Friday 15 July 2011

"Cycling is dangerous" comments now closed

I have closed the comments on my post Cycling is dangerous, because they had gone on long enough, many of them were rude, personal and insulting, and I felt that that correspondence had become a distraction that would achieve nothing more. I will not allow comments on this post either, contrary to my usual practice. I am, however, leaving the comments that were made on that post there, exactly as they were submitted, as a kind of permanent memorial to the extraordinary anger and vitriol that is unleashed from certain parts of the cycling community on a cyclist who breaks one of the great shibboleths of modern British cycle campaigning, and announces that he believes that, actually, cycling on UK roads is unacceptably dangerous, and the failure of campaigning to acknowledge this is a problem for cycling making more progress.

For my statement would, I expect, seem totally uncontroversial and unremarkable to at least 99.5% of the population. And yet to some cyclists who responded to my post it made me a traitor, and perhaps disqualified me as a "cyclist" altogether. I was told I had "forgotten to enjoy life and cycling". I was told I was scaring people off from cycling, and I was called "blinkered", and an "idiot" who was somehow making it more dangerous for those who choose to cycle. I really don't get that one. Here I am, cycling (cautiously) round NW London, campaiging with my local groups of the LCC to improve the lamentable cycling provision in these parts, and writing a little blog that comments on cycling and transport policies in London, and somehow I am making cycling more dangerous! Me, who doesn't even own a car!

One of my critics (they are, of course, all anonymous, while I am a known person posting under my real name) though that, the way I was going on, I was likely to get cycling banned! Well, we have heard that one many times before, and the phenomenon has already been amusingly blogged upon on War on the Motorist:
I now realise that many of our venerable vehicular cycling campaigners are thinking about cycling bans every second of the day. Everything they see and do, the first question they ask themselves is: will this lead to cycling being banned in any way? They can’t get out of bed in the morning without first contemplating what effect such an action might have on the likelihood of a cycling ban.
The problem is that many of our more hardened cycling campaigners seem to be in a state far beyond vigilance: they are absolutely paralysed with fear, too afraid to do anything at all that might fix any of the massive problems faced by cyclists and would-be cyclists just in-case doing so might somehow trigger cycling to be banned in some way. 
Perhaps the most disturbing comment was the one that compared me to Dr Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister. But, in reflecting on the concept of "propaganda", I think one comes to an appreciation of what all the furore is about here.

What all these critics of my Cycling is dangerous post have in common is an extraordinary belief in the power of propaganda to change how people behave: in this case, whether or not they cycle. I, perhaps because of my training in the physical sciences, instilling a belief in the far greater power of environmental conditions, a belief in the ultimate deterministic forcefulness of physical reality, do not share this belief in the power of propaganda. Now Transport for London definitely does. This is the only way I can explain how it thinks it a good idea to have a PR budget that is seven times the expediture on physical improvements for cyclists on the road in the form of the "Cycling Supehighways". TfL clearly think that its much trumpeted "Cycling Revolution" will be achieved largely through propaganda telling people how great cycling is, rather than by actually make it safe and pleasant to cycle.

I have criticised this institutional attitude towards cycling in the UK before, indeed, doing so is my stock-in-trade. This attitude is the idea that what they call the "soft measures" are more important than the "hard" ones, that is, the infrastructure. Why this nomenclature? Well, perhaps, because the "hard measures" are not only hard in these sense of being made of materials like granite, which score highly on the geologists' Mohs' scale of hardness, but hard in the sense of being politically difficult to do – not without political cost for a politician like Boris Johnson, who thinks most of his votes come from motorists. But some of the more fashionable of these cycling PR gurus have now taken to calling the soft measures "smart" instead. Presumably the word "smart" is to be taken in an Orwellian sense here, not a sartorial one. After all, that really would show Boris up.

What is perhaps more surprising is how many individual cyclists, a shown by the comments on my Cycling is dangerous post, also have this belief in the power of propaganda above that of physical reality in determining the amount that the population cycles. How else to explain this strange idea that someone writing on a blog, read by a few hundred people, the headline Cycling is dangerous, is actually damaging cycling, and, even more mysteriously, making cycling more dangerous? 

I made a journey of 3.5 miles between Edgware and Stanmore, Middlesex, yesterday, with my partner Helen. We have to make this journey using a cab, as she is disabled. We saw no cyclists on the route, which would be typical for this area. I asked her, "Where do you think all the cyclists have gone? Have they read my blogpost and decided it is too dangerous to cycle?" She didn't think so. She thought there had never been any. Not in the last 20 years, anyway, and she has been living in the area longer than that. Blogs have not been around for as long as that.

Now, I do not totally discount the power of propaganda in determining how large-scale events unfold in society and history. The work of Goebbels was indeed important in propelling the Nazis to power. But much more important were the social conditions in Germany in the 1930s, and the simple fact that the Nazis were able to get hold of a lot of guns. The physical factors were more important than the psychological ones. The propaganda merely chimed-in with, and supported, the other, decisive factors of economics and fear. And propaganda, more or less by definition, never really alters human beings' beliefs, if the facts of their environment are blatantly contradicting what the propaganda is saying. A regime like Gadaffi's in Libya may be putting out plenty of propaganda telling the people that they are living in a free "peoples republic", but do they believe it? Do they hell.

So I stand by the wisdom of that controversial posting on this blog one hundred percent. I explain again, for anyone who has not yet understood, that the point of it was to say that if we, as cycling campaigners, are "banned" from talking about the excessive danger that is inherent in the UK system of having bikes share roadspace with large volumes of fast motor traffic, for fear of "scaring potential cyclists off", then that undermines our ability to campaign for the danger reduction that we really need to make cycling a mass activity in the UK. "It's safe already", a politician like Boris Johnson will say, "What's the problem? Just follow me on my bike into this maelstrom of traffic on Blackfriars Bridge". And cycling in London will remain stuck on its 2% modal share.

I agree with Dr Robert Davis, of the Road Danger Reduction Forum, as quoted on The Bike Show:
By only responding to data on crashes, Dr Davis says we ignore the adaptive behaviour that is going on among vulnerable road users like cyclists and pedestrians. We are presented with the apparent paradox that a road can be dangerous for cyclists yet be declared ‘safe’ since there have been no crashes involving cyclists. This is because cyclists have simply decided not to ride on that road.
Cycling casualties do not measure the danger inherent in cycling: my point, essentially. Except that where Davis, I think, is only comparing one location with another, I am extending the principle logically to different groups of people, claiming that the cycling casualty rate is skewed downwards by the people who exclude themselves from cycling under current conditions. So the number of casualties does not indicate the true danger level. So the "Philospher's Stone" that we need to find in cycling is the infrastructure that broadens (greatly) the demographic of cycling, while simultaneously reducing the danger to those new groups (such as most women, the elderly, and children) who now, under this new regime, choose to cycle. To find that Philosopher's Stone, we need to look no further than the other side of the North Sea. Or if that is too far to look, try Torrington Place, London WC1. Cue my next post.