Thursday, 9 June 2011

Attitude To Cycling Betrays Wider Societal Attitudes

Over the weekend I read a report featured in 'The Guardian' which not only noted that only 2% of journeys in the UK are by bicycle, compared to 25% in the Netherlands, 24% in Moscow, and 20% in Denmark, but that the bulk of adults saw cycling as something that only children or eccentrics did.  Subsequently people noted that the Netherlands is a flat country, but that is only part of the story as in Germany 12% of journeys are by bicycle and in Switzerland 9% and Austria 8%, countries with some of the highest mountains in Europe.
There are regional exceptions.  It is noted that in French cities like Paris and Marseilles fewer than 2% of journeys are by bicycle, whereas in Grenoble and Lille it is over 5% and in Strasbourg, over 15%.  In the UK, towns like Doncaster, Oxford and Milton Keynes are noted for having higher levels of cyclists.

Another factor people neglect is the fact that in the UK house prices mean that people have to commute farther than anyone else in Europe in order to reach work, making cycling there far harder.  Even back in 2003, Britons commuted for 45 minutes compared to 36 minutes in France and 23 minutes in Italy and the EU average of 38 minutes.  People with higher education qualifications in Britain commute 50% more than the UK average; given that 42% of 18-year olds now attend university,  average commuting times must now be higher.  Ironically the cost of living in the UK makes it less likely that people will cycle simply because they have to cover such large distances between home and work.  The fragmentation of secondary schools with so many faith and specialist schools where even just twenty years ago there would have been comprehensive schools taking all comers brings a similar issue to teenagers.
Geography will play a part but mountainous countries such as Spain and Colombia are noted for their world class cyclists as much as flatter countries like Belgium and the Netherlands.  However, there are attitudinal issues too.  Britain's success in cycling events at the Beijing Olympics, the Halfords sponsored city races and the greater prominence of British cyclists in international events appears to have not shifted attitudes at all. 

One might think that a prejudice may develop from seeing cycling as an activity of poor societies, with cities such as Dhaka in Bangladesh having 40% of its journeys by bicycle and Chinese cities such as Beijing (48%), Shenyang (65%) and Tianjin (77%) even in an era of capitalist prosperity, adhering to a mode of transport more reminiscent of China's Communist past.  Yet, you only have to go to an average bicycle shop, rather than a chain store like Halfords, to see bicycles for non-specialists retailing at over £1000 (€1090; US$1590) and to get even a basic adult bicycle new is unlikely to cost less than £300.  The key problem in Britain is less that it is seen as being an activity associated with the poor or undesirable (when did you ever see a chav on a bicycle?), it is that when you cycle you actually have to take consideration of other people around you, even of the weather.  You have to expend personal energy to propel the vehicle, thus drawing on traits other than your wealth or ability to intimidate other road users.  That is not what the average British person wants to do.  When they go on to the roads, they want to demonstrate how much better and richer they are than other people.  They expect other road users to get out of their way or to be able to intimidate them to do so.  Now I am driving in London more, I am witnessing many more cases of drivers in side roads forcing their way into the main flow of traffic purely through intimidation not right of way.

In many Western countries there is a reluctance to cycle, the figures show it.  Even in France, the home of the greatest cycle race in the world, the number of cycle journeys is little more than double the British figure.  However, having cycled in France, Belgium, Spain, Germany and Austria I know that whilst drivers may not want to cycle themselves they do not seem to have the desire to prevent other people from doing so.  The hostility to cyclists in the UK is alarming.  I have numerous personal anecdotes of abuse, fortunately in most cases a person on a bicycle can out manoeuvre a car slowing down and certainly outstrip a driver who chases after you on foot.  There is an intense anger against cyclists from car drivers as if we are out to deliberately offend the drivers.  Much humour is derived from shouting, spitting and manhandling cyclists in a way which would be deemed criminal activity elsewhere in the world or, interestingly, even in the UK, if both individuals were on foot.  The key problem is that too many drivers see their self-esteem based on their car and people acknowledging repeatedly, their 'superiority' throughout the duration of their journey.  The British are so insecure that they have to conjure up such challenges and resassert their machismo/a on a daily basis.

Anyone who drives in the UK, knows these things to be self-evident.  The situation has deteriorated since I received my driving licence in 1986.  Even if the number of vehicles on the road had not increased, a view that to get into a kind of battle and 'stomp' around in a car with no signalling and little recognition of right of way or the purpose of lanes or what red lights signal would make driving so hazardous.  Anyone who was on British roads on the afternoon of Friday 3rd June 2011 would have seen in front of them and heard on the radio reports the consequences of such driving.  Vast sections of major motorways and main roads were at a standstill as a result of accidents and jams caused by bad driving.  The thing is that such attitudes, such contempt for other people simply trying to make their way home as if they were doing something corrupt or perverse is pervasive right through British society.  There seem to be few countries in the EU in which people hold others of the same nationality in such contempt as in the UK.  It is most apparent on the roads, but you see it in shops, in parks, on the street even abuse shouted between neighbours.

The attitude to cyclists is only a most visible example, in so much of British society the assumption is that any other view, any other need aside from that of yourself, is wrong and intrusive and not only has to cease but the perpertrator has to be chastised through abuse and even assault. Margaret Thatcher's property-owning democracy made bicycles items that we strove to forget our poorer parents rode on.  David Cameron's 'Big Society' only makes the me-first attitude worse, by reducing the opportunities and resources in society the fighting over them becomes that harsher.  It literally adds to not the 'big' society but the 'fragmented' society, the broken glass society, the society of a sixty million bunkers from which people spit and punch out at anyone else, even in the houses around them, let alone in their town, let alone across the country as a whole.  Britain is becoming an increasingly violently intolerant society.  How, if people cannot stomach someone who drives in a different way or is simply one car ahead of them, let alone on such a weird (and clearly threatening) form of transport as a bicycle, can they ever live among people with different surnames, let alone size, age, colour, religion, politics ...

The negative attitude to cycling is a part of the negative British attitude towards pollution and to ill-health.  It seems ironic in particular that we think obesity and ill-health is someone else's problem.  These above everything else are actually our problems.  By turning our noses up at a way which can help us (and even more vitally our children) keep fit and reduce pollution we will harm ourselves and the ones we fight so hard to protect from 'weirdos who ride bicycles'.  I am pessimistic that we can break the current pattern of aggressive, even violent driving.  This means that cycling will be a hazardous activity and in turn seen as something only those too young to have a proper recognition of what it means to be a 'real' wo/man, i.e. being a driver or something only those who should be despised would indulge in.  Until we can address the aggressive individualism which is so prevalent in British society we are never going to see an increase in cycling, instead we will continue to see the rise in pollution and obesity.  Thus, gauging the attitude to cycling and cyclists is a way of seeing how healthy a society is as a whole.

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