A great deal of cycle campaigning is currently stressing the dangers of cycling, and too often ignoring the multiple reasons why so many people get into cycling in the first place. Cycling is not suicidal. Famously, the British Medical Association reported in 1997 that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks by 20:1. It’s healthier to cycle than not to cycle. Yes, people die while cycling, and every road death is one too many, but the bigger risk is having a sedentary lifestyle.
It’s time to stick up for cycling. Negative campaigning has its place, but it shouldn’t be the only and main form of campaigning.
In his book Risk, geographer John Adams, a leading authority on perceived risk, said:
“The safety advice aimed at cyclists stresses the danger of cycling to the point that all but the heedless and foolhardy are likely to give it up.”
"Statistics show that per kilometre travelled a cyclist is much more likely to die than someone in a car. This is a good example of the importance of distinguishing between relative and absolute risk. Although much greater, the absolute risk of cycling is still small ‐ 1 fatality in 25 million kilometres cycled… And numerous studies have demonstrated that the extra relative risk is more than offset by the health benefits of regular cycling; regular cyclists live longer.”
Promoting cycling with positivity isn’t a cop-out. Nationally, roads made dangerous by drivers need to be sorted; duff cycling schemes need to be called out; and deaths of cyclists must not be ignored, but we need to make sure we’re not throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
As always, it’s a fine line. It’s important to campaign for safer streets but if we demonise the use of bicycles on the unreconstructed streets of Britain we’ll push away the very people we could be attracting. Infrastructure-first campaigners – some of whom argue we’ll only get higher levels of cycling once the state has provided protected bike paths, door to door, pretty much everywhere – risk doing what they say helmet campaigners do, and that’s portraying cycling as an activity that’s so risky it needs special equipment.
Like many others I would love to see Britain ‘Go Dutch’.
Protected bike paths across formerly car-centred junctions, if done well, can be wonderfully liberating. But it’s important we don’t deter would-be cyclists by focussing only on the negatives, saying cycling is something that should only be done with protective headgear or protective curbs. Some cycle campaigners (myself included) blog and tweet about cycle deaths in the hope that such blogging and tweeting will make the authorities become cycle-friendly. There’s a very real possibility that in places where cycle usage is already low such a tactic will have the opposite effect: scaring people off bikes reduces cycle usage even further making it easier for planners to say there’s no demand for cycling.
In London, it’s different. The tide seems to be turning and, some time in the hopefully near future, there will be some ‘mini-Hollands’ created and, if Andrew Gilligan, Boris’ cycling csar, gets his way some world-class cycling infrastructure will be installed, aiding London’s bike boom (on some of London’s roads, cyclists make up 60 percent of the traffic at certain times). Undoubtedly, some of the £1bn promised for cycling in London came about because of negative campaigning but it also came about because more people are cycling in London, despite the dangers. (Dangers which are real on far too many roads, and, clearly, the fear of having to mix with distracted/speeding motorists is a huge deterrent to cycling, but not every road is like that and it’s counter-productive to claim that every single road is a death-trap).
Getting "more people cycling, more often" requires a multitude of solutions, with infrastructure being one of them but, critically, not the only one.
John Pucher and Ralph Buehler’s influential 2008 report Making Cycling Irresistible says:
“Separate facilities are only part of the solution. Dutch, Danish and German cities reinforce the safety, convenience and attractiveness of excellent cycling rights of way with extensive bike parking, integration with public transport, comprehensive traffic education and training of both cyclists and motorists, and a wide range of promotional events intended to generate enthusiasm and wide public support for cycling…The key to the success of cycling policies in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany is the coordinated implementation of [a] multi-faceted, mutually reinforcing set of policies. Not only do these countries implement far more of the pro-bike measures, but they greatly reinforce their overall impact with highly restrictive policies that make car use less convenient as well as more expensive.”
Cycle campaigners must never stop arguing for better and safer facilities for cyclists (for sure, they’re needed) but advertisers and marketers have known for a very long time that positive messages far far out-sell negative ones.
In his classic 1923 book, Scientific Advertising, advertising guru Claude Hopkins, wrote:
"Show a bright side, the happy and attractive side, not the dark and uninviting side of things. Show beauty, not homeliness; health, not sickness. Don’t show the wrinkles you propose to remove, but the face as it will appear. Your customers know all about wrinkles.
"We are attracted by sunshine, beauty, happiness, health, success. Then point the way to them, not the way out of the opposite. Picture envied people, not the envious. Tell people what to do, not what to avoid.
"Compare the results of two ads, one negative, one positive. One presenting the dark side, one the bright side. One warning, the other inviting. You will be surprised. You will find that the positive ad out pulls the other four to one."
In cycle campaigning this could take the form of selling the many health, economic and congestion-busting benefits of cycling infrastructure, rather than always focussing on the dangers of cycling. Sell the smooth face, not the wrinkles.
Or, to put it another way, and as Johnny Mercer sang in 1944, "You’ve got to ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive, ee-lee-min-ate the negative."