This entry was posted on Sunday, December 13th, 2009 at 3:03 pm and is filed under Bicycle advocacy. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
Famously, Oscar Wilde once said: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
For many years, cyclists in the UK and the US have not been talked about. We’ve been an invisble minority. Ignorable. The foregone conclusion was that once the last die-hard cyclists shuffled off this mortal coil, there would be no replacements, and cycling would go the way of the horse and cart, a footnote in transport history.
Driving everywhere has long been normal in the UK; cycling on city streets has been deviant since the 1960s, and, from the 1970s onwards, so contrarian as to be confrontational.
Cyclists were an out-group, of little consequence. But that was then. There’s more of us now; we’re a lot harder to ignore. And attacks on cycling from the mainstream media are on the increase.
Shock-jocks, tabloid journalists, letters to the editor writers and Jeremy Clarkson might all froth at the mouth when talking about cyclists, but complaints against ‘Lycra Louts’ don’t figure at all in the Government’s list of anti-social behaviour worries, as provided by members of the public.
In fact, as can be seen from the graph below, it’s pavement-parked cars and speeding traffic that most people hate, something mainstream journalists rarely discuss.
Such topics are certainly off-limits at the Daily Mail. Going by the regularity of the articles taking potshots at cycling, the writers on the Daily Mail seem to feel threatened by the rise and rise of cycling. Space that was once reserved for hating on immigrants or berating single mothers is now increasingly being given over to ‘bikes are batty’ articles.
Here’s just one recent example: on 11th December, the Daily Mail carried a long, pictorial article on the amount of paint wasted on a particular cycle path. A photographer blocking the way appeared to make a cyclist ride on the wrong side of the cycle path, leading the Daily Mail headline to decry the spatial awareness of the diverted cyclist.
Tellingly, the article ended with a fear statistic:
“Recent Department of Transport figures reveal that 820 cyclists lost their lives or were seriously injured in the three months to June - an increase of 19 per cent on the same time span last year.”
Why end on such a statistic? It’s to instill fear in would-be cyclists, an attempt to turn back the tide, reduce the desire for cycling. Deep down, could the use of scare tactics by the Daily Mail be because it itself is scared? Scared of a future that might just involve more cyclists? How things have changed.
Who could have imagined 20 years ago that, one day, the Prime Minister would be an urban bike commuter? If David Cameron’s Tories win the General Election, that’s what we’ll have. OK, he may ditch the bike for a ministerial car but at least he would know what it’s like to be an urban cyclist, and that’s a huge leap forward.
But not every prominent politician plumps for a ministerial car over a bike. Take the UK’s current transport secretary Lord Adonis. He rides to work.
He said recently: “Nothing we are doing is more important than promoting cycling at the local level.”
The US equivalent to Lord Adonis is Ray LaHood. In a blog posting on December 9th, he attacked a Senator who said spending stimulus cash on bike infrastructre was a “waste.”
LaHood wrote: “some [stimulus] projects include bike paths, a key ingredient in our livability initiative to allow people to live, work, and get around without a car. We don’t call that waste; we call it progress.”
Note, this isn’t a pedalling politician talking, a Kerry or a Blumenauer, it’s the US Secretary of Transport.
LaHood also leaps to the defence of cycling on his Twitter account and, in March, admitted on the official blog of the US Secretary of Transportation that he’s been a “supporter of bicycling for many years.”
His piece was headlined ‘Cyclists are important users of transportation systems’ and LaHood wrote:
“I am committed to investing in programs that encourage bikes to coexist with other modes and to safely share our roads and bridges…Bicycles are a critical part of a cleaner, greener future in American transportation.”
Talk like this is becoming less rare. This must put the heebie-jeebies up petrolheads.
A few years back, Daily Mirror columnist Tony Parsons wrote:
“Bicycles are for children…[they are] like masturbation - something you should grow out of. There is something seriously sick and stunted about grown men who want to ride a bike.”
This disparaging is a sure sign that cycling is growing. Lots of perfectly sane and sensible adults are now riding around the cities of the UK and the US. In normal clothes. Cycling becoming ‘normal’ is something critics can’t stand. They kick out at cyclists who refuse to wear helmets, hate on cyclists who jump red lights, ride on pavements, and simply detest that cyclists don’t pay ‘road tax’ but, take heart, much of this anti-bike bleating is a reaction against the increasing visibility of cycling.
Sociologist Dave Horton believes such critics now view cycling as a threat to the infernal combustion engine:
For the last third of the twentieth century, the cyclist was relegated in favour of the motorist. But the cyclist is coming back. And…it is experienced by many people as as a threat…The push to bring cycling in from the margins suggests that car-centred lives will not continue forever. Forcing an encounter with the idea of oneself as a cyclist, it provokes fear of cycling…[and] fear of the cyclist is related to people’s anxieties that they, too, might end up taking to cycling, and becoming a ‘cyclist’.
As people feel increasing pressure to get on bikes themselves, and thus really start to engage with the realities of currently dominant cycling conditions, we may also hear more cries that cycling is too dangerous. People’s fears of cycling will become more real and powerful as the prospects of their cycling grow greater. And people will feel and fear the loss of a way of life as it has come to be lived, as automobilised.
When these anxieties become intense, and the calls that cycling is too dangerous become really vociferous, we should, I think, take them as a sign that – as a culture – we are getting really serious about once more getting on our bikes.
The Netherlands already has such a culture and while Dutch people may still laugh at our feeble attempts at replicating that culture, Dutch folks who live in the UK have noticed big changes in just a short period of time. Peter Lensink, a London-based executive of Ned Railways, the Dutch rail giant, said cycling in the capital is at a tipping point:
“There’s been a change in perception, not just people in Lycra. Biking is becoming part of mobility. I pedal on a Dutch roadster and cycle everywhere in my suit. There are now lots like me. Who would ever have imagined the junction between Tavistock Square and Tavistock Place would have cycle congestion in the mornings?”
A northern friend of mine was in London last week for one of his rare visits and told me he was surprised by the greatly increased number of cyclists he saw.
“At one traffic light there were five cyclists lined up behind each other. And this was at night, in the freezing cold. London is filling up with cyclists.”
The mass media diatribes against cycling won’t abate, they’ll get worse. Anti-cycling articles by car reviewing chefs and columnists who want us garroted, broadcast the fact that cycling is becoming way too normal for some people.
I started with a famous quote and I’ll end with another. In a speech from 1914, US trade unionist Nicholas Klein said:
“First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.”
We’re at the end of stage two. Get ready for the attacks: the media ones we can live with, it’s the motorised, road-rage ones we could do without.