Friday, 16 August 2013
A Small Town Cyclist Going Green At Tesco
There’s nothing glamorous about being a small town cyclist. There’s no talk about carbon alloy frames, cadence, or even how great my buttocks look in Lycra. I don’t wear Lycra. I cycle in my jeans, wear an old coat, a rucksack and a shabby NY Giant’s baseball cap. I have an old bike with twenty four gears but only sixteen that work. I don’t clean the bike as often as I should yet it can go at a good rate, climb some pretty steep hills, and occasionally overtake some recent convert to cycling dressed as a Wiggins and riding some spank shining new Claude Butler racer.
I’m the sort of cyclist that rarely gets talked about when people talk about cycling. I don’t cycle into cities and I don’t jump red lights or make taxi drivers shout obscenities about the Lib Dems. I don’t ride hundreds of miles a week, though I do cycle a few miles most days. I’m not a cyclist who wears a camera on his head and then gets featured on the BBC news moments before he goes under a cement wagon. I don’t have my articles published as part of the The Times’s 'Cities Fit For Cycling' campaign explaining why cyclists are victimised and how government transport policy is misguided. I think those things and believe The Times’s campaign one of the best things done by a major newspaper in a very long time but I don't live in a city. I also don’t have a bell on my bike and would feel too much of an enthusiast if I wore a helmet.
I’m just a small town cyclist, one of many you might recognise but not really notice. We don’t protest that we want more cycle lanes. We’d be happy if the local council gave us just one. Our concerns tend to be so meagre that they’re not considered newsworthy: less glass on roads, fewer dead hedgehogs by the curb. I’d like my council to leave decent gaps beside speed bumps and people to stop hanging plastic bags filled with dog shit from the trees and bushes along the routes I take. I’d like wide T-junctions to be properly marked for the safety of cyclists who are too often forced to stand in the middle of the road and are liable to be hit by the lazy bastards who confuse Murray Walker with the Highway Code and think they have his permission to clip the apex of every corner.
Most of all, I’d just like a safe place to leave my bike when I’m shopping at my local supermarket. And if this last thing sounds trivial, it’s also this crazy dream that has recently caused me to put in some serious miles on my keyboard.
If Tesco has perhaps unfairly gained a bad reputation for some things, then it’s probably equally true that we don’t give them credit for other things they do so well. Irrespective of what grievances we might have, Tesco’s dominance in the market is a sign that lots of people like the services they provide. I’ve always been of that mind myself. Like they do in many small towns across the country, Tesco own and run our main local supermarket. Even though we do have a small Morrissons, Tesco is where most people do their shopping. It’s ideal for those of us without a car, especially when I can go and pick up most things we need on my bike. I can cycle there three, four or five times a week and keep the cupboards reasonably well stocked.
Yet my local Tesco really hates cyclists or, at least, probably think we’re some kind of inconvenience. I suspect their local management think we’re overly demanding, indicative of a middle class attitude in this staunchly working class town.
At the front of our Tesco, benches line the taxi pick-up point. Most days, the benches are full of customers waiting for their rides and most of these customers are smokers sucking on tar-heavy cigarettes. Dead tabs lie at the feet of these people with their corrugated skin and voices like smashed accordions. And this wouldn’t concern me too much except Tesco, in their wisdom, chose this very same spot to put their bike stands.
Locking my bike usually involves a fair degree of second-hand smoke and my overhearing more than a few grisly tales of medical procedures. I got rid of my old combination lock so I could shave seconds off the time I have to spend listening to these old croaks explaining their last lung op. Packing my bags is the worst part. Ever listened to a lifelong smoker describe the variety of their morning mucus when you’re trying to stuff a loaf into an overfull pannier? It’s rare these days that I get to eat bread that hasn’t been hammered into a bag just so I get away from the gorier details.
If locating the bike stands next to the smokers wasn’t bad enough, Tesco have another way of showing their disdain towards cyclists. They don’t provide adequate cycle stands.
A year ago, my local store had three cycle stands. Three stands meant room for six bikes. That was just about adequate and you’d be unlucky to turn up and find all six slots being used. But then, without apparent reason or explanation, one of the stands disappeared. There was then only room for four bikes and most days it was a fifty/fifty chance if you’d have somewhere to leave your ride.
After the third stand disappeared, complaints were made. My sister was the first person I know to take the bull by the horns and send an email asking if we could have more bike stands. She was told that Tesco themselves agreed that the bike stands were insufficient and that the problem would be addressed at the store upgrade in July. So we waited and when June arrived, just to be certain, she emailed again. Yes, she was told. The bike stands would be improved.
Then it’s July and the store upgrade begins. On Monday, the store upgrade was complete.
I arrived there on Tuesday and discovered that little had changed. The same two inadequate bike stands were still in the same place but a new bench has been situated to the left of the bike stands, providing room for up to four additional smokers. On Tuesday there were only two women sitting there but hawking enough phlegm for four and puffing away between Eastenders gossip. They didn’t move when I tried to put my bike in the stand and they laughed as I cursed when I realised that the bench was about three inches from the stand and the gap too narrow for my wheel.
I hate confrontation and I rarely complain in person about anything. Yet, Tuesday, I found myself standing at the Tesco customer service desk explaining all this to a woman who was wonderful: helpful, polite, and sympathetic. She was exactly the kind of person you think should be working at a customer service desk. I’d nominate her for an MBE if I could.
I explained about the lack of stands. She nodded and noted the problem. ‘And I’m tired of being forced to breathe in second-hand smoke,’ I said. She looked aghast. ‘Then that’s a legitimate complaint right there,’ she said. I felt lifted. My complaint was being taken serious. She thought for a moment and said she’d go see if the person in charge of the upgrade could talk to me. She disappeared for a few minutes. When she came back, she looked deflated. She had a message from the guy in charge. The bike stands weren’t going to be changed. I would have to learn to put up with them. End of story.
I couldn’t have had a more indifferent response. The guy couldn’t even come out and tell me that himself.
The whole thing is now descending into farce. I complained by email and was told I’d get a reply by Wednesday evening. Wednesday evening came and went without hearing anything.
I emailed for an update again yesterday and received an apology but little by way of understanding of the situation. Every time I email, a new person replies. One reply implied that I’d misled them. They said I’d suggested there was only one bike stand when I’d actually said there were two but with only three usable spaces. More emails were exchanged and we are now on amicable terms again but I’m still left waiting to hear if anything will be done.
Yet isn’t this how it always goes? It’s not the customer service people in the middle I’m angry with. It’s the local store who make feel like I’m in the wrong asking them to move their bike stands out of the designated area for smokers and to provide enough stands so I can actually go into their shop and spend the small fortune I spend there every a month on behalf of myself and others.
It’s a typical trivial matter faced by small town cyclists everywhere. There’s no inherent drama in it. You couldn’t interest a newspaper in a story this boring. Yet the green agenda is too often about the huge world changing events: power stations in China and flatulent cattle. The green agenda should really be about quality of life. We shouldn’t pollute because it makes our surroundings unpleasant, not because science is having a high-level debate about consequences. We should be driven as much by common sense as by science.
I live in an area that is routinely listed as one of the UK’s worst areas for quality of life. In 2009, a nearby town, Warrington, was named in a government report as having the worst quality of life in the country. That was news to me. In these parts, Warrington has always been considered a classy place to go, with the best shopping (it has book shops!), a big library, museum, a rugby ground, and even (hold your breath) cycle lanes. If that was the worst place to live, I don’t know what government inspectors had made of my home county of St Helens, which has always been one of those grim examples of northern life.
And that’s why Tesco’s attitude is so galling about the bike stands. It’s these small things that can change the underlying nature of a town and help establish a better ethos and quality of life. Good bike stands encourage more people to cycle. Cycling promotes health. It takes cars off the roads. It encourages people to use the countryside and the council to improve cycle routes. I’ve seen more people cycling this year than I’ve ever seen cycling in my life. It’s probably why there are never enough cycle stands. I’ve even noticed the council making some small changes to help cyclists. In parts of the town, they have even painted whilst bicycles on the floor amid all the crushed glass. It’s almost like cyclists are welcome.
Welcome everywhere, that is, except at Tesco, where going green takes on a quite different meaning when some ancient shrew is blowing smoke in your face and cackling at your through walnut teeth because you didn’t think it funny that she tied her dog to your bike so she could enjoy a quick fag. Most days I’d laugh something like that off. Other days you just see it as symptomatic of a bigger problem that everybody recognises but nobody does anything about.