Cycling's PR problem, and its serious consequences

Cycling in the UK has a serious problem, and it’s one that’s not going to go away unless it is addressed head-on. Until then there can be no mass cycling in this country, no Mums and Grans on bicycles, no utopian dream of Amsterdam-like streets with the majority gliding down it on two wheels, not four. The problem?

Image.

The majority of people in the UK just can’t imagine themselves using a bicycle on an everyday basis. The humble bicycle has become so ‘alien’ and ‘other’ that it is now the reserve purely of special interest and leisure groups. Using a bike to "go for a ride" on a Sunday afternoon with the kids is seen as just fine here (indeed a significant majority of the UK population own bicycles and do use them for this purpose), but as a practical means of transport for everyday and ordinary use? For most this is almost unimaginable. Once upon a time there were over a BILLION cycle journeys in the UK every year – now the number has fallen so low that the cyclists we see on our roads are a tiny minority. As a modal share of all journeys, bicycles have dropped to just 1% of all traffic.

Minorities are often the victims of prejudice, and prejudice is often without grounds. But the power of prejudice is a strong thing when at work and should not be underestimated. Outside of the UK’s major urban centres, people who choose to cycle instead of drive a car are seen as quirky, or poor – labels that not many people want to associate themselves with.  Racing or long-distance cyclists – the very people who have kept the cycling flame alight in this country during the bike’s lowest ebb – are seen as diet-obsessed, lycra-clad racing machines; so utterly ‘other’ that more ordinary mortals just can’t see themselves doing the same thing. And who wants to use a mode of transport where you have to dress up in funny body-hugging clothes when you can climb into your car in comfort? And sub-cultural groups of cyclists don’t always do themselves any favours either. Have you ever heard racing cyclists talking about their bikes together? It’s all top tubes and bottom brackets and campagnola and derailleurs – great fun if you’re into that kind of thing but total gobbledegook to your Average Joe. Sadly, as these few cyclists are the majority of the minority remaining, the cycle industry markets it’s products to them (as I’ve discussed here before) meaning the public face of cycling is ever more strange which in turn will lead to fewer people taking up their bikes as an everyday means of transport. No one ever watched the Tour de France scratch its way to the top of the Alps in a peloton of glistening lycra and thought "That looks like a normal way of getting to work."

Special interest cycling (racing, mountain biking, BMXing etc) is great, and a source of fun, fitness and pride to many people, but these are ultimately sub-divisions of the same minority. If the cyclists of the UK really want to see mass cycling levels something serious needs to change. The City of Copenhagen is currently aiming to have 50% of all its commuters cycling to work within the next 5 years. London is aiming for just 5%. London’s cyclists – though growing in number every day – are not seen in a positive light by many of London’s other road users. Again, the same prejudice-based principals are holding the majority back from seeing themselves as potentially joining the minority. Outside of cycling communities, London’s riders are seen as a new danger on our roads; pavement riders, red light jumpers, a nuisance or even an outright danger. Worse still we are perceived to be anarchic, untaxed and using roads to which we have no financial entitlement, as a selection of recent comment’s on London’s Evening Standard newspaper testify:

“And what is a cyclist anyway? The old man on his bike, the gang of hoodies on theirs, the Lycra-clad aggressive health freak!!! Cyclists are like cancer cells in the blood stream of life. They pay no dues and suck of others.”
- Kev, London, UK

“Selfish pigs like you [cyclists] clearly show that you have no more respect for more vulnerable pedestrians than litter”
- Jack, Highgate

“...it’s time these self-righteous, sanctimonious law breakers were brought under control...”
- John Bull, London

“They are a menace on the pavements, and I for one refuse to move out the way for them, they are scum nothing more, nothing less.”
- P Staker, London

“Cyclists: dangerous, selfish, arrogant, self absorbed, stupid, ill mannered, nasty heinous creatures.”
- Anticyclist, London

“Shame on you and all the other sweaty, 2-wheeled scum!”
- Sonia Esquilant, Maidenhead, Berkshire, UK.


People follow examples set to them, and we have all been duped into thinking we need the special gear, the funny clothes, the flashy vests, to go about our cycling way – we’ve followed the example of those few cyclists who were left in the first place. And in doing so we are differentiating ourselves from everyday and ordinary people even further and making ourselves into a minority. Even though we all know that cycling has comparable safety rates to being a pedestrian, the hostile road environment doesn’t encourage us to hedge our bets – so we wear our high-vis jackets and fluro vests just in case. A Monday morning commuter stuck behind the wheel of his car in traffic doesn’t see a person peddling by but a strange lycra-clad backside, and quietly seethes inside. Meanwhile, the middle-aged woman at the bus stop seeing us flash past in all our high-viz glory assumes that because cyclists wear all this technical safety gear, cycling itself must be dangerous, and is therefore not something for her. Pedestrians hurrying to work step out from between cars and into the road assuming that their passage is safe because they don’t hear the approach of an engine. A cyclist swerves to avoid them and rushes by at close quarters. The pedestrian – who just isn’t used to looking for people on bikes in the road – curses and accuses us of being maniacs on the road. How many "I was nearly hit by a cyclist!" stories have you heard in comparison to "I stepped into the path of an oncoming cyclist without looking"? There just aren’t enough ordinary people on bikes out there to make it worth the raising of awareness worthwhile.  It becomes the very few us, and the very many them.

If we want mass cycling in this country (and I am making an assumption here that the likes of the CTC and the LCC actually do) it’s up to us to break down the prejudices we face and show ourselves to be everyday and ordinary people. Racing bikes and fancy team strips are just fine if you’re cycling mile after mile, but there’s just no need if you are making a short hop by bike. Remember that 60% of the UK’s car journeys are under 5 miles – there’s no reason why the majority of these trips couldn’t be done in ordinary clothes on an ordinary comfortable bicycle, if only that 60% could actually imagine themselves doing so, and thought that our roads were a safe enough environment to do so. The Dutch and the Danes manage it, why can’t we? As cyclists we all know that the majority of cyclists aren’t really Lance Armstrong wannabes, and nor do we cycle in a reckless or dangerous manner. But it’s the greater public’s perception that counts. The perception of what it means to be ‘a cyclist’, the perception of how safe the roads are, and the perception of the bicycle either as a means of getting from A to B in an ordinary way, or as a quirky, specialist, enthusiast’s machine. No one would dare call us a ‘menace’, ‘heinous’ or ‘scum’ if they thought that they were talking about people like themselves.

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There needs to be a little more ‘cyclist pride’ – showing ourselves to be just like the sort of people who we want to consider taking up cycling, as well as explaining the benefits of our existence to other road users (it’s either us on bikes, or an extra 2420 kilometres of nose to bumper cars on London’s roads). Maybe this would bring about the level of cyclists needed on our roads for the vehicular environment to change in our favour. Until then this country will continue to turn out badly-designed token-effort ‘for minorities’ cycle lanes like this, and prejudice and stereotypes about cyclists in our press and public conscience like this.  Who here thinks they are a member of "the cult of cycling", as opposed to just, you know, getting around town?

Bethnal Green rush hour 6

25 comments:

anna said...

Long article, no time. But I'll read through it later :)!

Sounds like sth I have experienced (and still experience) in Austria too. Slightly related to how Austria's media landscape treads cyclists, but well, that's just one aspect. I think you also point out aspects... Have to read first. Soon :).

Natalie said...

Great post. I am someone who uses my bike for journeys around town but I do wear a helmet and high-vis vest on top of my normal clothes when in London. When I'm in my other home of Berlin I wear neither. And the reason is that in Berlin people respect cyclists; look out for them; give them some space. In London, with the streets so clogged I want to be sure that people have no excuse not to see me. Maybe one day people will appreciate that cyclists are just normal people too but until then I cling to the safety of my helmet and hi-vis vest.

Mark said...

@anna Sorry, I know it's a long one! Save it for your tea-break! You're right, the media play a huge role in the greater public's perception of cyclists, and in order for there to be mass cycling rates, the media have to be onside with the cyclists, as oppose to portraying them as lycra warriors etc

@Natalie Thanks for stopping by, and I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I also wear my helmet and high vis when I'm cycling in London because I think the road environment is currently so unfriendly towards cyclists. Not because I think they will make me safe per se, but that they will help me stand out as a minority on the road to other traffic. And I know that this is contributory to the whole problem of making cycling seem 'other'. Therefore, until the road environment improves, the image of cycling won't improve, and until the image of cycling improves there will be no mass cycling (this is kind of the point I was trying to make in the post but I think I was getting a bit hot under the collar)

It's a chicken and egg thing! :o)

Sue 'sans' helmet said...

great post, mark!

so what you're saying is even without MHLs, cycling has dropped off dramatically!

do you think it's because:
a) the sport of cycling & merchandise-promotion hijacked utility cycling?
b)the promotion of helmets tapped into that same merchandising reality that has actually come to dictate the cycling reality?
c) a strategic plan to remove cyclists from the motoring landscapes so that governments were absolved from having to factor cyclists into national transport plans?

love to know your thoughts

Jim said...

Excellent post, Mark. Articles like that one by Petronella (perfect name, btw) Wyatt just show how extreme the social construction of cyclists as alien and 'other' has become, at least in some quarters. To some extent I think it is a symptom of the (relatively mild) success we have had in improving conditions for cyclists - it is inevitable that a shift in policy away from unilaterally supporting motoring is going to invoke hostility from those who benefitted most from the old regime. But you're quite right to say that we must do more to get across the idea of cycling as a normal part of life in any reasonably well-functioning city.

Mark said...

@Sue I don't think it is necesarily a case of anything being done maliciously / cycling being hijacked. It's just a sad case of the manufacturing industry knowing it's market; ie within the minority of cyclists, special-interest cyclists are the majority, so that's who they cater for. The utility cyclists dropped off in the 50s when the roads became dominated by motor vehicles - now that road safety has improved considerably since then we now need to get cycling back on an even footing. With the increase in people (constituents!) cycling this will bring, hopefully it will re-address the balance of the road and bring about decent cycling provision.

@Jim Thank you for stopping by, I'm glad you enjoyed your post. I agree that there is going to be a 'transitional period' as improvements are made for the lot of cyclists, but the influence of the media who might seek to portray us in this 'other' way can unravel all the good work done to date. We need to present ourselves as normal to attract everyone else.

I hope we're going to get there, I just think it's going to be a bumpy ride!

WestfieldWanderer said...

The person who manages to work out a way to break the British from their very peculiar aversion to all things bicycling will become a national hero.
Quite why bad behaviour in a motor car is seen as socially acceptable but bad behaviour on a bicycle is seen as beyond the pale is beyond me.

David Hembrow said...

WestfieldWanderer: The difference between the attitudes to bad behaviour can be explained entirely by the cyclist being an outsider in British society. That's the root cause of this problem. While cyclists are a tiny minority they will continue to be viewed as "strange." It's not entirely surprising, given that riding a bike in London is "strange" - in that only a small part of the population as a whole ever does so.

It takes a certain determination to be a cyclist in Britain these days. It's not something which people fall into and keep doing because it is pleasant, but something which people do despite it quite often being unpleasant. Not everyone will take part in these conditions, no matter how much positive PR there is. Rather, there is a self selected demographic.

The photos accompanying the post tell the story. Yes, you have a bit of a mix, but they're all adults of working age, and all riding on roads shared with cars. Where are the children riding their own bikes to see friends / visit sport clubs / go to school ? Where are the pensioners in groups going out for a coffee ? Where are the school parties out on trips by bike ? Where are the disabled with hand-bikes going to the shops ? There are so many people who simply don't fit into the group that will ever cycle in these conditions.

And yes, Sue. Cycling has been in steady decline in the UK since the 1950s. Helmets have only been an issue for a much shorter time. To a large extent, people were simply frightened off their bikes. Just like Britain, Australia also had manufacturers of utility cycles a few decades ago - when there was a demand for them.

Mark said...

David, you are absolutel right in pointing out that to cycle in the UK you have to make an emotional investment (a lifestyle choice, if you like) as oppose to it being something totally ordinary and therefore something that nearly everyone does (like driving a car)

There is a junior school on the road I live, which is close to where the photos above were taken and I am happy to report that there are strong levels of walking and cycling amongst it's pupils, probably because in my area of inner London only 50% of individuals own cars, but I know that if we travelled out to the suburbs this would not be the case.

As you so rightly point out, for cycling to be perceived as safe and normal and ordinary and respectable to the masses we need to bring it in from the status of being something 'strange'. The only way we are going to get those kind of cycling figures are if we build decent cycling infrastructure to cater for these 'ordinary cyclists'. Decent infrastructure is only going to be built if there are enough cyclists in the first instance to make it worthwhile... and so we are locked in a 'which comes first' spiral. It's going to be a tough one to break, and I am hoping the introduction of the cycle hire scheme and 'superhighways' in London this summer will help, but I am not convinced.

S2 said...

I love cycling (been a fan of the sport since the age of 5), but I'm not a cyclist. In all honesty the cycling world is pretty daunting and was one of the reasons it put me off. I want to see cycling as a means to get around, but because of the passion of so many people who cycle, it is over bearing and as such seen very much as cult (of which there are different camps).

The 2nd reason is that drivers in the south east of England are so impatient. Cycling works in the UK away from urban areas, but our urban lifestyles are far different from Copenhagen and Amsterdam. They're outlook on life is different and as such are more patient people. It's a vicious cycle (excuse the pun).

As someone who loves cycling so much, I get pretty annoyed when seeing bad cyclists, just as much as when seeing a bad driver. So perhaps cyclists need to look at ourselves and not be evangelical about it. Why be so enthusiastic and try to 'convert' people when it is ultimately just another means of transport? It'll just create more barriers and enforce uneducated perceptions. I personally think mindsets can't be changed over night and is just a slow gradual change, generation by generation.

Step-Through said...

I have found that no matter what other cyclists are doing, I get treated nicely if I dress nicely. I wear fairly stylish outfits, business clothes, etc. and have a pretty bicycle. Drivers either ignore me or actively try to be courteous. My cycling friends report very different experiences. I can only assume it is my clothes and behaviour. Or maybe I'm just lucky.

And hopefully, a few of the people who see me will realize that they can go ride a bike too.

thereverent said...

Great post.

I think the biggest barrier is getting people to do that first ride. Once they have seen how quick and easy cycling is they start to change their mind.
I do get fed up of people saying 'you cycle in central London, that's dangerous' and haaving to tell them its not.

Maybe making every driving test start with a cycling section first would be good. It would test road awareness plus would actually teach drivers what it's like outside of the car.

The biggest thing that will help move more people to cycling is when petrol get to £1.5/Litre. Then people will start thinking of other way to do short journeys.
Plus in London the RMT normally do their bit for promoting cycling evry summer by striking on the tubes.

thereverent said...

As for the evening standard comments, it seem to be a small number of people that always say the same things on any story about cycling. I reconise the name scrolling through.
Its the internet so people will say things they wouldn't say to your face (in certainly not to my face).

In my office yesterday a collegue was moaning about cyclists, so I decided to decided to put him straight about a few facts. He is a motorcylist but had no-idea about the laws on ASLs. It ended with him getting very hot under the coller, shouting 'b***ocks' and storming off for half an hour, but at least I won't have to hear an anti-cyclist rant for a while.

Mark said...

@thereverent Good for you for putting your colleague right on a few points - we like 'Cyclists Pride' and there needs to be a bit more of it to go round.

Funny thinking about motorbikes in the ASL Boxes - this morning I was waiting in the ASL at a junction, to turn left and a motorbike came up my inside. I was worried I'd turn on to him if he was going straight on so I asked him if he was going left. He took a look at me then said "Sorry, it's okay. I'm turning left too - you go first and I promise not to run you over", which I guess is a nice way of saying 'Sorry for being a dick' - some people don't even realise that their actions on the road may have a detrimental effect unless they are challenged or forced to think about it.

On the Tube and the RMT - yeah, you gotta love Bob Crowe! The congestion charge, resulting overloading of the tube and then tube strikes have done more for cycling in London than any cycle campaigner would dare admit out loud! Still, if it gets people cycling, it's all good...

thereverent said...

One thing I for go to add to my first comment:
Despite some of the bad press they got, I thought lasy years 'Bike Fridays' were a really good idea. I'm sure they could be improved, but during the summer an escorted ride is just the kind of thing to show people how easy/fast/nicer cycling to work is.

Mark.
On the motorbikes in ASLs, I was wondering if I should experiment by nicely reminding riders that they are not allowed in the ASL. As several I have spoken to (not on their bikes) didn't know (probably becuase they took their test before such things were around).

Mark said...

I don't think it can hurt to talk to people about ASLs - I do think a lot of people don't know what they are for, or don't realise why they can be important. Indeed, this probably goes for anything to do with cycling in general; just getting out there and talking about it helps to make it more human.

Clive said...

Brilliant post, Mark.

You've described well the contradiction we face.

Those of us who want cycling to grow are the people who love it most. In many cases we're also the ones who own the helmets and lycra which further the stereotypes we face.

I choose to wear a helmet and bright clothing, but if I'm genuine in my desire to help everyone realise that cycling is a means of everyday transport, rather than a sport, I should take a look at myself and think how others see me.

In the defence of the commercial companies selling bikes and clothes to cyclists, I believe things are changing. There seems to be an increasing amount of 'normal' imagery within advertising, and bikes like Specialized's Globe range seem to be selling the idea that everyday cycling can invlolve jeans, mudguards and baskets.

Nevertheless, we all have the job of marketing executives for cycling. If we leave the marketing to those in the commercial sector, we'll never make cycling normal.

Mark said...

Spot on Clive - all eyes are on cycling as a future transport mode at the moment, and as it is 'rehabilitated' into normal society it's up to us as cyclists to be the PR people for it!

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Lady Vélo said...

Excellent post Mark!
Really saddening to see the comments left in the ES about cyclists... I know that I'm not quite one *yet*, but that's not what all cyclists are like and are all about.

I'm not likely to be one of the "High-viz crew" - and I understand what you're saying about 'Cyclist Pride' too.

Love that photo - I left a comment about that on Flickr (I'm Lady LDN if you see it...!)

Lady Vélo.

Mark said...

Hi Lady Velo, thanks for stopping by.

Hopefully the pretty awful ES comments are just a minority of 'angry individuals' but it does illustrate my case in point.

Glad you like the photo, it's one of my faves too!

Mark

mintea said...

Mark - Good post. Just a few things that bother me a bit. I lived in Amsterdam a while, and for the most part I felt safe cycling without a helmet, due to the infastructre there (completley separate bike paths). Here in London, although you may want to emulate this more relaxed approach, I just don't feel safe without wearing a helmet (and some reflective gear). I don't own anything in high-vis yellow, but I really think its unfair to critise people that choose to wear safety gear. They have not be dupped into it. Helmets are safer. High-vis gear, in the dark and during winter, are more visible. Since we are sharing the roads we have a responsibility as well.

Mark said...

Hi Mintea,

Thanks for stopping by. I don't want to be critical of people who wear the helmets and high viz gear; in winter I wear high viz gear myself, for obvious reasons. The point I'm trying to make is that all of this 'stuff' is a sign of cycling under stress, and by wearing it, despite it's necessity, we are only perpetuating the image of cycling as being strange, dangerous or difficult which creates a vicious circle. It's a difficult one to crack and whilst I think there needs to be an awareness (because some people do wear this stuff too much!) I agree that I don't think you can force it too much; the symptoms of cyclists under stress will of course be alleviated by conditions being made safer (subjectively or statistically) for cyclists; as you rightly point out this was the case for you in Amsterdam which was borne out of the great infrastructure you found there. So I guess the question is really "how do we go about building Dutch style infrastructure in London to make cycling normal again"? That, of course, is a whole other debate...!

All the best,

Mark

GL said...

Mark

I have just stumbled across your blog after seeing a link from London Cyclist and really like it.

Generally I liked the above article and what you are trying to acheive but I have one overiding niggle of dissapointment with this article and that is the level of prejudice against certain cyclists.

I sort of understand your point about the 'lycra clad' group however instead of stating that they are the problem we should be saying whatever you want to cycle and whatever you want to cycle in we encourage it and the whole cycling 'community' will suppport you. We all cycle for same reason (we enjoy it) regardless of what we choose to wear.

Surely if cyclists have prejudice against other cyclists we are making it a less firendly activity to get involved in and therefore that itself will discourage people or make them feel self conscious about there choice of clothing.We do not want to encourgae this at all and it is entirely the worng route to take!

I must confess some self interest. I wear a 'team jersey' for my commute of 8 miles, which according to your blog, i shouldn't and I am doing damage to the world of cycling. However, i chose to because i really push myself and use my cycle as not only a more enjoyable way to commute but as my daily excercise and therefore I do not want to get my works clothes sweaty. It is my choice that is waht we shoudl all support.

We can only change things by acting as one voice, not by trying to divide an already small group.

Mark said...

Hi GL,

Welcome and thanks for stopping by and taking the time to add to the conversation.

The point of my argument isn't that people wearing lycra, or racing gear, or specialist equipment, or whatever are a bad thing. If you are going to cycle hell-for-leather for 8 miles then of course the gear is going to be necessary if you want to survive a day at your desk without offending your workmates! More succinctly, the point I am trying to make is that this 'type' of cyclist has become the majority within the minority of cycling itself, and therefore all the images we see in the media and bike shops and catalogues is aimed at selling goods to this 'kind' of cyclist. Unfortunately, for most non-cyclists this is not something that they want to buy into; it's specialist cycling (which of course is fine in its own right) but not very everyday and ordinary (like taking the bus or Tube) My point, as I said in the blog, was aimed squarely at the fact that most car journeys in the UK are under 2 miles - an easily replicable trip by bike for which you wouldn't have to get 'dressed up', but which a lot of people do not do because they can not see themselves as 'cyclists' or the image of 'cyclists' as portrayed in the mainstream.

I do think the tides are turning and if you look at the latest posters from TfL encouraging cycling you'll see that there is a real mixture of types of cyclists depicted. The point of my post is not to alienate other cycling 'groups' but to seek a broader representation of ourselves in the public eye in order for us to be more appealing to more people.

So apologies if you felt prejudiced against by my post, if you read again carefully you'll see that is not my intention, but rather I was aiming to promote a debate about the public image of cycling and the repercussions this might have with potential future cyclists themselves.

All the best and safe riding,

Mark