Cycling privilege

One particularly puzzling aspect of attitudes to cycling in Britain is how this simple mode of transport is seen (or misrepresented) as being elitist, or exclusive, in some way, shape or form.

Whether it’s the claim that it’s male-dominated, or white, or the preserve of the rich or the middle class, or only for people of a certain age, or only for those who are able-bodied – or a combination of all of the above – these arguments have come to be used to resist changes to the urban environment in favour of cycling, presumably on the basis that those changes favour the rich over the poor, men over women, or whites over ethnic minorities, or able-bodied people over disabled people, or that they are ‘against’ children or the elderly. Witness the protest yesterday in Regents Park, arguing that the park should be kept open ‘for everyone’, rather than having motor traffic removed.

Picture by Ross Lydall

Picture by Ross Lydall

Or a host of comments on the petition organised against Superhighway 11, of which this one by Dan is sadly typical –

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 02.19.51What’s going on here? Is there any truth to these claims that cycling is for a privileged minority, and that measures to make cycling an easy way to get about will therefore inevitably harm those less fortunate?

The idea that reallocating road space used by private motor vehicles in favour of cycling (or reducing the routes available to motor traffic) favours the rich and middle classes over the poor is particularly baffling. A quick glance at statistics shows that, in reality, richer people make a greater proportion of their trips by car than those of lower incomes.

From that same study –

Over 70% of the trips made by the highest income group are by car compared with fewer than 50% by the lowest income group… almost half of those from the poorest quintile do not [even] have access to a car.

And of course car use can be painfully expensive. For those in the lowest income quintile who do own cars, up to a quarter of household income is spent on the cost of motoring.

As for cycling itself, it pales into insignificance as a mode of transport in Britain, but even at these low levels it is pretty clear that it’s evenly distributed across incomes. Yes, richer income groups might make more cycling trips, but that’s only because these groups make more trips overall. For both the lowest and the highest income groups, cycling forms about 1.8% of all trips made. There’s no difference.

This very low level of cycling across all income groups suggests that it is suppressed as a mode of transport by hostile conditions, not by class. Whether you are rich or poor, it’s not much fun to cycle on roads that are uncomfortably full of fast motor traffic. Being rich or middle class doesn’t somehow automatically inoculate you from the basic, rational human fear response that comes from dealing with these kinds of conditions.

Were we to see more cycling-friendly conditions across Britain, I think it’s likely the cycling distribution across incomes would resemble that of walking, with a higher level of trips made by lower income groups both as an absolute number, and as a share of all trips made. Walking makes up 33% of trips made by the lowest income group; it makes up only  17% of trips made by the highest income group.

Cycling isn’t as cost-free as walking, of course – you have to buy a bike – but my hunch is that cycling share would resemble walking, across income groups, if it was a mode of transport that was ‘environmentally available’ to all. (By that I mean that the environment allows cycling from A to B with relative ease, as much ease as walking or driving.) It would open up transport options for those who can’t afford cars, particularly for those kinds of trips that are awkward, inconvenient, difficult or even impossible without them – the kind of trips that involve walking longer distances, or long waits for unreliable or intermittent (and often expensive) public transport.

The claim that designing for cycling is discriminatory against children or the elderly is equally puzzling. Children under 17 – for obvious reasons – can’t even drive. If they are travelling in cars, they are reliant on their parents, or other adults, ferrying them about, very often for trips that they could be making independently, if the environment was designed to support those kinds of trips. The only way in which cycling is discriminatory against children is if you can’t possibly imagine children cycling around independently. That’s not inevitable; we just need to design the environment to allow it.

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 01.44.21

Much the same is true of the elderly. Three of my four grandparents either chose to give up driving, or surrendered their driving licence. They just didn’t feel comfortable driving anymore. Cycling was my grandmother’s remaining way of getting about, until her increasing frailty meant she could no longer cope with the demands of the busy roads where she lived. She didn’t want to stop – she was essentially forced off her bike.

You might think that elderly people can’t possibly ride bikes, because you don’t see many of them doing so. But that doesn’t mean that cycling is inevitably a mode of transport that the elderly can’t use, or don’t want to use. Just like my grandmother, it’s more than likely that road conditions are just too hostile for this age group, even for those who might want to cycle. A bicycle or adapted cycle is an amazing way for elderly people to maintain independence when they don’t have a motor vehicle, or if they start to feel uncertain or uncomfortable using them, as my grandparents did.

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 01.41.39

You might not see it, or can’t imagine it happening, but that’s not a very good basis for assuming that the elderly can’t or don’t want to cycle. Especially if you are trying to block schemes that will create conditions which will make cycling a reasonable possibility for those elderly people (and indeed children) who actually want to cycle about.

And – contrary to the blanket assumption that cycling is something that people who have a disability are excluded from – for many people cycling is (or could be) actually a mobility aid, either in the straightforward form of a bicycle itself, or in the form of trikes, handcycles, or adapted wheelchairs.

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 01.54.35

Cycling gives these users independence. All too often the obstacles standing in their way are not problems or issues with cycling per se, but with a road and street environment that makes the choice of cycling difficult or impossible.

This is even before we appreciate that cycling infrastructure represents a better environment for a variety of mobility aids, not just cycles. Even in the early, tentative days of good quality cycling infrastructure emerging on the streets of London, these users are  already starting to appear, taking advantage of what obviously works for them.

What am I getting at here?

That the way cycling is portrayed as ‘exclusive’ is completely back to front. Rather than being a mode of transport for the privileged, the wealthy, and the able-bodied, it’s actually the complete opposite. It’s the great enabler – a mode of transport for everyone, especially for those who have limited transport choices. For those who don’t have access to cars. For those who can’t afford them, or can’t drive them, or choose not to. For those for whom walking is a struggle, and a bicycle makes the simple act of getting from A to B much easier. For those who don’t even use a cycle, but rely on other mobility aids like scooters and wheelchairs.

The terrible irony is that these claims about cycling being a minority pursuit are being used to resist changes to the urban environment that would bring about these benefits, for everyone.

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31 Responses to Cycling privilege

  1. Steve says:

    Intrigued by the placard in the Regent’s Park protest photo that reads “Don’t ruin our air”. Is that guy of the opinion that NOx is good for you?

    • I think the “Don’t ruin our air” sign is about the increased traffic on alternative routes that might be created by blocking routes that use Outer Circle, particularly Finchley Road. It’s more compelling if you don’t believe that many people would change their habits and make fewer trips by car those routes were blocked.

  2. I find it rather amusing how peoples assumptions and views of cyclists can change so drastically! As soon as they want to try blocking planned infrastructure cycling becomes the preserve of the elite and rich yet when they want to start attacking cyclists they’ll often be called “tree hugging hippies who can’t afford a car!”. Quite how you can assume to tell someone’s level of income from their mode of transport I don’t know, it’d me like assuming the guy who is driving around in the clapped out banger hasn’t got a Ferrari at home in his garage too.

    I’m also nicely aware of the level of independence a bike can offer to children as my eldest (15) regularly uses the bike that acquired from my mum (who pretty much perfectly fits in to the “would cycle but is too scared” category!) using it to get herself to school, youth clubs and the gym which saves on using public transport or us having to ferry her around in the family minibus (we’re a large family!)

  3. Matthew says:

    The reversal of truth is a classic technique practised by scoundrels with an agenda. It’s a typical tactic in a political war. Of course, anyone who applies common sense would realise that safer streets and better cycling infrastructure is good for both young and old, helps people with disabilities, as well as people on lower incomes. But common sense isn’t common. Instead, people adopt the attitudes of their peers. Those who identify with the taxi drivers will agree with the taxi drivers, even if it’s nonsense that they spout, even if they’re hurting themselves. They won’t pay attention to facts, no matter how good they are, because facts are not the motivation for their behaviour.

    The answer to this problem is to find ways to let people identify with us. Most people have more than one role in life, more than one identity. Many of those identities are much more open to safe-streets infrastructure than the “angry driver” identity is. Then they will listen to us and be amenable. We don’t have to win over everyone. Just enough to be a larger political force.

    P.S. And again, the name “cycle superhighway” is perhaps one of the biggest blunders in PR history!

    • D. says:

      “Share the park. Share the road. Outer circle 4 everyone.”
      “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

      Seems incredible if those people honestly cannot see that what they are asking for is what the proposals will deliver – access for everyone, just not for the big metal boxes. They can still go there, but not actually in their big metal box. That said, like the Mini Holland protesters, they are using the language of the underdog to maintain the status quo (and, lets face it, those people are not the underdogs here).

      • Tim says:

        Actually it’s not even that bad (for drivers). They can still go there in big metal boxes at any time. They just can’t use certain entrances and exits at certain times, which makes it harder to use the park as a driving short-cut. Which is exactly as it should be.

  4. Gonçalo Peres says:

    I sense auto/oil lobby pulling the strings on this puppets…

    • Har Davids says:

      I doubt they need to; too many people consider their car a very important part of their life/identity. Cars used to be the preserve of the wealthy, but now anyone who can sign a form can be a ‘proud’ owner of his/her own destiny (look at all the fabulous advertisements: open roads, blue skies, free parking) and join the most nearby grid-lock.

  5. Steven Edwards says:

    Andrew Gilligan has denounced many of the antis as promoting falsehoods. They hven’t even got the facts right about the scheme itself. Tom Conti (bless him) has denounced this ‘Stalinist’ plan and thinks all cyclists should pay ‘road tax’ if they want ‘cycle routes’ – there’s a thought!!!
    Meanwhile the placards if honest (and having green backgrounds lends anantirly false assumption that these people want ‘Greener’ measures in place).
    What should the placards really say?
    ‘Keep children off of our road’…’Car drivers of Hampstead put your foot down’….’The Outer Circle is OUR domain’… ‘Mums in 4x4s before mums on two wheels’… ‘WE decide what the disabled want – and they don’t want to be riding through our park’… ‘Go and clean up your own air this is OUR road’…’Cyclists go back to Holland’…erm…kind of thing?

    • Citizen Wolf says:

      “cyclists go back to Holland” Hahaha, 🙂 I like it (not in a serious way).
      And in an Orwellian twist – Four wheels good, two wheels bad.

    • Go back to Holland? LOL. Britain was the first along with the US to have a big bicycle craze in the 1880s.

      If we are going to charge cyclists a road tax, then where are all of the drivers who haven’t paid their share of the cost of rebuilding society and infrastructure around cars? And who exactly is going to compensate the victims of road collisions involving a car?

  6. Notak says:

    I know a couple of people who will cycle distances as short as ten yards because it is very difficult or painful for them to walk but they are able to do it on a bike. Of course, there must be people whose disabilities mean they can walk but not cycle, but they’re certainly not everyone. One solution or mode will never suit all.

    I do like the photo of the kids riding side by side, chatting.

    • Tim says:

      Slightly off topic, but the other day I met a Dutch woman who’s currently living in Oxford. She’s still cycling as her primary mode of transport, and recognises that Oxford has more cycling than most places in the UK, but she said it’s not like the Netherlands because in the UK it’s really hard to cycle with a friend in a social way, having a chat. You feel awkward cycling two abreast; cycle facilities are rarely wide enough, and the traffic noise drowns out conversation. She said you might as well each be cycling separately to your shared destination.

      Of course, those travelling by car still get the luxury of sitting side by side and conversing as they travel.

      It struck me that our infrastructure marginalises cycling in subtle ways we often don’t even consider. Even for those confident enough to brave the traffic, it all makes cycling a less pleasant experience.

  7. rdrf says:

    The basic thrust of your argument is right. All that needs adding is Matthew’s argument above, and to remember that accuracy is never going to be a part of the “rationality” adopted by anti-cyclists.

    However, there IS a point about the income/class basis of existing cyclists. I haven’t looked it up recently – and it may have changed – but the data collected by TfL used to show a bias among existing cyclists towards the upper half/two-thirds of the income scale. I think there are three points to be drawn from this:

    1. As you briefly suggest, you have to pay money to have a bicycle. I think the cycling lobby gets it wrong here: essentially we need to point out that it DOES cost. If you want a new, user-friendly bicycle with accessories such as luggage, locks, lights; not to mention (breathable) waterproofs possibly secure parking, and insurance, you’re going to have to pay. My view is that people on low incomes should be supported with subsidised access to bicycles/accessories through schemes such as recovered bicycle centres and other direct forms of supporting cycling. I think discussing this issue more openly also raises the issue of how much road users should pay, pointing out the hidden subsidies to driving.

    2. One of the reasons for the lower Cs and Ds driving is that their lifestyle revolves around cheaper forms of housing in outer suburban areas which tend to be more car-dependent.

    3. Finally, for a lot of lower income people (although not the poorest, who can’t afford cars easily) the car is likely to be a status symbol of an escape from poverty. Cycling is often seen as something done by people with no money, such as in the unfortunate comments a while back by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner.

    • Notak says:

      Points 2 and 3 are difficult to overcome because they require a realignment of society’s values. An additional one is that people on low wages often have two or more jobs which they need to travel between in a hurry and at unsocial hours, when there is no public transport.

    • baoigheallain says:

      2. and 3. do exist but need to be challenged. I lived this winter in a house-share with an ethnic minority landlord of this group, in a car dependent suburb beyond the North Circular. He driving an expensive car way beyond is needs because he likes to show off to his peers.

      He was incredulous that I would prefer to walk to the Tube station (10 – 12 mins) rather than drive and park on a street nearby, like everyone else does. He was equally incredulous that I actually could walk to the local Tesco superstore – he had never done so in twenty years living there, despite it only being a 15 minute walk. He just couldn’t understand why anyone would want to walk when they have a car.

      You can imagine his bemusement when I cycled the 10 miles into London – it was still way quicker than public transport.

    • Har Davids says:

      As long as people on low incomes consider buying a car before anything else, even at the cost of depriving their children of important stuff, like decent food, they’ll never get rid of their cars. Holland may not be perfect, but at least over here anyone can ride a bike without being considered an out-cast.

    • It’s not just that being poorer means you end up living in less convenient places; the less money you have, the less likely it is that you have the space to store your bike safely and conveniently. If you live as a family, you need the space for maybe 4 or 5 bikes and you have the tedious job of lugging the whole lot up and down staircases and so on.
      For many, bikes will not meet all their transport needs. Trains (and even buses) are very costly for a whole family as well as being slow and inflexible. People who can, will stretch the budget to get a cheap car which can deal with the most tricky and expensive journeys. Buying bikes as well may then be a low priority because they are just giving a further choice of transport for the smallish gap left between walking and driving.

    • Haze says:

      I have a bike that cost me £150 and will hopefully last me for years; you can get a serviceable set of locks and lights for £20 or £30 total. I cycle regularly and manage without luggage fixtures, special clothing or insurance. Of course that’s no super-super cheap, but it’s much cheaper than a car, and if I was taking the bus for all the journeys I currently cycle it would be costing me several hundred pounds a year. There is a cost, but it’s still much less than the alternatives in most cases.

      Some degree of subsidy might be useful – though I wonder if it might reinforce the attitudes that associate cycling with poverty which you mention in your third point.

  8. Kevin Love says:

    “Cycling isn’t as cost-free as walking, of course – you have to buy a bike”

    And shoes are free?

    I know people who have spent far, far more money on their shoes than I will ever spend on my bicycle.

  9. We probably have little John Franklin and his cohorts of those opposing non vehicular cycling as the future to thank for this. Vehicular cycling also is partly responsible for the dual networking system we have today, but another effect is making cycling seem possibly only on race bikes for those who can afford the things and those who are fit and very able to go 35-50 km/h on the things.

    To help reverse the effect, we need to stop believing in vehicular cycling as the only way to design for cyclists, build things like the segregated 4 metre wide cycle tracks with junctions that are efficient like Dutch ones are, prohibit designing for dual networks, and reintroduce the omafietsen on our roads. People are much more able to ride an omafiets than a race bike, and are far more affordable as well. They ride at their own pace, also helped by the infrastructure they ride on, and are able to be seen as instruments of the common person. This video by Mark Wagenbuur (BicycleDutch) shows those on mobility scooters or adapted bicycles getting around in safety. It brought a tear to my eyes the first time I watched it:

    • Notak says:

      “Vehicular cycling” (I don’t like the phrase; a cycle is intrinsically a vehicle, however you ride it) is certainly not the only or whole answer and while it’s fun for those who can, they should try to remember that most people are simply unable to reach those speeds consistently even if they had the attitude. Some undoubtedly fast riders do pretty well at this – Boardman and Hoy, for instance – but some don’t. However, it’s equally wrong to condemn that kind of fast, mixing-it-with-cars-and-enjoying-the-thrill, cycling; it’s a perfectly valid way of riding for those who can. To say that everyone should ride in one way, be that omafiets (roadster, to use the old British term), racer, mountain bike or recumbent trike, is simply wrong.

    • Paul Luton says:

      Whilst agreeing with you about the limitations of the “road (racing) bike” as practical transport it is possible to have a bicycle which combines load carrying capacity (and mudguards) with ability to cope with hills. Making a fetish of a particular Dutch design is likely to be counter-productive in a different environment (fewer cobbles for a start).

  10. Richard Carter says:

    Not sure if this point has been made already, but one reason you see fewer older people cycling may be that, in London at least, the majority of people are apparently commuting. So that would automatically militate aginst the older age group, wouldn’t it? Just a thought…

    • ORiordan says:

      Commuting only represents about a quarter of trips in London – there are more trips for education and leisure although “education” covers schools and colleges so will be younger age groups.

      One thing that may surpress cycling by older people in London is they get free travel on public transport.

      • Richard Carter says:

        Fair enough, I hadn’t realised that the commuting percentage was as low as that. And your second point is spot on: the sight of a wet, miserable day is often more than enough to push me on to the bus/tube rather than my bike…

  11. Cycle Chic says:

    This is a very astute blog post – respect to the author!

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