Scotland Part II: Edinburgh, City of Philosophers, Poets, Royalty, and…Cyclists

My trip to Scotland began with several days in Edinburgh, home of scientists, philosophers and poets. Today it is also the location of the Scottish Parliament. The city is ancient, buried layer upon layer, and you can cycle through succeeding eras, pedaling through time as you cross the city. If I were to make a comparison to an American city, Edinburgh was like Boston times 1,000. Unlike Boston, however, Edinburgh is a city of hills, and some sights which you cannot miss if you are there.

The first is Arthur's Seat (yes, that Arthur), a volcanic hill situated virtually in the center of the city. It is the first thing that you will see when your plane descends, and it is worth getting off the bike to climb to the summit.

Another path to follow would be the cycle/footpath along the Water of Leith, hilariously described here by the irrepressible Jacquie Phelan. This is a hidden gem in the city.

But one of the truly interesting thing for me, cycling through Edinburgh, was how cyclists are treated, both by the infrastructure and by other motorists. Edinburgh makes even Portland look like a shallow poseur in its treatment of cyclists.

First of all, the British in general are very polite. They somehow even manage to honk at you politely, as a few did as I clumsily adapted to the different traffic directionality. I thought their treatment of me, as I would make turns into the wrong lane to bear down on them head-on, or dart in front of them in a roundabout as I looked in the wrong direction, to be very appropriate.

And as I got better with the whole left-hand driving thing, I found that the motorists would invariable pass with a wide berth, expect me at intersections, and generally recognize me as a valid part of the traffic. Even the closest brush I had during the two weeks I was in Scotland was a mere whisper of what I face daily in Connecticut.

There are bike lanes. There are spaces at the head of intersections reserved for bicyclists. There are special traffic signals for cyclists. (Sometimes, these can get a bit confusing. At one light I counted no less than eight signals, not including the directional sign for the nearest gents' toilet.)

But, most of all, there are cyclists! I counted more utility cyclists in an afternoon there than I have seen in an entire year here. Some in cyclist-specific clothing, some in their work clothing, some in whatever they felt like wearing. All of them, though, treating their cycles as their vehicle of choice. (As opposed the the utility cyclists I see here, most of whom are using the bicycle only because the court temporarily removed their access to an auto.)

Yeah. It was heaven.

I cannot help but to think that should the same environment exist here, the number of utility cyclists would skyrocket. Yes, build it and they will come.

The other thing that I must mention is helmet use. Here in America, helmet use is de rigeur for any serious cyclist, a standard to which I have adhered for many years. Yet in Edinburgh, in fact in most of Scotland, helmet users are by far in the minority. Even though these are clearly serious, daily cyclists.

So, when in Rome...

Don't tell anybody but for two weeks, I left my helmet packed in my suitcase. The entire trip was done sans head protection, and, frankly, I will have some trouble re-conforming to the American standard.

Which was a sentiment which lasted for about 45 minutes of cycling in America. After two close brushes (less than 24 inches) and one extended honk, which clearly meant "Get off *my* road," I remembered why we wear helmets here.

NEXT: The Scottish Character