Why must cyclists behave before they get bike paths?

On Wednesday it was reported that deputy leader of North Somerset Council said cyclists were "arrogant" for using roads instead of adjacent cycle paths. Elfan Ap Rees was complaining about a petition asking for the council to redesign a £1.2m cycle path, half of which is being paid for by the national lottery.

Mr Ap Rees said: "Until [cyclists] are better behaved I can understand why there is opposition to new cycletrack schemes."

On the previous Saturday, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the MP for Kensington, penned a newspaper piece linking lack of bike path provision with poor cyclist behaviour.

He wrote: "Support for cycling should be complemented by a shift in behaviour of a minority of cyclists who flout the rules of the road."

These two points of view are mainstream: all cyclists are deemed, by many, to be red-light running, pavement-riding scofflaws. Pro-cycling MPs and peers tell me these sort of views are prevalent in Cabinet and endemic in the Department for Transport.

But switch the words: how about a suspension of the Government's £13bn road building programme until every single motorist in the UK drives below the speed limit, doesn't text while driving and doesn't park on the pavement? This is preposterous but it's pretty much what Mr Ap Rees and Sir Malcolm are saying about cyclists, the behaviour of one leads to lack of provision for all.

I parodied Sir Malcolm's stance on trade website BikeBiz.com, spoofing that the Coalition Government planned to mothball road building until ALL motorists started behaving.

The article became an instant hit, with retweets from, amongst others, Bad Science author Ben Goldacre and, rather sweetly, the RAC Foundation.

Naturally, the dark humour was lost on some people but it resonated deeply with cyclists. We're heavy users of social media. We complain about things. You know, like death threats and stuff.

The previous BikeBiz article to go viral (536 retweets) had the temerity to ask why the editor of an upscale London listings magazine wrote "the only good cyclist is a dead one."

Complaining about columnists wishing for your demise because of your transport choice just shows we can't take criticism, say detractors. Helen Martin in The Scotsman on Monday wrote:

"The problem is that any criticism [of cyclists], no matter how minor…is often taken …as a declaration of war."

Ms Martin has a neat solution: "Is it really so outrageous to suggest that, where there is a cycle lane, cyclists should be fined for not using it?"

Ms Martin has clearly never been on a UK cycle path on a bike, she isn’t aware most such paths are poorly designed, don’t mesh into a usable network, are often blocked with parked cars, and are rarely maintained. UK bike paths, in short (and most of them are, indeed, short) are a joke: there's even a book and a website which collects the funniest examples, Crap Cycle Lanes.

When MPs, newspaper columnists and random haters on social media call for compulsory cycle training, mandatory cycle lanes, bicycle license plates, payment of 'road tax' (which was abolished in 1937), and total adhesion to road rules from all cyclists,  this isn't really a call to share the road with trained, registered, fee-paying, law-abiding cyclists, it's a call for cyclists to get out of the way, a desire for transport cycling to wither and die.

The irrational hatred of cyclists is discussed in this month’s issue of The Psychologist. Bath University’s traffic specialist Dr Ian Walker said: “The usual outgroup effects are seen, particularly overgeneralisation of negative behaviour and attributes – ‘They all ride through red lights all the time’. 

“[Cyclists are] a minority outgroup, engaging in an activity that is deemed slightly inappropriate in a culture that views driving as normative and desirable and views cycling as anti-conventional. But even adding these factors into the mix does not explain all the anger that cyclists experience.”

The demonisation of cyclists needs to end. It would help if politicians and journalists recognised that cyclists are not one homogenous group and the sins of one should not be reason to impugn all.

 

Carlton Reid is the executive editor of BikeBiz.com and author of forthcoming book, Roads Were Not Built for Cars, due out later this year. http://www.roadswerenotbuiltforcars.com This article is a version of a talk Reid will be giving on 26th September at the be2talks in London, a conference for architects and town planners. http://be2awards.com/2012-be2talks/