Cycling’s image problem

Cycling clearly has an image problem in large parts of the English-speaking world. It’s for the sporty obsessives, or it’s for the poor, or the drunks who aren’t allowed to drive any more. Outside of the biggest and densest cities, driving is normal and cycling is abnormal, and people don’t want to be abnormal — a point reinforced by the latest output of the Understanding Walking and Cycling project.

I’m sure that our frequent commenter friend Pail will find much to nod along to in the UW+C work — and much to shake his head to where the same researchers point to the need for bicycle infrastructure.

British cyclists of course know about cycling’s image problem — they encounter and experience it. They know of its geographical and demographic variation, and that cycling’s image has a clear relationship with cycling rates and infrastructure provision. Cycling’s image problem is not unrelated to the fact that bicycle users have been treated as third-class citizens in the provision of infrastructure.

Providing infrastructure might not be the only intervention that is required to build mass everyday cycling, but it is the key one — the key stone or firm foundation without which everything else collapses. “Promoting” and “encouraging” cycling, trying to fix its image problem, trying to break any of the other barriers to cycling, will achieve little so long as we are asking people to ride in such hostile and uninviting environments.

Here’s a TEDx talk in which Gil Peñalosa, the man who built Bogota’s bike track network, discusses some of these attitudes to cycling — including dismissive and hostile attitudes to cycling in Denmark before the infrastructure was built (apologies, I did not make a note of who tweeted it this morning):

22 thoughts on “Cycling’s image problem”

  1. Indeed.

    Cycling’s image problem stems from the fact that a tiny minority of people cycle, and those that do feel the need to don special equipment, either to protect themselves, or to travel at sufficient speed they can flow with motorized traffic.

    Address the environment and safety issue, and the image problem disappears, because more people will be cycling, and without the need for specialist equipment.

  2. Interesting, indeed. However, they did not do any research on whether infrastructure provision would change the attitudes they describe, they simply claim it would:

    There is clearly a need to move towards a virtuous circle where the physical environment is made as welcoming as possible, …

    They believe that will in itself make more people cycle, but (once again) there seems to be no evidence for this. If provision of high-quality cycle infrastructure cannot alter the modal split in the Netherlands, then why should it work in Britain?

    It also seems like this survey avoided overtly political questions. If cycling is related to political convictions, then attitudes can not be simply shifted by promotional campaigns, even in the presence of good infrastructure.

    1. So if I understand you well, you do not believe that building infrastructure will result in more cyclists because there is no empirical evidence that it does, therefore we should not build the infrastructure? Isn’t that circular reasoning?

  3. Hello! First time poster. Really enjoying the blog, and thanks for the pointer to the video – inspirational stuff!

    Paul, what would constitute acceptable evidence for the contention that “better facilities will increase cycling”? Short of actually building it, and seeing what would happen, could you not accept more fuzzy evidence along the lines of “in surveys, people identified lack of facilities as being the biggest barrier to adoption”?

    I accept your point that a lot of this is based on speculation, but it’s very difficult to get really robust data on this question, because you can hardly do a randomised control test on the cycling infrastructure in London. Broadly, it seems intuitively plausible that better cycle lanes, legal frameworks to put the onus of blame on motorists etc. would encourage cycling.

    Do you think that the current breakdown is immovable? Or do you think that there are better strategies to get people to switch modes of transport?

  4. “Providing infrastructure might not be the only intervention that is required to build mass everyday cycling, but it is the key one — the key stone or firm foundation without which everything else collapses.”

    True. Yet, those who will use such infrastructure are those who already have some sympathy, or at least, no antipathy towards cycling. That’s let’s say 30 to 35% of the population, on top of the 5% hardcores.

    Lots of advocates look down on the issue of image, but it is a crucial one. It makes cycling cool and desirable and this attracts segments of the population who otherwise would not have cycled. I’d say a good 15 to 20 %.

    We still have a good 40 to 50% more to convince. Ok, this was very unscientific, I admit.

    But there is yet another factor that needs to come into play: coercition on the car culture. Unless we squeeze the cars out, no lasting results can be obtained. There must be political courage (i.e. balls) to remove parking spaces, increase fees, gaz prices, registration fees, etc. Otherwise, we can all sit and wait for Peak oil to do this job for us. And then, it will be ugly.

  5. Apparently my comments are approaching irritation level, so it might be useful to look at the issues behind the irritation, and the political background of the new UK cycling movements, such as the ‘Cycling Embassy’.

    Experience here in the Netherlands shows, that neither exhortation nor infrastructure can stem the long-term decline in cycling. Mass cycling was a historical phenomenon, during a period of economic development when people with average incomes could afford a bicycle, but not a car. In all cases, further economic growth resulted in a permanent switch to the car, as default means of transport. Image problems for cycling are a mere symptom of this.

    It is certainly possible to return to mass cycling in Europe, but that would require drastic infringements of individual liberty. On the demand side, fiscal measures could restore the pre-war pattern, where only the rich could afford a car. That includes, for instance:

    – taxing petrol, per litre, at 5-10 times the minimum hourly wage, eating up most of the day’s earnings, for those on an average income with an average commute

    – deterrent taxes on car purchase, €50 000 or more

    – a deterrent vehicle user tax, replacing all existing taxes and parking fees, of around €5 000 per month, funding a car scrappage scheme

    – limited-term driving licences with deterrent fees, about €25 000 annually.

    The taxes would fund car scrappage. There are people who can afford these taxes, so legal restrictions on new car production would also be needed. On the supply side, the pre-1945 density of housing and employment needs to be restored, so that most people don’t need a car. That means no more suburban housing, and no more urban-edge developments. Car-only developments, such as greenfield shopping malls, would simply be demolished.

    That would get people cycling, in their millions, as they did when they could not afford cars. Apparently, however, no-one in the current ‘cycling movement’ wants to even think in this direction. At a guess, their views are generally libertarian. While that may also individually motivate them to cycle, it inhibits any serious thinking about pro-cycling policy. In a car culture, such policy would be inevitably statist, and if a society will not accept that, then it will never alter the modal split.

    So the relatively recent obsession of the anglophone cycling movement with infrastructural segregation, seems to be a combination of wishful thinking and political evasiveness. I would not have noticed this trend, if not for the mythical status attributed to the Netherlands. The myths, fake statistics, and false impressions about this country, were the main reason to comment on cycling policy in another.

  6. So cycling in the Netherlands is in long-term decline? Well, if that is the case, I look forward to seeing similar declines in cycling in the UK!

    As for the evidence point about infrastructure, I agree, you can only ultimately test the point empirically, by building it and seeing if they come. As we already know it works for roads (look at the M25 – built as an orbital road, who at the time thought it would be used for short journeys joining for only one or two junctions, thus snarling it up as we now see?). It also works for pedestrian bridges – look at the Millenium bridge by Bankside and the side-hanging bridges over the Hungerford rail bridge, both of which have huge pedestrian footfall (and some cycling, admittedly not legally).

    Of course, a cycle lane/path will only prove the hypothesis if it is adequaately designed, not only in terms of width, surface, separation from road or footpath, but also that it starts somewhere and ends somewhere which have some meaning or utility. The peril we face is that if we sanction a facility which doesn’t satisfy these tests, it will be thrown back at us when it doesn’t work.

  7. ‘It’s for the sporty obsessives, or it’s for the poor, or the drunks who aren’t allowed to drive any more.’

    I disagree that this is how cycling is seen.

    I think is is seen for what it is – the preferred form of transport of affluent and/or educated people, mainly men.

    That seems to cause resentment in a very small minority of car drivers, especially those who still have a feeling that car ownership is a mark of status.

  8. What I find strange is that “it’s the infrastructure, stupid” is a recurring theme all around the world, and yet in UK it seems there’s strong desire to preemptively prevent infrastructure from even entering the discussion. But sure, if you just keep doing the same old thing you’ll get a different result eventually.

    I understand the causality suspicion, but considering the overwhelming global support for infrastructure, conclusion that gets repeated over and over again all over the world, I’d really like to see comparable conclusions that infrastructure does not matter. It’s one hell of a conspiracy if infrastructure truly plays no role.

    Not arguing against slower speeds etc. but after decade(s) of experience I’d sort of expect people to wake up and realise they’ve neglected a strategy endorsed by pretty much everyone else, who also just happen to have successful results.

    1. But Paul’s argument is that nowhere has ever had “successful results” because people in the Netherlands don’t really cycle.

      But I still think it would be an improvement if the UK were to become as unsuccessful as the Netherlands.

  9. I’d like to defend Paul here – although I know I risk being cast into the outer darkness..

    I think he mentioned that there already was a mass culture of cycling in the Netherlands. It may have declined in the 70s and then seen that decline stopped and reversed, but it never went down anything llke as much as it did in Britain.

    I’d like to e ho the point about the cost of motoring: whatever environment cycling occurrs in, it is just plan unfair for motrosits to be encouraged to drive by not having to pay towards the (as economists say, external) costs they incurr. Geetting this message across woudl also address the so-called “road tax” arguments used by motorsists against cyclists.

    I’d say: “it’s the cars – and car culture and the institutions which support it – stupid”

  10. “It is certainly possible to return to mass cycling in Europe, but that would require drastic infringements of individual liberty. ”
    Aren’t the consequences of the car culture similar (or even worse) drastic infringements of individual liberty? Aren’t we all victims of it?

    “Apparently, however, no-one in the current ‘cycling movement’ wants to even think in this direction.”
    *Me*!! There’s me!! I totally agree with what you propose, and it would work. Yet, no one has the courage to face the opposition it would generate.

    “So the relatively recent obsession of the anglophone cycling movement with infrastructural segregation, seems to be a combination of wishful thinking and political evasiveness.”
    Yep. However, given that we are starting from far behind, the infrastructure route will take our cycling modal shares into the 30-40%. And That would be a major progress. So it would work even if political aspects are not addressed. Then, if we want to push it beyond there we will not have the choice but face the political and philosophical issues involved.

  11. As Easy As Riding helpfully pointed to the recently-established evidence that under ten per cent of the population are what he calls ‘Mr Toads’. I had thought that 60 or 70% of Londoners would welcome a more cyclised city. Turns out it would probably be nearer 80 or 90%.

    Gil Peñalosa’s strategy to get from talking to doing seems remarkably timely, so thank you for publishing it:

    1. Sense of urgency

    2. Political will

    3. Leadership

    4. Doers in public sector

    5. Public participation

    Would you mind if I left you with a bit of philosophy from Henry David Thoreau? I can’t think how else to end it. ‘If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.’

  12. I do a lot of cycling on B roads, C roads and unclassified roads because that is where the most enjoyable routes are. Will somebody explain how “cycling infrastructure” is going to make my riding safer (and I have been knocked off my bike several times when riding on the aforementioned roads which I think are as dangerous as roads in cities and towns) as I don’t seem to see designs which are applicable to other than cities and towns? My understanding is that the “cycling infrastructure’s” objective is to segregate motorised traffic from non-motorised traffic. I am interested to find out how this will be implemented across the many hundreds of thousands of miles of minor roads throughout the country.

      1. So we’re campaigning for hundreds of thousands of miles of NEW cycleways in, say, the Peak district, rural Cheshire, the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales etc etc?

  13. Yes. But as the previously referenced documents point out, it’s a bit more complicated than that, and I’m not going to repeat the entire literature in a blog comment.

    We’re campaigning to remove the barriers to cycling, with whichever proven interventions are appropriate to the situation.

    Peak District already has hundreds of miles of cycle tracks. They need bringing up to standard, neglected gaps filling in, and a little bit of network construction around population centres. The Dales has, what, a single ‘A’ road and few ‘B’ roads? The A road would probably benefit from a track, perhaps using bits of the old railway if it’s available; I doubt the B roads need them — they probably need the other treatments. Keswick would certainly benefit from better provision.

    National Parks are abnormal in having a lower potential for journeys in the easily converted 1.5-15km range. To remove the distance barrier would take much more long-term changes in population and service distribution, which residents and businesses of national parks will no doubt sort for themselves under the pressure of motor transport costs. Population and settlement distribution in Cheshire looks much better.

  14. David Hembrow has an interesting (unintended) example of why infrastructure does not make people cycle. It is one of Mark Wagenbuur’s videos, showing a cycle route between two towns. Note the sequence. At first it is empty, then it fills up with kids on their way to school. 45 minutes later all the kids are in school, and it is empty again.

    The video is not misleading: outside of the cities, cycle path usage is often like that on weekdays. The cycling infrastructure lobby outside the Netherlands wrongly believes, that the cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands causes people to cycle. The example in the video shows it does not, and you could make similar videos on the roads to many other schools. The reason that the kids are cycling 10 km to school, is that they are not allowed to drive. When they are old enough, and have enough money, they will do what most other Dutch adults would do, if they have a 20-km daily commute – they will drive. The provision of a safe high-quality cycle route, such as you see on the video, has no impact on that choice. So why should it have any impact, on cycling in other countries?

    If you want people to cycle, then in most cases you must prevent them from driving. More precisely, the state must prevent them from driving. It is unproven wishful thinking to claim, that the state can make non-cyclists want to cycle, by providing cycle infrastructure, however good and safe it is.

  15. @ Paul

    “It is unproven wishful thinking to claim, that the state can make non-cyclists want to cycle, by providing cycle infrastructure, however good and safe it is.”

    There are countless studies showing that infrastructure is what non-cycling people say is needed for them to cycle. Of course, nothing proves that they will but at least we know what folks say is missing. It is a start.

    It seems that you are amalgamating non-cycling people with against-cycling people.
    It is not because people do not cycle that they are against it. You seem to assume that the percentage of people in the non-cycling population who would change their mind if conditions (i.e. infrastructure) improved is zéro.
    This is extreme. There is at least a 25% (my non-scientific estimate) in the general population who would give cycling a try.
    The (subliminal) purpose of infrastructure activists is to get those folks on their bikes and in the street to build critical mass. Then, they would use such critical mass as a springboard to get more, i.e. restrictions on cars. You need to do it as a two step process because, as someone already mentioned, it is NOT politically feasible to frontally attack the car hegemony. Or rather, you can try, but you will pathetically fail like all critical mass riders and other radical groups have done over the years, achieving nothing except antagonising everyone, including other cyclists.

    Note that this strategy is already working in some places: Barcelona, Dublin etc. Much better anyways than anything that has been trying in the past. Why not then?
    Do you have a better and FEASIBLE plan?

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