Hogan-Howe’s comments, and social attitudes to cycling

The comments made on BBC 94.9 by the Met’s Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, prompted a bit of controversy over the last few days. I’ve transcribed the exchange that provoked the debate.

Nestor [presenter]: Would you ride a bike in London?

Hogan-Howe: No, I don’t think I would. I’ve never been a big bike rider anyway. But it seems to me that if you get it wrong, or the driver gets it wrong, the person who is going to pay is the cyclist. It seems to me there’s a lot of traffic, and personally I wouldn’t.

N: Do you have a view on the people who do?

H-H: Well, I think they’re brave, but of course some people don’t have the choice, economically. It’s not easy. If you’ve got someone who can’t afford to take a car into a congestion zone – and if they did, they can’t park it anyway – some people have got limited money, and they can’t pay on public transport, so I understand why take the choice, but it wouldn’t be mine.

N: Is there something that you would do? If you had your way, is there something that you would do, that you are convinced would reduce the number of incidents?

H-H: It seems to me that the strategy that is being employed is a good one, which is to try to provide a separate area for the cyclists to be in. Eventually to try and provide a physical separation. But of course London is such a big place, where cyclists have arrived all at once, you can’t expect all that to be separated… [interrupted]

N: Yes, it’s almost as though it’s all happened too quickly, and everything is reactive, and we’re trying to catch up with the huge increase…

H-H: I’m not sure that’s fair. I think what we’ve seen is that petrol’s gone through the roof in terms of cost, we’re in a recession so people’s money has gone down, people have moved towards cycles, with the Boris scheme you’ve got more cycles available…

N: That’s where people are dying, Sir Bernhard. [appears to be confusing reference to Boris Bikes with Superhighways]

H-H: Well I’m not sure that’s entirely fair.

N: On the Bow Superhighway 2, in or round it, four people have died.

H-H: Right, but all I’m saying is that I can understand why there are more cyclists, and they’ve arrived very quickly in a recession. It’s a natural thing.

N: But it’s not great if the very thing that’s put in to protect and allow cyclists has seen four of them die.

H-H: Well, of course, that’s where most of the cyclists are, so that’s where we’re getting the highest numbers of cyclists. And I’m not sure that anybody’s proved the Highways have caused it. I think…

N: But your officers have said… your very officer has said it gives people a false sense of security.

H-H: But Eddie, you asked me ‘would I cycle’, and then you asked me ‘how do I feel about other people who cycle’, and I’m trying to answer that question. So all I’m saying is I do understand why people cycle. I understand as well why there are risks in cycling.  That’s the question I’m trying to answer. And at the end of the day, people do what they like – it’s a free country, it’s a free society. I’m just saying I wouldn’t. But that’s my choice, and I can afford not to.

From the comment that appeared in newspaper articles yesterday, Hogan-Howe refers only to ‘some people’ who don’t have a great deal of choice, and who cycle as a result of economic circumstances. This is in the second response, quoted above.

But having listened to the whole interview (and from the whole passage above), it’s pretty clear that economics is the only reason Hogan-Howe seems to be able to give for people riding a bike, as people pointed out to me yesterday. Whether this is just because he was put on the spot, or because he hadn’t really thought things through, I don’t know, but it’s fairly clear that there are plenty of people in London who ride despite the fact they could afford to travel to work in different ways. Hogan-Howe has now clarified his comments, and conceded this point.

But it’s quite interesting to examine why Hogan-Howe might have made the assumption he did, and why he could only think of people cycling because, essentially, they had been forced into doing so.

I think the answer lies in his other comments. He doesn’t want to ride a bike in London because he doesn’t feel safe. He is worried about the consequences of inattention, and mistakes, which will have serious consequences for the person on the bike.

Now of course we can say that it is Hogan-Howe’s responsibility to make London’s roads safer, but there are many things beyond his control, particularly the layout of the roads. Even with much greater enforcement and stiffer penalties for driving, people will still make mistakes on London’s roads, and as they are currently configured, that will have serious detrimental consequences for the most vulnerable parties. On this particular point, Hogan-Howe is right, and I don’t think it makes sense to criticise him on it. He just doesn’t feel subjectively safe. Nor is it right to criticise him for choosing not cycle.

Hogan-Howe’s feelings about cycling on London’s roads probably go a long way towards explaining why he made the assumption about people cycling through economic necessity. Cycling in London does not look attractive to him; consequently it is easy for him to assume that people cycle because they are forced too. (This is not to deny that cycling in London can usually be pleasant for many people).

Indeed, this points at an explanation for the wider cultural assumption that cycling is ‘for poor people’. Most people in Britain are put off by the thought of cycling on roads full of busy traffic. It is something they wouldn’t dream of doing. So when they see someone  on a bike, it is a quite natural assumption (if usually an incorrect one) on their part that the person cycling has somehow been forced into doing so; that there are negative factors pulling them into cycling, rather than positive factors attracting them to it. That they can’t afford a car, for instance, or because they can’t afford petrol.

Perhaps Hogan-Howe’s comments are most interesting for what they suggest about wider British attitudes to cycling as a mode of transport.

This entry was posted in Car dependence, London, Subjective safety. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Hogan-Howe’s comments, and social attitudes to cycling

  1. To be fair, I think it reads very much as if Hogan-Howe sees the increase in cycling as being mainly due to economic factors. He’s almost certainly partially right. Some people do cycle due to economic factors.

    Cycling is “odd” in the UK. The reasons why people do it are not well understood by the population at large. If you’re a member of any out-group then it’s quite typical that people who are not a member of your group can’t imagine any reason at all why they would want to be like you. Criticism and abuse can easily follow, especially if people perceive an attempt by a minority to take the moral high ground.

    Hogan-Howe admits he’s “never been a big bike rider”. He’s not a member of our group and will not understand it. The small number of people in any population who choose to cycle despite it being subjectively unsafe to most people are just as likely to misunderstand why those who are not cyclists see it as being so unattractive,

    • MarkC says:

      …and it’s still seen as a sport, leisure or child’s toy thing, even by people who like cycling. Also reflected in the bike business. If you want something useful for everyday transport outside of London, it’s pretty difficult.

  2. Paul M says:

    Hogan-Howe identifies fear as a factor restraining potential cyclists. I suppose that is a good thing, depending on where it leads next.

    If his conclusion was that the fear was justifiable, and arose from the unnecessary throwing together of vulnerable cyclists with dangerous heavy vehicles, that would be good too, except that he makes contradictory remarks about that – saying in one breath that separation, or “separate areas” for cyclists are a good thing and in the next “I’m not sure that anybody’s proved the Highways have caused it”.

    His “poor people cycle” remarks however really are unhelpful. He implies not only that people because they can’t afford a car, or even public transport, but that the car is the thing to aspire to, the gold standard of transport.

    People in more mature, developed countries than our own have got past the notion of car as status symbol. That is not to say that they would not buy a more luxurious car if they can afford it, but they do so for functional reasons, not because it looks better in the office car park or school pick-up run. They don’t feel they have to drive it everywhere, they feel comfortable about owning a car and not having to squeeze every drop of travel out of it. They don’t regard themselves as failures for riding a bicycle occasionally.

    In a LDC like the UK (ahead of Brazil perhaps, but not by very much) we still have these hang-ups, and that is a significant factor in holding back cycling. Really affluent people, professionally successful people, have got past all this and see the virtues of cycling for what they are. That is because they are comfortable about their status and don’t feel the need to prove anything about it.

    Less affluent, less successful people (perhaps, though that depends on how you define success) are more likely to define themselves in car terms. Take Blair’s infamous “Mondeo Man” – an aspiration for manny is to be able to but a brand new car, instead of always second-hand.

    While this mentality prevails, we have a very long way to go. Hogan-Howe’s careless remarks, even if qualified later, really don’t help.

    • Sarah says:

      I’m not convinced that his carelessness was ultimately unhelpful. Saying what he was really thinking out loud and in public has triggered a process of dialogue and reflection that has led to him making equally public corrections to his views. Those, in turn, may have prompted others to consider whether their views are also in need of revision.

      In a sense, he almost reminds me of Emma Way, although I can’t quite muster the same gratitude to her for her undiplomatic public frankness and the resultant airing of iimportant issues relating to the perception of cyclists by other users..

  3. P Barritt says:

    Is he saying poor people who ride bikes might not be so educated or have less road sense than cyclists who choose to cycle?

  4. rdrf says:

    I have to disagree with your sympathy for him.

    The whole point about his remarks is that they reflect the idea which has always been part of British society going back to the 1950s or further: motoring is the default mode of transport for “normal” people. Only poor people, hippies or sportsmen/women who can do the weird activity of cycling are not doing it. Public transport is for the poor or people commuting to work.

    (In fact, I would say that a big problem is that cycling is far too expensive – certainly with regard to motoring – which is one of the reasons why better off people are more likely to do it.)

    A central feature of the current system is the way motorists are allowed to break the laws and regulations governing driving: Hogan-Howe may not be totally responsible for this, but he IS responsible for law enforcement, which has never really happened to any proper extent with drivers. I don’t really care whether he rides a bike or not, I want him to crack down on obvious law breaking which endangers others, which is mainly done in the highway environment by ordinary motorists.

  5. Sadly his retraction will not be remembered and his original premise only reinforces a comment made to by an old boy riding a very classy bike – he was about 75 and riding £4000 worth of carbon fibre and titanium. i was doing the usual bike porn drooling and he said something to the effect that “yes it’s a great ride but round here (South West Wales) any kid in a clapped out Clio thinks he’s better off than me because he’s in a car and I’m on a bike”. It was the first time that I really understood how weird I am for riding a bike.

  6. platinum says:

    I am poor. I could probably afford to take the bus, but it would mean cutting back in other areas which are already fairly stretched. Budgeting and determining priorities is very stressful when you’re poor. So I ride a bike because it’s cheap. But the roads can be freaking scary places, and the guy is right, I don’t have any other option.

    The worst thing about being poor is the feeling of helplessness. There are so many places that I would like to go, offering better employment options, better shops and services and other quality of life improvements, but I am physically cut off from because it would mean having to cycle on rural 60mph A-roads or 70mph dual-carriageways. No wonder people aspire to having cars. Maybe it’d be easier in an urban area, but guess what, I can’t afford to move. I’m sure I’m not the only one in the country faced with this dilemma. Personally if I had the money to move to Holland I would be going tomorrow, over there I wouldn’t be missing out on essential life options just because I can’t afford a car.

    I thought for a while about posting this, but I think some people need to realise how much cycling is of importance to the poor-downtrodden, why those who can’t afford electric carbon racing bikes with all the luminescent gear shouldn’t be forgotten. We really need a Dickens of cycling.

  7. Jitensha Oni says:

    Bear with me while I present some “data”. Regardng the economic status of the cycling demographic, I’ve been posting a photomontage “all the cyclists I saw in one hour on a particular day”, every few days on twitpic recently. On weekdays, if you want to see a random selection of adults in the 20-60 age range, look no further. On a regular (though not every day) 55-60 km round trip commute in N Surrey, I see only a few more cyclists than I did 10 years ago – I reckon I’m seeing about 1 per 2 km on average – on good days. At weekends, things perk up. There’s a constant stream of riders on top of the range bikes out of London passing through on the way to annoy the residents of Box Hill. They must add up to hundreds. None of this squares with H-H’s claims about the recession producing more cyclists. To follow David Hebrows argument: he needs an outgroup so he’s made up one.

    If H-H’s assertions about the cycling demographic were correct then one might expect poorer people to start figuring more in the KSI stats since the recession. Is this the case? I thought the police kept records about such things, but H-H coyly isn’t teling us whether or not he’s got any actual data.

    Anyway, back to your wider points. As you argue so cogently, he is reflecting certain attitudes to cycling, but I’d like to take a different, though not contradictory, line. I’ve had a lot of time in the past for H-H, not least because he seems to be well briefed on topics he is required to talk about, which to me means he seeks out good advice. (This of course may reflect my ignorance. So be it.) However, yet again, when it comes to cycling, somebody in an influential position is apparently reduced to spouting personal feelings which may or may not reflect the real situation. But I note that he is saying different things to some other high-profile commentators. There are two interpretations of this:

    – the pessimistic one is that none of them give a hoot either way about cycling or cyclists so can’t be bothered with accuracy and say what they like, constrained only by vote-/honour-grabbing factors.

    – the optimistic one is that the advisors across several departments don’t have a clue what the “party line” should be. And from this I infer that they are rattled. Campaigners need to keep up the pressure.

  8. rdrf says:

    I must emphasise that cycling in London is MUCH more likely to be done by the (relatively) affluent. That is according to the data coming from TfL over some years (OK, I admit I haven’t got the precise references to hand).

    For years the CTC and LCC have argued that allowances for cycling at work should be a good 25p per mile, and I can’t see any reason why this should be reduced. Of course, if you have inherited a good quality bike and/or are good at maintenance and/or don’t mind riding something pretty user-unfriendly, then you will find it cheaper.

    Obviously, it depends on the journey, Over 60s get free public transport etc.

    But my understanding is that cycling is actually quite expensive, particularly if you want waterproof clothing which works (over normal everyday clothing, of course), a good lock, good maintenance etc.

    this means that:
    (a) Cycling should be made less expensive by having recovered/second hand bike centres financed by local authorities easily available, so people can get hold of cheapish kit. Ditto low cost maintenance, Dr Bikes etc.
    (b) As usual, the elephant in the room is motoring. the cost of motoring is anyway too low if we want to dissuade people from doing it and get them to pay something real towards the costs they incur.
    (c) (a) plus (b) mean that the difference in costs of the two modes needs to increase

    Finally
    (d) The Commissioner is wrong.

  9. pm says:

    In all honesty, I really don’t think what Hogan-Howe has said here is particularly objectionable. Given all the destructive things he could have said, his remarks leave me more relieved than anything! He didn’t say anything about ‘road tax’ or call for registration or compulsory helmets or insurance, thank God!

    Saving money is indeed one reason why people cycle. Its a perfectly respectable reason, not least because the money-saving itself reflects the fact that it saves the planet’s and the country’s, and this city’s, resources in general.
    Whether or not specific individuals are cycling from economic necessity, I would say its an economic necessity for the country that a good proportion of people do so. We can’t afford to keep clogging up the roads and burning fossil fuels for driving.

    If everyone became wealthy enough to drive everywhere – and chose to do so – the cost of driving would simply increase accordingly, because roadspace, fuel, and clean air are all limited resources.

    And the relationship between cycling and socio-economic status is a very complicated one, and not one I think that gains us much to get into. If you find that poor people cycle then cycling will be stigmatised and lose political influence, but if you find its rich people then cycling will attract all the resentment that is directed at any “elite” activity!
    Either way it probably won’t help, so I say we just ignore the topic!

  10. I think the danger with linking people cycling to recession is that it then implies that when we come out of recession, people will then drive and we won’t need cycle infrastructure.

    His comments may have been innocent but there are real, negative implications here: why spend money changing the road layout if people won’t be cycling as soon as the can afford not to?

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