there is no break. No chat at the water cooler or 10 minutes outside for a cigarette.

And you see the world outside in a totally different light. Crossing a heavily parked street becomes a challenge as you have to navigate not only yourself but a pram safely not only across the road, but between narrow gaps between cars. Even the pavement becomes a potential mine-field when you spot dog-fouling ahead. Any trip must be planned meticulously and contingencies prepared.

And even where buildings are suitable they aren’t necessarily thought through; yesterday I realised it was going to be much easier to drag a pram down the steps of the Post Office than fight my way through the huge queue to get to the step-free exit. Given that there is always a huge queue there I suspect this is a decision that has to be taken regularly.

I would hasten to add that this isn’t just about seeing the bad that people face. I was surprised to get multiple hellos from other pram-pushers I passed, something I would never have got if I had been walking past as a single man. There’s clearly a camaraderie – if not a community – between Battersea’s stay-at-home parents. Sadly I know that my gender and lack of enthusiasm for NCT classes precludes me from full participation in lunchtime gatherings at baby friendly cafés.

And this brings me to cycling. A few weeks ago I was invited to attend some cycle training by the Wandsworth Cycling Campaign. The idea being that if they can educate ‘Movers and Shakers’ (links to a PDF file) about the needs and concerns of cyclists then those needs and concerns are more likely to be addressed in policy-making.

My initial reaction wasn’t eagerness. I know little of cycling but I do know some key facts: I know traffic lights don’t seem to apply to bikes in the same way they do to cars and pedestrians; I know that no man looks good in a cycling helmet; I know that the one time I rode a bike in the last 20 years it left a part of my body (of which I know the medical name but modesty forbids me repeating here) hurting for two days afterwards.

But after the revelation that my empathy needs brushing up, perhaps I should put my ignorance, vanity and perineum (there, I said it, happy?) to the test – if only to remind myself that putting yourself in someone else’s shoes isn’t always as easy, natural or straightforward as you might think.

Leave a Reply

  1. Interesting analogy: red traffic lights do apply to cyclists, just as they do to other road users. Cyclists who jump them, or ride on pavements, are breaking the law. However, question cyclists who do this, and many will say they are acting out of fear: they ride on the pavement on busy roads because of their perceived fear of heavy/fast road traffic, or they jump red lights because they want to get away from the boy racer revving his engine behind the advanced stop line. Course, some of them are just idiots, but there are certainly benefits to looking at road use from another point of view. Cycle training is a very good way of conquering this fear – for all potential cyclists, not just councillors! – as well as finding out how the road looks from a bicycle, and I very much hope you’ll take up the offer of a training session.