Meet Ross. He cycles every day in Edinburgh on his bright red 12-speed racer. He hasn't once got a bus in the 9 months that he's lived here as a student. He tells Cycle.land how cycling makes the city seem invitingly smaller, more familiar and accessible, while at the same time revealing new routes and shortcuts, especially when "descending into and exploring the labyrinthine old town".
Hey Ross! Tell me a bit about yourself. What do you do? Why are you in Edinburgh?
I’m doing a Masters in Social Research at the University of Edinburgh, so that’s why I’m here. I moved in June 2016 from Australia where I was living in Melbourne for ten years.
So you’re fairly new to the city?
Yeah pretty new, but I grew up in Inverness so I’m not new to Scotland. My family have now moved back there from Melbourne. I started studying in September 2016, so from June to September I was getting to know the city and since then I’ve been studying and working part-time in a coffee shop.
Where in the city do you live?
In Marchmont. It’s just near the Meadows, most people will know the Meadows. It’s a great place to live if you’re a student, there's a good sense of community and there's lots of shops. Everything's accessible from that part of the city, it has a village-like atmosphere and it takes me about 5 minutes to cycle from my house to the University.
What bike do you have and where did you get it?
My bike is a 12-speed racer that I got in Melbourne from a company called Chappelli. It’s bright red, so quite flashy but its looks are deceiving and really it’s quite basic. It was kind of an impulse buy, I saw it advertised in a culture magazine that was showcasing local shops. It was relatively cheap for a brand new bike. I brought it over to Edinburgh with me when I moved back to Scotland because I was already taking lots of stuff back with me.
So you knew that when you moved to Edinburgh you’d continue cycling?
Yeah, absolutely, because I don’t drive at all. I’ve got a drivers’ license but I don’t have a car and I knew that I’d be living close to the University and where I work. My plan was to have a lifestyle where everything I need is close around me. And that’s kind of the way it’s been. I cycle around everywhere, I haven’t got the bus once while I’ve lived in Edinburgh. Very occasionally I get a taxi but usually, even if I’m going out at night, I always have my bike.
What made you start cycling in the first place? What made you want to get a bike in Melbourne?
Melbourne, unlike Edinburgh has very flat areas. It’s also well connected with good public transport systems. There are trams and trains and buses. But I guess the bike just gives you that extra independence. When you’re living a busy life and there’s lots of stuff happening it cuts down your travel times between friends’ houses and work. A lot of the time I’d take my bike to the train station, leave it there and get the train for the distances that were too far to cycle. I’m not really a long-distance cyclist, I use my bike for getting around the place I live. Not that I wouldn’t like to cycle longer distances, but my bike’s not really geared up for it, it’s more of a commuting bike. It gets me from A to B, and having that as an option is very good, I couldn’t live in the way that I do without it.
Yeah, you get dependent don’t you? It becomes addictive, too. Sitting on a bus when you’re used to cycling seems like the worst and slowest thing ever!
Definitely. And cycling makes the whole place seem smaller. I remember when my bike was broken for a while and I was having to walk everywhere. The city felt so much bigger. This happened when I first arrived in Edinburgh before my bike was shipped over. The city felt very big but as soon as I started cycling it was much easier to navigate.
I’ve heard people say the same thing when they start cycling in London, that the city is suddenly opened up to them. They get a much better sense of its geography.
Do you have friends who cycle? Do you know a lot of other cyclists?
Yeah, a lot of people seem to have bikes. One of my flatmates has a bike, the other one doesn’t. And like me he uses his bike for transport. It’s kind of like an extension of his body, it’s just the way he gets around the city. I don’t think he’d accept or consider any other way.
There’re definitely more cyclists in Edinburgh than I thought there would be. For some reason I was surprised by that. I guess I was surprised because Edinburgh has got a reputation for being quite hilly so you think that people don’t want to cycle as much. But they do.
How do you tackle those hills?
Hills are amazing when you’re going down them. And, this makes no sense, but I feel as if I go downhill more than I go uphill. But surely if you’re going downhill then at some point you have to come back up. I think that you get to know the city you live in and you can find a way of avoiding the steep climbs. For example if you’re crossing from the Old Town and you’re going down where the castle is, that’s one of the steepest hills, down towards Princes Street and that’s really fun, really exhilarating to cycle down. But if you want to go back across, back to Marchmont (where I live) from Princes Street you can go up Lothian Street which is a much more gradual incline. It’s a slightly longer route but you miss out the massive hill.
Apart from the perceived difficulty of hills, what do you see as the main barrier stopping more people from cycling?
Most people will probably say traffic. I’ve spoken to a few people who want to cycle and they don’t because they think it’s dangerous. Usually these are people who are new to the city, sometimes they’re students that are new to the UK, so maybe they’re a bit intimidated by the traffic direction and not knowing the rules.
So one of the things that I think could be improved in Edinburgh is the cycle paths. Marchmont is much better in terms of there being designated cycle paths. I guess this makes sense because it seems to be where the majority of the cyclists are. Cycle paths where there isn’t any traffic, such as alongside the Water of Leith or the one connecting Haymarket and Blackhall, are really great and I would love to see more of those being built.
That’s awesome. So there are places in the city where cyclists can escape the roads, it’s just a matter of needing more of them.
Yeah but that need has to be visible before there’s any change. We need more cyclists on the roads to highlight the importance of factoring these decisions into future plans.
Thinking about these barriers that cyclists face in Edinburgh, what else would you like to see more of in the city? For example, are there plenty of bike shops? Is it easy to find and buy a bike in the city?
Well I brought my bike with me from Australia so I don’t have much experience of finding a bike to buy here. But people have asked me a lot where to get a bike or where to get their bike fixed and I point them to a great shop in Marchmont called The Bicycle Works. It’s always packed, it’s always busy, I think because there are a lot of students that might be more inclined to buy second-hand bikes that need a bit more maintenance than a new one would. They are very approachable and helpful guys, and have saved my bike a few times now. All round good value.
And finally, what do you love about cycling in Edinburgh?
Going fast. Being faster than public transport and being independent. Also, as much as the cobbled streets annoy me when I’m in a hurry, I’ve recently discovered the great fun to be had descending into and exploring the labyrinthine old town by bike. It is here where Edinburgh really becomes vast again. There isn’t that much traffic which means the streets become a playground of sorts, allowing you to take as much time as you need on those trickier parts. It’s like rock climbing for bikes! Great fun, just make sure you have decent brakes!
Thanks Ross! Happy cycling :)
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“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.” - Ernest Hemingway