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.