The concept of the fall guy is a familiar one in television, film and literature, and indeed in real life. A person, entirely innocent or partially complicit, who is blamed in order to deflect blame or responsibility from another party, or to obscure wider failings.
In many respects your average person cycling around in Britain falls into this category. They are blamed for being in the way; blamed for being on the pavement; blamed for cycling through parks; blamed for not using cycle lanes; blamed for coming into conflict with other modes of transport. Yet these kinds of incidents – often when the person cycling isn’t breaking any rules at all – will result from a basic failure to design properly.
The person cycling, attracting the anger, is the fall guy. It is straightforward and easy to blame them for their behaviour, without examining how and why they are coming into conflict with other people in the first place. All too often they will simply be attempting to get from A to B as best as they can. Yet because their mode of transport has not been considered, or because they are forced to compromise, even adopting the path of least resistance will still bring them into conflict.
It’s highly unlikely that the person cycling in ‘the middle of the road’ in front of you actually wants to be in your way. I certainly don’t want drivers to be stuck behind me when I’m cycling around; I’d much rather have my own space that allowed me to go at my own pace, and removed these kinds of unpleasant interactions altogether. Or, alternatively, I’d like to see these busy roads ‘converted’ into low motor traffic environments where it is easy for drivers to overtake, even when there are many people cycling.
Equally, when I am driving, I don’t particularly want people cycling in front me either. The failure to provide separate space, or to structurally separate walking and driving, is what is causing this conflict.
Likewise, if a person cycling isn’t using a ‘cycle lane’, there’s almost certainly a very good reason. It’s not because they want to be in your way – it’s because that ‘cycle lane’ is inadequate, one that imposes a large amount of inconvenience, or even danger, in exchange for very little benefit. Avoiding it – and attracting the ire of angry motorists – isn’t something someone cycling is actually seeking to do. I’d much rather have cycling infrastructure that worked, and made sense. I certainly don’t want to be in your way, but avoiding that lane, or painted stripe on a footway, is my least worst option.
Likewise I don’t want to ‘share’ footways with pedestrians. It’s slow and inconvenient. People walking on footways don’t want the uncertainty of people cycling past them, and those people cycling don’t want the uncertainty of interactions with pedestrians.
Yet these kinds of arrangements are frequently legal; a compromise arrangement imposed by local authorities.
The conflict being created by shared use footways is, in effect, the outcome of their policies, and their responsibility; yet it is the people cycling who get the blame, just as they get blamed for impeding drivers on the road. They are either in the way of faster drivers, or they are negotiating their way around slower pedestrians, yet neither of these situations is in any way desirable for the person cycling.
It’s also important to look at places where people are cycling on the footway illegally. In most cases these will be footways that are indistinguishable from footways in the same area where cycling has been legalised, but even so we continue to recognise that cycling on the footway – legally or illegally – is not attractive. It’s an option of last resort, the least worst alternative. Blaming the people doing it – especially when, as in my area, the vast majority doing so are children, families, and teenagers – really isn’t going to get us anywhere.
It’s so, so easy to blame these people, because most of us can’t identify with them. The great majority of Britons do not cycle in urban areas, and certainly not with any regularity.
But blaming these kinds of conflicts on our alleged personal failings – our alleged lack of courtesy, our alleged irresponsibility, our alleged aggression – gets us nowhere. We are all just people getting around as best we can, and lumping the blame onto ‘cyclists’ will not solve any of these problems. Tomorrow, the roads will be just as hostile, the pavements will be just as unsuitable, and exactly the same conflict-generating environments will still be there. It might be satisfying to moan and whinge about ‘cyclists’ but it certainly isn’t constructive. And this is especially true for many journalists and broadcasters, who seem to take particular delight in antagonistic phone-ins about ‘them’. Today being no exception.
If there genuinely is widespread conflict between walking and cycling, or indeed between motorists and people cycling, that’s not a personal failing on the part of ‘them’ (whoever ‘they’ actually are) but instead a failure to design environments that prevent that kind of conflict from occurring in the first place. Cycling on the footway is not attractive; nor is cycling on motor-traffic dominated roads. These problems are a symptom. The person on the bike is just the fall guy.