How cities are ruining cycling’s reputation

Rat-race conflicts are being used to poison cycling in general — Steve Williams wonders who benefits…

Yesterday it struck me that the stupidest anti-bike stories have one thing in common: cities. Usually one city. London. Our most frantic, overstressed streets are dominating the perception of cycling as a whole, throughout the UK — even though there’s far more to British cycling than London.

Rural and even suburban areas have few red lights to jump, pavements to ride on, pedestrians to hit or other flashpoints, yet we’re all being tarred with same brush. The assumption increasingly seems to be we’d do it if only we could, because we’re all the same.

Winding country roads can be dangerous enough, without frustrated drivers seeing us as lawless, aggressive maniacs Straight Outta Clapham (and behaving accordingly) instead of vulnerable, easily-squashed humans. Which, whether we’re easy to pass or accidentally hold you up, is what we are.

I think this image — stoked by tabloid outrage — is why non-cyclists so often insist I account for city riders’ crimes, despite the fact that a) I live in mid-Wales and b) I don’t know why a stranger did that. I don’t ask you why every black Audi appears to be driven by a jerk, do I? Shut up.

If you’re riding a Bobbin Noodle, which this bike is seriously called, who can say what your motivations are?
If you’re riding a Bobbin Noodle, which this bike is seriously called, who can say what your motivations are?

This narrow idea of cycling would be fair if everywhere was London. True, there’s a belief the UK is practically Mega-City One already: everything’s concreted over, the country is full to the brim. Right? Certainly the same papers that clutch their pearls about killer bicycles like to push that idea as fact, because if Britain really is full, the solution (apparently) is kicking out terrifying Johnny Foreigners. If you’re not familiar with British tabloids, that’s kind of their deal.

Obviously it’s not fact. Obviously. But you might be surprised at just how not fact it is. The Office for National Statistics found that only 6.8 percent of the UK is urban, and when they say ‘urban’ they’re including parks, gardens, canals, football pitches and all roads. If you ignore all that stuff and just measure land that’s actually ‘built on’, it’s just 2.2 percent.

If you can’t get preferential treatment by being richer, does the world even make sense?

So at worst, more than 93 percent of the space you might cycle in is not city, town or even village. Yet the popular conception of what ‘cyclists’ are, and how they deserve to be treated, pertains to just seven percent. How is this right?

Of course land is one thing, but people are another. Fully 83 percent of England’s population lives in urban areas, and with that in mind it’s less surprising there’s a belief the UK is rammed. It’s certainly less surprising if you never follow the thought ‘Everywhere I go is concrete and traffic’ with the obvious ‘Because I choose to live in a place that’s concrete and traffic.’

A similar process might lead you to conclude that, as you only see wound-up cyclists commuting, all cyclists must be wound-up commuters. And therefore — here you might like to lean against a mantelpiece and thoughtfully stoke your pipe — all cyclists are laughingly invincible murderers intent on running red lights and spearing innocent people with their smugly vegan planet-saving fancy new contraptions that cost too much.

And there it is. Resentment. It’s what comes oozing out when you squeeze almost all our stressful, insecure worklives, narrow streets and boring commutes into less than 10 percent of the land. Pressure. Resentment. Resentment that someone else is getting ahead. Resentment they’re ‘jumping the queue'. Resentment that the smug arse who shot through that closing gap is spending less money, causing less pollution, getting more exercise, taking up less space, and doing less damage than any driver. SMUG. And they’ll find parking easy. IT’S TOO MUCH. The rule of law has broken down — motorists are spending way more money, but going slower. IT’S NOT FAIR. If you can’t get preferential treatment by being richer, does the world even make sense?

Happily, if you spend more on a bike, you really will go faster! This one’s only £11,000. Bargain
Happily, if you spend more on a bike, you really will go faster! This one’s only £11,000. Bargain

Since political correctness went mad it’s been hard to express resentment without being called out for it, and while I’m no snowflake, that’s so unfair I’ve actually balled my fists. That’s why everyone’s pretending this resentment is about safety instead. It’s not that cyclists whizzing ahead are annoying, it’s that they’re terrifyingly dangerous! Look at the facts: in 2016, three pedestrians were killed by cyclists in the UK. In the same year, 445 pedestrians were killed by vehicles, and 102 cyclists were killed by vehicles. Wait, hang on, don’t look at the facts.

Instead look at the Daily Mail who, in the case of bikes, would dearly love health and safety to go mad. Their recent poll found overwhelming that cycling needs combating with tough new dangerous-driving laws, compulsory insurance, compulsory fluorescent clothing, a compulsory test to gain a cycling licence, an MOT certificate for your bike, and a road tax. Weirdly, it also found that cycle lanes shouldn’t exist. It’s like they only asked angry lorry drivers.

On a completely unrelated note, the poll was conducted for the Daily Mail by Fair Fuel UK, a lobbying group funded by what this article calls the ‘petrol-dependent industry’, including ‘road haulage workers, insurance companies, the car press, and breakdown services such as the RAC'.

In lieu of a shot of pollsters, here’s a bunch of tools. They’re of no use to cycling, because they’re actually cobblers’. Again, that’s completely unrelated
In lieu of a shot of pollsters, here’s a bunch of tools. They’re of no use to cycling, because they’re actually cobblers’. Again, that’s completely unrelated

Sultankhadar: Indian Cobbler Tool kit

The inevitable conflict for space in cities — and the propaganda taking advantage of it — is surely why I’ve heard so many stupid anti-bike stories of late. It’s surely why a kindly retired man told me the biggest danger in London today is being killed by a bicycle. He doesn’t live within 130 miles of London. He does read the papers.

It’s surely why a 40-something who commutes by bike in London told me that it’s ‘proper’ cyclists who ‘people’ hate, and explained his elaborate theory that not wearing a helmet or any cycling gear, or riding a decent bike, makes him safer. Basically, he’s trying not to identify as a cyclist for fear of being treated like one.

And it’s surely how a 40-something mountain biker who avoids ‘too-dangerous’ roads could tell me that getting stuck behind a bike while driving to work is so aggravating he understands why people overtake these jerks dangerously.

Call it not wanting to be on the losing side… even when you’re a cyclist and on it by default. Call it the inevitable results of a smear campaign. Or just call the whole idea — cyclists as psychopathic scofflaws who deserve what they get — what it is. Cynical, actively harmful and stupid.

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