If you were to pay heed to the comments below any news article about the Highway Code, the building of cycle lanes, clean air zones, or low traffic neighbourhoods you might think that everyone hates cyclists. In fact, unless you have your head in a bucket of sand, you’d be forgiven for thinking that everyone who isn’t on two wheels feels we are responsible for all the ills in the world and therefore all drivers were simply out to get back at us.
There are complex reasons why cyclists on the road are seen as the enemy, some of them justified, most of them not.
Now, just before you switch off thinking this is going to be one of those tirades about how road tax doesn’t exist, why we don’t need licence plates yah de yah de yah, this isn’t one of those kind of pieces. I’m so tired of these complaints, and all the other common ones about the rule breaking lycra-clad crowd – and I’m sure you are too.
But these arguments are so common place, it does make me wonder how people can live their lives so clueless about how the law in this country works, and ignore all science and evidence presented to them. You get the feeling that they feel it’s a personal conspiracy against them, or even worse, they’ll speak on behalf of the aged or disabled [add any other appropriate groups here also], without actually asking them for their view. Of course people are perfectly entitled to their opinions, as long as they fall short of being ‘hate’ speech, as free speech is part of our democracy. But how are so many people completely uninformed? Or are they just confused? I’d like to think that behind all the keyboard haters, that there are actually decent people that just need to broaden their views.
It’s inevitable that people endlessly stuck in traffic might resent a cyclist that can over/undertake them, and get through the traffic quicker. Even more so if a bit of road has been repurposed as a bus/cycle lane and it appears mostly unused. They miss the fact that it appears empty as the traffic in it is moving rather than stationary. And it’s moving because vehicles using these lanes are passenger size appropriate 20 bikes will take up the space of maybe 2 or 3 cars, but most likely be carrying the same number of passengers. They also miss the fact that this single piece of ‘infrastructure’ might just run out and filter cyclists straight back into normal dangerous traffic lanes full of angry drivers, and so isn’t really fit for purpose as it doesn’t join up with other safe infrastructure. It’s simple evidence, but not registered when you’re stuck in your car going nowhere fast.
Then there are those people who ride bikes (too many), that tarnish the image of all law abiding, sensible bike riders. Those that dress all in black at night, no lights, jumping red lights etc etc. We’ve all seen those, and most likely rolled our eyes, or even had words!
A compelling case
Pro-cycling campaigners have long lauded the health benefits of cycling. When riders are not locked in a battle with motorists, cycling is generally good for your mental health, it helps reduce the effects of ageing, and can help keep us fit and healthy to an extent that for many of us, it keeps us away from needing to use up precious NHS resources for obesity and heart related issues. This in the most part is generally accepted even by many die-hard cyclophobes.
However, other evidence that it seems is harder for committed motorists to accept is that when more people chose to use bikes (or public transport or walking), traffic congestion ultimately decreases. Shops don’t die, but instead town centres can be revived as they become more pleasant places to visit and linger in, and maybe cafe cultures develop along side more varied shops. There is so much evidence pointing to increased footfall in areas that have removed cars from their heart, but as it’s not yet widespread in the UK, such evidence is usually derided as ‘not applicable to the UK, because we are different!’, although if you look at Oxford and Cambridge, it seems that it IS applicable in the UK if you look. People determine that schemes will be an unmitigated disaster, purely because they personally wouldn’t choose to not drive and like to park right outside their chosen shop.
And then there’s the issue of deliveries, ferrying children, bad weather, the elderly and a myriad of other reasons why cyclophobes believe it’s not possible to ride a bike for anything other than leisure.
Check out this blog post from The Netherlands that discusses many of the common reasons that non cyclists say that it will never catch on. It’s a fascinating read.
But what I struggle to comprehend the most is how people simply refuse to accept that jumping on a bike, any kind of bike, is a very practical and sensible start to improving a lot of the climate, transport and rising prices issues that we have right now.
Our Government, and local councils are signing up to NET ZERO climate commitments, but this is a complex conundrum. There is the will of the electorate to balance against the demise of our planet! Put simply, no British Political party is going to win an election by putting climate considerations front and centre of their policies, no matter how much they might want to. And then there is the issue of funding. So much tax revenue comes from the motor industry. Whether it’s by VED (or road tax if you listen to cycle haters), or the duty paid on fuel. More motor miles driven = more tax revenue. Of course the corresponding argument is that less motor miles driven = less damage to roads, less road building required, so less funding is required in the first place. And as the old argument goes, if we want cycle infrastructure, then we should pay extra for it. There’s always a counter argument for doing the right thing.
So, whilst the Government could show willing, and change things quite dramatically, the reality is that they will always move very slowly (if at all), and simply chip away by making token gestures until peoples views change. They could do more to make that happen more quickly, and advertising campaigns, like the old drink driving ones, can work wonders if they are implemented correctly. But they lack the back bone to challenge the status quo.
So, it’s left to us, the British citizens to do what we can. It’s clear we have a climate emergency that needs addressing. Not in 20 years time, but today, right now. It’s within all our power to accept that the way we have always done things is no longer sustainable. We waste too much, we pollute too much, and we ignore too much. I live on a sea level island. In 50 years, it’s possible that large swathes of it could be underwater, or hidden behind huge sea walls. I won’t be around I don’t suppose to see it, but my children and grandchildren will.
So I like to do what I can, it’s not enough, but it’s a start. I ride my bike or walk wherever I can. Driving around my city is a nightmare anyway, so I get about much quicker without my car. Since I’ve significantly reduced my vehicle use, my annual fuel consumption has dramatically reduced. I use my van (yes a gas-gusling diesel), for long road trips, with my bike. But to be fair, I also live in it during those trips, and it still does only 3-4000 miles a year. We are dealing with a fuel price crisis, so I fail to understand why motorists who complain about the huge cost of living rises, still chose to jump in their car for short journeys. Think of the money they could save to pay for their huge heating bill hikes.
Many drivers seem convinced that electric vehicles are the answer, and in part they may significantly help in the clean air part of the climate issue, but, drivers are still at the mercy of rising energy prices. In the event of an energy crisis, those on bikes can still get about…even those on electric bikes. Once you have bought your bike, it becomes free to use. You can’t be taxed per mile, it’s unlikely that you will ever have to pay ‘road tax’, and for most, you can even learn to maintain it yourself.
I think what I’m saying, is that the humble bicycle really is the answer to a lot of our issues, or at least it can significantly help, immediately. There is power in numbers. The more people that decide to replace at least some of their car journeys by cycling, walking or using public transport, then the sooner the benefits in cleaner air, a reduction in traffic congestion and better health outcomes will be realised. The more that people start demanding changes to our infrastructure, then the greater the likelihood it will get built. We already have tax incentives to buying bikes, even electric ones thanks to the Bikes 2 work schemes, but they might not be around forever, so take advantage if you can.
Our voices need to be louder than those who are afraid of change. But, we can’t do it by simply shouting at them, we need to be understanding of their concerns and address them. Fear of change manifests in a number of different ways. The first is to do nothing and hope it goes away and the second is to be reactive. Those drivers that appear to ‘hate’ cyclists most often fall into one of these camps. They can’t be seen to agree with or like cyclists as that will mean that they may be required to change something that they currently do. They see themselves having change forced upon them by cyclists, and so they fight back. The third way however is to be proactive and positive, and this is where we really need people to get to, but that won’t come for many until they can actually see the benefits for themselves.
It’s not going to be an easy transition, but if the Netherlands is anything to go by, or even other European capital such as Paris, change is possible. If you care about the environment, and want a cost effective way to get around, then take another look at the humble bicycle.