I’ve long held the suspicion that the use of ‘encouragement’ in relation to cycling is a classic example of a weasel word. It’s a word that sounds positive (after all, who could possibly object to cycling being encouraged?) – but that, when it comes to its use in practice, amounts to an abdication of responsibility. ‘Encouragement’ involves persuading people to do something, and… that’s about it. We want you to cycle, but we’re going to do very little to help you. In fact, we might even ‘encourage’ you to cycle while we are actively making things worse.
‘Encouraging people to cycle’ has become the stock phrase of councils and authorities that want to sound like they’re in favour of cycling, but don’t want to actually enable it. Councils who might like the idea of more people spontaneously choosing to cycle on their roads, but aren’t at all keen on having to do anything to all to help them to do so – hard, uncomfortable political decisions like reallocating road space away from motor traffic, or filtering residential streets to make them safe enough to cycle on.
So it’s not at all surprising that two prominent Conservative politicians who have been campaigning to remove an objectively successful protected cycle lane on Kensington High Street are, of course, in favour of ‘encouragement’.
At first glance, you might think that politicians who were genuinely ‘strongly in favour of encouraging active travel’ wouldn’t be writing letters urging a council to remove a protected cycle lane that has seen a near three-fold increase in cycling levels, and that greatly reduces crash risk on a road with an appalling collision record. You certainly wouldn’t expect them to be stating how strongly in favour of encouraging active travel they are, in the very same letter calling for the removal of that protected cycle lane – which it should be stressed is (while it lasts) the only one in the entire borough. How can that possibly make sense?
Of course, there is no contradiction here. ‘Encouragement’ sounds nice, but when politicians say they are ‘strongly in favour of encouraging active travel’, it’s quite clear that the phrase doesn’t commit them to do anything at all that will actually make a difference. They say ‘strongly in favour of encouraging active travel’, but what they actually mean is ‘strongly in favour of persuading you to cycle, but without doing anything to help you.’
In much the same way, politicians can say they are ‘strongly in favour of encouraging children to eat healthily’, while voting against free school meals. With a moment’s scrutiny, ‘encouragement’ quickly becomes meaningless.
As if to remove any doubt about how keen they are on ‘encouraging’ cycling, here are the same two politicians celebrating the decision to remove the lane, while simultaneously urging the council to find ‘other ways encourage cycling’.
Naturally, these ‘other ways to encourage cycling’ aren’t spelt out. And why would they be? That’s not the job of an encourager. The limit of their ambition is to be in favour of you cycling if that’s something that you want to do, and to attempt to persuade you to do it if you don’t want to. Cycling is your choice.
That’s what ‘encouragement’ amounts to. It means nothing, and that’s why it gets used so often in relation to cycling. You’re on your own.
Not really any different to “sending thoughts and prayers”. Very supportive of X as long as X does not happen in my backyard.
West Sussex Council are world leaders at this.
Very good point, very well made, thanks
“Facilitate” should be the standard requirement.
It is usually physically possible to cycle if one takes ones life in ones hands so “enable” is not enough.
It should be as easy as possible to cycle.
Thanks for posting this setback to cycling. ‘You’re on you own’ gets to the crux of the the matter. Cycling – other than for a few heroic and determined supporters of cycling as a better, alternative means of transport (it was good to notice a child cycling the lane next to the busy ‘main road’ before it had been outrageously scrapped) is not for families.
Nor is it for communities.
But it will be. One day. Carbon neutrality, drones, barges carrying the equivalent load of 27 lorries – these and other initiatives are the future – a future which I think will expand exponentially. Cycling – mainly due to the lack of any real, safe cycling infrastructure – is still largely self-centric. It’s had to be, to exist at all, given the existing infrastructure. And with it still come these distorted ‘victories’ (disgusting). And coronavirus, with working from home (no need to drive) has been a wake up call re how little car travel is necessary.
We won’t always be on our own. The future favours cycling. Let’s not continue to be on our own to get to that inevitable future.
Peter, I have been feeling a bit despondent about the future of cycling, but your post cheered me up. You’re right, cycling will be the future but not until the sea levels have risen and half of Britain is submerged. Unfortunately it will be the low-lying flat areas which will be affected first. I live in the hilly North East
I tried to reply sooner Vantheman but couldn’t get past authentication… yes, a tad over-optimistic – you’re right. London councils are notoriously draconian and if you read Guy Shrubsole’s ‘Who Owns England?’ a link it’s easy to
appreciate the massive opposition to all things bike.
So we resist.
I live in Leeds: we have our share of hills too – using public transport to carry my folder, to cycle downhill. And now we have electric bikes, plus an electric scooter shop has just opened here, on the strength of £120,000 sales during lockdown. The increase in such non-car users will ultimately impact on transport infrastructure: all it will take is enough of the public to see how much more sense this makes for our planet PRIOR to global flooding! Over-optimistic maybe, but the thinking’s sound, I think.
I cycle every day and my friends/relatives think I’m strange. My brother lives in a quiet country town but is scared to cycle in case he falls off! I own a car but use it rarely now I’m retired. I walk regularly with the Ramblers and we all drive to remote beautiful spots and spoil them by parking there, so I guess I’m a hypocrite. The Government has pledged net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 but at the same time has allocated £27 billion to new road-building and has cut rail spending by £1 billion. I’m puzzled as these people went to the finest public schools and universities; they must know that if we continue like this we will make the planet uninhabitable. It may not affect them, but what about their children/grandchildren?
It’s a fact that the internal combustion engine is still very much the predominant mode of transport, but for how long? Forever? (I don’t think so).
It’s not hypocritical of you to use a car: the fact that you care about the consequences of doing so to the environment means you’re using it on a needs-only basis (and if you’re organising shared travel for your walks, even better). It’s the world we live in. I could also regard myself as a hypocrite because I realise, given my socialist tendencies, that we are seeking out Conservative county locations because they have so much appeal for we urbanites! It’s something to smile about, not something to feel guilty about.
We’ve now got a campervan. and two folding bikes, my wife recently joining me in retirement. Because we have bus passes (bless!) the van’s rarely used other than for holidays and, during the pandemic, we could still manage to get away, to nice places (like you do) to walk and cycle – only closer to home, which did not affect the quality of the holidays at all. They were great!
A recent MOT showed that the mileage for the year was just over 1000. But we’re retired. My son’s work, though, meant that he’d clocked up 30,000 miles in the same period. It’s the world in which we live, but it’s world which has always faced change.
Leeds is committing a lot such as a cycle super highway linking with Bradford, and there’s loads of construction work going on, on the A roads here and there, and particularly the city centre ,to make it more pedestrian and cycle focussed. To ‘encourage’ more people to cycle. It’s a step in the right direction, but a small one, not involving one giant leap. For that, we’re in it for the long haul. I worry for my grandchildren’s future: it may be only when they are considering their grandchildren’s future that real differences will be seen.
I don’t wonder about the mindset of those who went to the best schools, the ones in power. Inbred is the concept that they are an élite – which of course they are – an élite powerful enough to detach itself from mundane concerns such as the fate of the planet.
But I do wonder why it should be that there’s no way I’d want my wife to join me on Leeds roads – it’s just too unsafe, even with recent initiatives. There are a lot of signs, now, though, that change will come from the bottom up.
Reblogged this on Boots on a Bike and commented:
I was going to blog about this, but this chap has done it so much better than I could.
As usual, an excellent post. I also agree with @Paul Luton. ‘Facilitate’ is even better than ‘enable’.
“Bande de Tartuffes !” as we say in French.
This post is so clever (as always) I translated it into French:
Pingback: Encouragement | As Easy As Riding A Bike
My alarm call for this week. I have changed my thinking because of this. I am sorry if I seem brutally honest, but this false “acceptance” is a slimy dismissal of those whom politicians and orators think are irrelevant. Bicycles and their users are the hidden, ignored, insulted, non-aggresive influence that will gently, quietly persuade equality and care for each other on the road. You have had a break over lockdown, as many of us have, with stress and reduction in funds. I applaud you, sir.
I have moved out of London, after living there for 11 years. But I agree with your point of view. ‘Encouragement’ being false and cynical, and absolving any council from spending money on cycle ways, and also absolving the legal system of light (or no) sentencing for drivers causing death or serious injury to cyclists and pedestrians. On a different note, I wish you well, and I hope that you can make more posts on your blog. I miss your posts, and haven’t had an email since 09/12/20. I keep leafing through the emails from easyasridingabike. Your posts are immensely valuable. Thanks.
Is it Tessa? I hope I’ve interpreted that correctly.
Yes, I stopped communicating online about that time because I realised something: we are very, very far from the place I think bikes should occupy in all our lives / very far away, and it was about December last year that I stopped ‘championing’ all things cycling online because coupled with that realisation I was subjected to an inappropriate opinion attack on Twitter: consequently I decided to ‘leave the thread’.
I’d spent three months and a hundred pages of word processing describing my personal history of bikes from the sixties. This included a gradient map of Leeds which I categorised as having three cycle at options but, cycling the designated cycle superhighway vaunted by council as a breakthrough saw that it was by no means designed with safety in mind for all and that there was no way I’d wish my family to use it.
The love-hate relationship through car drivers having to share with cyclists will be with us for some time and it comes down I think to (still) requiring cyclists to be road-savvy experts, and so is totally unsuited for everybody: there is no infrastructure for making cycling a viable, safe communal option on our roads at all despite Covid-period interest in using bikes more. If anything it’s fraught with greater danger due to the illegal use of electric scooters.
I was a little flattered to receive your message, as well as a little surprised, but I’ve refrained from contributing because I seriously wonder how much impact my thoughts on this are even relevant.
Bikes only make practical sense for self-centric cyclists on our current roads setup.
Hello Peter, my name is Adam Harrison, not Tessa. I am sorry if I caused any confusion.
I have been subscribed to your emails since about November 2016.
On WordPress, I had a blog – irondramaash, but I deleted that, because it seemed pointless. I made a new blog, tesseractpoint, and haven’t posted anything yet. I’m getting a post together now, but it’s about history and literature.
I feel the same about trying to convince people to cycle. It has not worked. I have only been trying the past 30 years, not to your extent, and not online. I have saved your emails since Nov 2016. I feel that some people online, including on Twitter, think that they can insult, demean, and injure others without recourse. Like some drivers, and their lawyers.
Your history is valuable. The safe cycling options in Leeds and other cities are prey to council money-grabbing – the classic brown envelope under the table. This is more insidious than the syringes of orange juice disposed of in coke cans.
Your gradient maps of Leeds could have made an immense improvement to a whole city’s community. I have made contributions to pollution data analysis here in Liverpool, but several months’ effort has been similarly ignored.
Cycle commuting from SW and SE London to the centre from 2012 to 2019 was instructive. It is sometimes a solo effort, needing filtering and acute awareness, but nearer the centre, there is a peloton effect, very odd – everyone watching out for each other, caring for the whole group. Compared with the awkward avoidant stares on train or tube travel, it is bliss.
I know nobody else amongst friends or family who is road-savvy enough to be confident around motor traffic. When I have the energy, I am still shouting and ranting about separate cycle infrastructure, to my local Council and on the waste of energy that is facebouk. I am Adam Harrison on that platform, if you are interested, although I can forgive anyone for not being so.
As you said better, it is only safe to ride a bicyle if you are experienced in the whole epic universe of cycling.
I would be honoured to read your experiences about cycling.