Whenever I look at the internet, I can guarantee that several things will have happened. Someone will have taken a picture of a sunset. The President of the United States will have said something utterly buffoonish, to distract from the fact that he has done something utterly horrifying*. And someone, somewhere will be busily decrying the behaviour of cyclists.
This week it’s the turn of the Daily Mail – a massive surprise, I know – who have declared that cyclists need to be taxed, registered and be forced to wear yellow (hi-viz, not stars, in case you were wondering), because of a survey based on, I dunno, soothsaying the disemboweled entrails of TV presenters who didn’t wear Remembrance Day poppies. Next week it’ll be something else – a phone-in on some miserable radio station whose biggest audience share is unwilling taxi passengers, or an opinion piece in a sad husk of a local newspaper.
You might be tempted to keep your head down and hope that the focus of the outrage merchants moves on to slightly more worthy targets. But it won’t. For certain sections of the UK media, cyclists are the perfect subject – the raw crude from which the heady fumes of opprobrium can be refined.
You see, when it really comes to whipping up a frothy cappuccino of anger, cyclists are a much better target than most minority groups. Firstly, having a pop at cyclists is much less likely to make you sound like a bigot, because people choose to cycle, and the people that choose to cycle come from all backgrounds and subgroups (but, conveniently, are often relatively affluent, educated white men). Yet, like some minorities, we’re extremely identifiable. Even a Brompton under a Carradice waxed cape is much easier to spot than someone’s religion or sexuality.
But having a distinct minority as your subject matter is no good if they’re generally friendly and innocuous. Remember, we’re trying to whip up some hate here, so it’s vital to show that your target group is somehow posing a danger to society, or transgressing against its norms. Luckily, cyclists are great for this too. A person on a bicycle jumping a red light or cycling on a pavement is much more visible that a person in a car breaking a speed limit, or driving with no insurance. You’ll probably remember seeing an unlit cyclist, whilst a car with a headlamp out barely registers, even though, last time I bothered to count, vehicles with defective lighting outnumbered unlit cyclists on my commute by a dozen to one. And if the cyclists round your way are generally law-abiding, no problem. Just make up some new crimes specifically for cyclists. Not wearing helmets, or hi viz, using headphones, even just getting in the way. This is just an opinion piece, or a survey, so it’s not like anyone will bother to check the Highway Code.
The other reason why cyclists are a perfect target is that they’re a useful distraction. Lots of people in the UK drive, and once again, I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear, not everyone does this safely. As regular Singletrack contributor Bez has documented, an overwhelming majority of drivers speed. People drive drunk, stoned, or so tired they can barely see. And motor vehicles kill over a million people worldwide every year – far more, in fact, if you start to look at things like air pollution and obesity. Yet, as a society, we are hugely dependent on motor vehicles. This is a horrible predicament with no easy solution. So, hey everybody, look over there at what those cyclists are doing!
But that’s not all. If anti-cycling articles only got people agreeing with them, they’d only be half successful. To really do well at journalisming these days, you need to write something that provokes a reaction. And here, too, cycling is the perfect subject. Sadly, if you ride a bike on the road in the UK for long enough, someone will nearly kill you. In a country that has largely shifted away from heavy industry, there are very few moments in everyday life where a 2-tonne block of metal buzzes past you at 40mph. Except on the roads. So writing something about how dangerous cyclists are – something utterly arse-about-face – is bound to generate a strong reaction. We share articles, ring up phone-ins, comment under social media posts and generally do our best to staunch the flow of bile. This leads to better page views, higher audience numbers and more clicks – the sad, pappy bread and butter on which local media now depends. Which makes the next spittle-flecked opinion piece much more likely to be about cyclists.
We’re trapped in a never-ending vortex of repetitive, corrosive gibberish, that has permeated society to such an extent that I can accurately predict, almost to the word, what comments are going to appear under a news story about cycling (Stopping at red lights, Hi-viz, Insurance, Tax – you could probably make a handy mnemonic of them). And whenever new cycling infrastructure is planned, there’s a deluge of the same comments, to the point where it’s really screwing up our chances of ever getting more than a pitiful 1-2% of the population using bikes for everyday journeys. So here are some suggestions.
First, stop apologising for the behaviour of other cyclists. As I’ve written before, that apocryphal cyclist jumping a red light is not you, and we are under no obligation to get our house in order. In terms of the infrastructure provided for cycling, we don’t even have a house. We are sleeping rough on a park bench.
The behaviour of some cyclists is a product of this environment. The scofflaw riding on the pavement isn’t doing it because he likes scoffing at laws, he’s doing it because he doesn’t want to get brained by a wing mirror. Anyone with kids will recognise this dilemma – do you make them ride in the road with the lorries and buses, or take them on the pavement and get shouted at by strangers?
Beware of the comments section, or social media. If you’ve got a one-line zinger ready, by all means fire it off, but don’t waste hours hitting refresh just so you can put the smackdown on Terry from Croydon, 60 posts below the story on the BBC local news website.
If you have to say something, focus on the real issues. If people are talking about dangerous forms of transport, and you happen to mention that vehicles with internal combustion engines kill and injure far more frequently than spindly collections of tubes propelled by MAMIL legs, it’s not whataboutery. It’s pointing out the massive rampaging elephant in the room. Did you know that 50% of schoolchildren say they’d like to cycle to school, but only 2% do? That’s not because of cyclists, it’s because of the elephant.
And finally, get involved on the ground if possible. Many of the folk involved with planning and policies are on our side. They want to make our streets better for cycling, but they need support to do it. There’s a big, wide world out there beyond social media, one of campaign groups, consultations and tactical urbanism. From human-protected bike lanes, to rallying support from businesses, people are finding new, interesting ways to counteract the tired old anti-cycling arguments. If you can find the time to contribute to this, instead of fuelling the outrage machine, we might start to see more positive changes.
*Yes, this piece was written a while ago.