Why do people have such strange ideas about modal choice?

Glasgow’s literacy and numeracy rates are amongst the lowest in Europe. Since it has a smaller population of readers to serve, Glasgow should invest less in schools.

Compared to the rest of Europe, a low proportion of people in Glasgow are healthy. The relatively small number of Glaswegians making use of their health indicates that Glasgow can invest less than the rest of Europe in health services.

Glasgow has the lowest employment rate in the UK. Therefore we should do less to invest in jobs in Glasgow than elsewhere.

Meanwhile, a very low proportion of Glasgow’s population is willing to use a bicycle for transport in the city. Therefore Glasgow should invest very little in providing for bicycle transport

One of my policy recommendations has been implemented by Glasgow City Council. Can you guess which one? That’s right. Glasgow City Council do not interpret a lack of healthy people as a reason not to invest in health services, but they would interpret a fall in the number of people cycling as a reason to cut funding for cycling infrastructure Glasgow.

(For some reason Glasgow City Council do not see the fact that Glasgow residents own a negligible number of electric cars, and indeed that fewer than half of all Glasgow households have access to a car of any kind, as a reason not to give those few who are rich enough to be able afford an electric car a gift of free storage space all over the city.)

It’s obvious enough that investment in literacy, health and jobs is not aimed at helping those who are already healthy educated people in employment, but at those who are not and who would benefit from being so — indeed, that low rates of literacy, health and employment are indicative of problems that politicians should be fixing. So why do people have such difficulty grasping the point of investing in enabling cycling?

I’ve written before about this bizarre idea so frequently cited by politicians (and incorporated into their absurd cost-benefit analysis model for transport infrastructure spending) and commentators these days — that somehow everybody has made a completely free choice, entirely uninformed by the environment around them, the options that have already been provided for, or the constraints imposed by the laws of physics; and that it’s the politician’s job simply to provide for what people have demonstrated is their choice. The absurdity of this position is encapsulated rather well in the fabricated Henry Ford quote beloved of management consultants and self-help book authors — “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”.

Stupid though the idea is, I can understand why right-wing politicians and a libertarian government would want to pretend that everybody’s current transport use is the result of a completely free choice and so exactly reflects the modes of transport that we would most like to be using and which the government should provide for, and that therefore any government action which resulted in modal shift would be an unacceptable state intrusion into personal lifestyle choices. What really infuriates me is when campaigners — and it seems to be peculiar to cycling campaigners — hobble their own campaigns with the same stupid idea.

It is an idea that is closely tied up with those soft measures campaigns: it is the idea that there is no point in anybody asking for any kind of cycling infrastructure because there are currently too few cyclists for the request to be heard, therefore we need to focus on “more realistic” soft measures and encouraging more people to ride, until eventually there might be enough cyclists to make an effective lobby. Well if you’re designing your campaigns around policies to provide things for cyclists — to solve “the problems that cyclists face” — of course they will go unheard and ignored, just as a campaign to “solve the problems that cable car users face” would be a stupid way to go about getting a cable car built. Cyclists are “a curious, slightly nutty irrelevance“, and Cyclists campaigning on behalf of Cyclists doubly so. It’s why the Cycling Embassy was so desperately needed — a campaign for a new transport infrastructure for all, not the usual request for a bit more room for Cyclists; it’s why LCC’s Go Dutch campaign succeeds in attracting attention beyond the usual suspects; it’s why the name Cities Fit For Cycling suggests a good campaign, while the headline Save Our Cyclists didn’t.

If you think you can’t campaign for cycling infrastructure because there aren’t enough cyclists, you’re doing it wrong.

9 thoughts on “Why do people have such strange ideas about modal choice?”

  1. When looking at this issue to try to bring people with right wing views on side I like to think that currently the “Free market” solution has resulted in a virtual monopoly. Something which free marketeers are ostensibly not in favour of.

    So providing high quality cycle infrastructure is about facilitating a better functioning market, where there is genuine choice for which mode of transport people would like to use. The current situation in many parts of the UK has resulted in a “market” which is tilted towards the motorised transport options, and we currently have the monopoly situation 80/20 principle with the known negative impacts. Arguably, the monopoly exacerbates the negative impacts, and requires controls/legislation (i.e. high quality cycle infrastructure) to be implemented so that the market can function correctly.

    Voila my “free market” rational for creating people friendly streets & putting in high quality cycle infrastructure.

  2. Yes. And yes. And yes again. (Anyone who has read a single book about the social sciences would agree with you).

    There is a staggering amount of cant about “choice” – not just in relation to transport either.

  3. I love to see governments supporting cycling, but I’m not sure the analogies used here hold up. It’s the rare person who doesn’t want better health or literacy, but apparently a substantial majority of people would be perfectly happy if they never saw a bicycle (again). The choice to drive or cycle was made for us, years ago, and is not one easily left to each generation to make and remake again. My dad abandoned cycling in the 1950s for his car, and (in his words) wouldn’t be “caught dead” on a bicycle. What we need, really, is something so compelling that the choice of cycling infrastructure becomes the sole sensible alternative. In The Netherlands, it was a combination of the “Stop the Child Murder” campaign and the 1970s oil crisis. Here in Los Angeles, children aren’t “murdered” on their bicycles anymore — because they don’t ride — and perpetual oil crises don’t seem to be enough. Plus, we have the counter-example of an extensive network of (pedestrian) sidewalks that are used sparingly, if at all, perhaps leaving some politicians to wonder whether cycle tracks would meet the same fate. I don’t have the answer, really, but whatever it is, I think it will surprise us, and I hope soon.

      1. Right. I’m not speaking of the vocal minority who say the most awful things. I’m speaking of the silent majority who say nothing. Are we sure they really want to cycle if instead they could drive?

  4. The libertarian viewpoint is not, it seems to mean exclusive hallmark of right-wing governments anymore (although that depends on whether you regard “New Labour” as not being right-wing). However it is certainly the feature which runs through the current Mayor and Tory assembly members in London.

    Boris Johnson is, genuinely, a cyclist. He does genuinely use a bicycle for getting around town, including to attend meetings, and he is a committed cyclist. Not like Dave Cameron, who only did it – with official car crawling along behind – because his spin doctor Steve Hilton told him it would make him look less like the old Etonian toff that he is. What’s more, Boris does not wear Lycra (perish the thought) and rides in a slightly crumpled suit. He clearly prefers not to wear a helmet, and his libertarian instincts persuade him against the idea that people should be compelled or morally blackmailed into wearing one (hint, Boris – can the helmet requirement for your Skyride, er I mean RideLondon event next year).

    A number of his GLA members are also committed, genuine cyclists. The Tory group leader James Cleverley rides in from Bromley. Andrew Boff is a cyclist. The chief petrol head, Brian Coleman, was mercifully ejected at the last GLA election.

    I dare say that if you were to do a survey of Westminster MPs, you would find quite a few who find a bike a handy way of moving around town too. Some such as the “bicycling baronet” Sir George Young are well known, but it seems my own local MP and our Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport, Jeremy Hunt, also cycles, if only as the fastest way to elude the journos pursuing him over the Leveson enquiry.

    So, while we have quite a few cyclists in positions of influence in London and national government, I suspect that most of them follow that same libertarian view that everyone should be free to cycle if they want to, but we can’t influence the market in their favour. The fact that the market is already heavily influenced in favour of monopolist interests, notably the motor industry, probably due to their ability to buy influence through political donations and keeping the media afloat with advertising money, seems to pass the libertarian consciousness by.

  5. Your argument assumes that cycling is a positive thing, like health and literacy, and that people will naturally want to increase the amount of it.

    But your average motorist doesn’t agree – they think cycling is a negative, or at best they don’t think about it all. It’s not at all obvious to them that the rate of cycling should be increased.

    The argument for modal shift requires understanding that cycling has primarily positive externalities, while motoring has primarily negative externalities. And arguments about externalities don’t seem to convince many people.

    Your argument may as well be “Glasgow has a low rate of stamp collectors, so we shouldn’t build stamp collecting facilities.”

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