Last week I wrote about Transport Tribalism, the curious habit of parcelling people up according to the mode of transport they are using – even defining them by that mode of transport. It was prompted by articles from Linda Grant and from David Aaronovitch, the latter a plea that polarised viewpoints should be avoided. I attempted to argue that Grant’s article itself was itself an example of just that kind of polarising, simplistic, black-and-white moralising that Aaronovitch was objecting to, in that it presented ‘cyclists’ as a unique kind of human being, without ever appearing to realise that human beings are multi-modal, and that they carry their characteristics with them as they switch their mode of transport. An ‘angry cyclist’ is really just an angry human being, who might have an ‘angry busist’ the day before – except of course we don’t ever describe people who get the bus in this way, because it’s faintly absurd.
At the end of the post, I said I would explain why this way of looking at the world is problematic, and why so many ‘cyclists’ (really, people who happen to feel strongly about using a bike for certain kinds of trips) objected to Grant’s article.
Mainly, it’s because it has consequences. Aaronovitch was fairly dismissive of any potential negative outcomes from Grant’s piece. He wrote
Some accused her of inciting attacks on cyclists as though maddened drivers would mow down anything in lycra while shouting “THIS IS FOR LINDA!!!” One man compared what she had done to the hate-articles which accompanied gay-bashing in his native Ireland back in the old days.
Now I can’t imagine any driver choosing to attack someone on a bike specifically because of an article in the Guardian – one by Linda Grant, or otherwise. Nor can I imagine some kind of strange vengeance attack, getting retribution ‘FOR LINDA’. But that wasn’t really the objection. It’s not that an article like this would lead to any specific incident. Rather that it, and the countless others like it, contribute to an already fairly poisonous background climate surrounding cycling, that reinforces prejudice.
We live in a world where people are apparently willing to use their cars to bully people on bicycles, even using their cars as a weapon to attack them, and undoubtedly many will do so because of their general attitude to ‘cyclists’ – an attitude that will be framed and shaped by the things people read, and see.
A recent trial provides a case in point. Last week a delivery driver was found guilty of careless driving, following an incident in which he knocked a woman off her bike at the Bank Junction in the City of London. The evidence presented – which included onboard video camera in the van) – is strongly suggestive that this was quite deliberate, even if the driver himself was only found guilty of careless driving.
The onboard CCTV camera in Baker’s van captured the delivery driver saying ‘Oh God’ as she moved in front of his vehicle. As she moved off and signalled to turn right, Baker was heard to say: ‘Come on get out of the bloody way’ and beeped his horn.
Mrs Kempster told jurors: ‘I got a beep which I regarded as an angry beep which I was rather annoyed about because it was a hugely busy day and I knew I was cycling impeccably. I am afraid I made an unsuitable gesture and stuck two fingers up. I continued and heard a roar of the van coming up my side. Then he slowed to my speed and came closer and closer getting towards the edge of his lane, then he must have been in my lane.’
… Baker carried on driving until a motorcyclist caught up with him and tapped on his window to tell him he had knocked a cyclist off her bike. The delivery driver allegedly replied: ‘Really, did I? Did she not run into me?’
In the context of discussion about attitudes towards people riding bikes, this particular passage is instructive –
In interview Baker admitted cursing at the cyclist and spoke ‘disparagingly’ about cyclists in general, the court heard. He also admitted hearing a bang but claimed he thought he had driven over a manhole and didn’t realise he had knocked the cyclist off. Prosecutor Martin Hooper said Baker was ‘rather irritated by this cyclist in particular but also cyclists generally.
How much did Baker’s general dislike of ‘cyclists’ (note, any person moving around London who happens to be on a bike at the time Baker encounters them) contribute to this incident? It’s obviously impossible to say, but it’s more than plausible that a person harbouring an intense dislike of users of a particular mode of transport is more likely to be involved in this kind of incident than someone who is more equanimous.
What is certain is that people behind the wheel of a motor vehicle will yell at you, or abuse you, or bully you with their vehicle, simply because you happen to be on a bike. I know this, because it has happened to me. I have been going about my business quite blamelessly, when someone decides to punish me with their vehicle – and when I ask them why, the justification is almost always along the lines of the general behaviour of ‘cyclists’, not anything that I myself had done. Whether it’s ‘you all go through red lights’, or ‘you mow down grannies on the pavement’, their behaviour towards me is rationalised by the bad behaviour of complete strangers, who simply happened to be using the same mode of transport as me. To these particular drivers, I am an embodiment of ‘cyclists’ and all their ills. It’s similar to the kind of ‘outgroup’ thinking that leads to abuse and attacks on innocent, but visible, members of a particular minority group following an atrocity committed by a member of that minority group – even if the outgroup identity of ‘cyclist’ can be shed at a moment’s notice simply by stepping off the bike.
To be clear, Grant’s piece – despite the fact it contained well-worn tropes like ‘lycra-clad cult’ – wasn’t particularly bad, as least as far these kinds of articles go. I’ve seen much worse. But as I’ve mentioned earlier, it all adds up to a kind of toxic soup, one that serves to reinforce hostile attitudes, and even to inflame them.
My personal view is that hostility towards people cycling, of the kind that Dennis Baker displayed, is almost entirely a symptom of a crap road environment that fails to take account of cycling as a mode of transport. It’s an environment that pushes cycling and motoring into the same space, two modes of transport with disparate requirements that are not suited to being treated in the same way. It’s an environment that pushes cycling onto the pavement when things get a bit too tricky, lumping it in with pedestrians in a way that again creates needless conflict. It’s an environment that inevitably restricts cycling to a small minority of the population, fertile grounds for outgroup thinking – phrasing like ‘them’, ‘they’, as opposed to ‘us’ and ‘we’. To me it’s not the least bit surprising that people walking and driving hate ‘cyclists’, because the needs of anyone choosing to use a bike are rarely catered for in a sensible way.
But newspaper articles that present ‘cyclists’ as some kind of uniquely awful species on our streets certainly do nothing to ameliorate that hostility, and just as problematically, they make attempts to improve our streets, so that they work for all users, even harder. Witness the way improvements in London are being presented as ‘for cyclists’, particularly by hostile parties on social media, but also by journalists on mainstream newspapers.
The battleground for the clash of commuters is Victoria Embankment, where the two-wheeled Utopia of a Cycle Superhighway is being built, and it is causing all manner of discord.
On one side are the high achievers reliant on Porsches and petrol to glide between engagements. Pitted against them are their cycling evangelist colleagues, Lycra-clad executives who splurge their bonuses on 1,000-pound Brompton bikes or fixie racers, pedalling their stress away by turning the city’s roads into race tracks.
Of course, current users of the Embankment are probably disproportionately composed of males, on faster bikes, principally because this was a very hostile road to cycle on. But the Superhighway isn’t really ‘for’ these users. It’s for everyone, for anyone who might want to ride a bike, whether they are a City type on an expensive carbon racing bike, or families with children.
— Christopher Day (@IndieChris71) December 30, 2015
The potential users of cycling infrastructure like the ones shown in the photograph above disappear from view when the debate is narrowly focused on current users of bicycles in London, and their apparently unique mode-specific ills. Debate framed in this way not only contributes to a more hostile environment for existing users, but also makes the struggle to open up our streets to anyone who wants to ride a bike even harder. That’s why it’s problematic.