Wear down the walls

It’s a bit weird – the contradictory status of cyclists in the UK, that is.
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We’ve got a long way to go before it’s considered perfectly normal in the UK to arrive somewhere by bicycle. Here’s an example of this cultural blockage in action: my football-mad 15-year old daughter recently qualified as a FA referee. She relies on “mum’s taxi” to get to matches. Some of the games coming up are quite close to where we live so I suggested Hanna might want to cycle to those. “Why would I do that?” she countered, adding in a teenager’s best mocking tone, “If I saw a referee arriving at a match and locking up a bike I’d laugh. Everybody would. I wouldn’t be taken seriously if I was seen cycling to a match.” This is a girl who has been brought up in a virulently cycle-friendly household yet she equates cycling-as-transport as “odd”. 

In certain geographical pockets – central London, for instance, or Cambridge – cycle use is booming but elsewhere cycling-as-transport struggles to get more than 2 percent modal share. Motor-centric infrastructure is partly to blame for low levels of cycle use but Hanna’s disparagement of cycling has got nothing to do with unsafe roads and everything to do with general social attitudes to cycling in Britain. She’s been cycling on roads since she was a tot so isn’t scared of traffic. Anyway, as North Tyneside is blessed with a network of cycle routes converted from coal-era waggonways she could get to many of her matches on well-surfaced traffic-free routes, but she has soaked up the mainstream antipathy towards transport cycling, including from friends.

Cycling is categorised as something for health-freaks, pesky contrarians or treehuggers. Anti-cycling attitudes are barriers that we’ll have to tear down if we’re to increase use – and sales – of bicycles. However, “tear down” is too melodramatic. It smacks of revolution, and Brits aren’t terribly fond of revolutions. “Wear down” would be more appropriate and, as the term suggests, it’ll be a glacially slow process. I’ve been writing about bicycles-for-transport for 30 years and have most definitely seen a positive shift in attitudes (and an increasing number of cyclists) over that time but, in whole population terms, we’re still just nibbling at the edges.

For all of the bicycle’s recent renaissance there are episodes that make you wonder if anything’s changed at all. Take politicians (please do). Many are dinosaurs, addicted to the influence and cash from the fossil fuel industry, and before we get to Dutch-style acceptance of the cultural worthiness of the bicycle we’ll no doubt see many examples of politicians pandering only to those in cars. “Hardworking families” wouldn’t be seen in anything else, you’d be forgiven for believing. Take the recent spat between the Tories and Labour over which would spend least on cycling in the next parliament. A press statement from shadow chancellor Ed Balls blasted Tory claims that Labour would spend money on cycling as “nonsense.” The BBC Ten o’clock News coverage of the outburst treated “spending money on cycling” as joke expenditure. 

Transport ministers hate being called “minister for cycling” partly because of a 1970s satire that still has the power to harm. The title is feared to be too close to the "ministry of silly walks”. They’re national treasures, of course, but where active travel is concerned Cleese, Palin and the other Python’s have a lot to answer for

It just so happens that Hanna *will* cycle to some of her local matches because the economic incentives are too compelling (she keeps more of her refereeing fee if she doesn’t have to give some of it to mum for petrol), but by doing so she’ll be rebelling against the cultural attitude that driving everywhere is the “normal” thing to do.

For cycling to become a “normal” mode of short-hop transport we’ll have to re-engineer not just our roads but our cultural attitudes, too. Both will take time, both are important – and they’re not the only measures that will be required.

Some cycle advocates dismiss the idea that “culture” can somehow be to blame for the lack of normalised cycling in the UK compared to, say, the Netherlands, and they point out that it’s the Dutch cycle infrastructure that gets people on bikes. Yes, and how did the Dutch get that infrastructure? In great part it was by having a very strong historic national identification with bicycle use, a cultural identification. The bicycle never became a “low status” vehicle in the Netherlands – it did in Britain, and it can and will take many years for this status to shift. (MAMILs can help – their bikes are often expensive and, as we saw from exchanges from a London taxi organisation last week, some cabbies believe cyclists are a “metropolitan elite”.)

There are signs – in London especially, but in other pockets too – that Brits are warming to the idea of cycling, and, critically, attitudes towards driving are cooling at the same time, partly due to demographic changes (oldies are married to their cars, youngsters are less fussed). This makes it easier for politicians and planners to push through people-friendly infrastructure changes, changes unthinkable just ten years ago.

Change is coming but change tends to be slow. Until that is, the "tipping point." Malcolm Gladwell's book popularised this phrase – it was subtitled "How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference." Take heart from Gladwell: "The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate."

Forgive me for mixing metaphors here but we've been wearing down the walls for some time and there are signs that we're breaking through. Change won't come quick enough, of course, but change is coming anyway.

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