In the UK there is suppressed demand for cycling. There are people who want to travel by bicycle who are prevented, or limited, by the threat and severance consequent on the current acceptance of motor-dependence and hyper-mobility.
There’s a cliched discourse stemming from this unfortunate circumstance that relies on an unstated, unexamined faith that most – maybe all – of the people who don’t currently travel by bike are in some precipitous pre-cycling state, only waiting for conditions to change so they can start riding.
For example here’s a reader’s comment from earlier in the year…
“…the argument is that bike lanes should be good enough that all cyclists will want to use them, you, me and the 98% of the population who do not ride bikes right now, and never will unless they feel safe.”
A wise and effective comrade once gave me the following advice:- “In politics never use the word ‘should’.” ‘Could’ has the ring of truth, ‘must’ is dynamic but ‘should’ always sounds ineffectual, even desperate.
The compelling attraction of the ‘98 per cent are pre-cyclists‘ theory is that it’s adherents can envisage a future in which bicycle paradise arrives without attritional street-by-street struggle. If you believe in the ’98 percent’ theory the political question of what streets are for is replaced by technical issues. If only we can get the policy sorted the rest will be coasting downhill, because really everyone is just waiting to throw a leg over their rod and hit the rad-weg.
When others have no interest in stuff that we feel is very important there’s temptation to project our own feelings on to their blank apathy. I used to imagine that people didn’t cycle because – back in the era of the vanishing tribe – cycle-traffic was definitely being designed out of the system.
In the very early 1990’s – when fixed gears were for old codgers and Mountain Bikes still a new idea – I was writing for, long-gone, ‘New Cyclist’. A quarterly, that became a bi-monthly, that became a monthly, which carried the portentous sub-title “the magazine for all cyclists”; like working on the magazine for all shoe-wearers or all air-breathers.
Transport was a hot subject, ‘Roads to Prosperity’ the biggest programme of highway construction since the Romans was going down in flames under a pincer movement from disobedient eco-warriors and Betjeman–esque conservatives. The Conservative Government’s attitude to public-transport was not unlike Count Dracula’s feelings for garlic so it seemed like bicycle paradise might be just over the next hill.
I had the innocent idea of surveying Members of the House of Commons to uncover their attitudes to cycling. Who rode, who rode where and what were their attitudes? All of them – except Gerry Adams the abstentionist Sinn Féin member for West Belfast – had current experience of London streets, where cycling was the most reliable mode.
I can’t recall the exact details. It was all many kilometres ago, maybe one day I’ll stooge up Watling Street to Colindale and recapture the full story. Younger readers may be interested to know that ‘going to the library’ is what people in olden days did when they wanted to find out about something, like Wikipedia only less convenient and more reliable.
The MP’s questionnaire was multiple-choice and elicited the desired response. On the cover of the magazine the editor was able to write…
“Why MPs want to cycle but are too frightened.”
What happened next? Was there a cross-party surge of political will to provide the space, green-time and finance to reconfigure the World so the timid souls could hit the streets? It began to dawn on me that things might be more complicated than I had imagined.
It’s not even that some people want conditions for cycle traffic improved and others don’t, for many the dissonance is personal. Here’s an instructive parable from the turn of the Century lifted from the Guardian…
“For years residents of two Somerset villages complained to police about motorists speeding past their homes.
When a police speed trap was set up on a 30mph stretch of the A368 between Compton Martin and Bishop Sutton, the locals were delighted.
Their euphoria turned to shame when it emerged yesterday that a large proportion of the drivers caught speeding by the laser camera were the very same villagers.
Of 133 motorists caught in a fortnight, 30 were from the two villages. They are being prosecuted by police along with the others.
Sergeant Mike Smalley, who set up the trap, said: “It’s often the case that we catch a high proportion of locals, and some of those will have expressed concern about speeding in the first instance.”
Pensioner John Wilkes, who has lived near Compton Martin for 18 years, described it as being more like Piccadilly Circus than a peaceful village.
“I think local people should have known better. We are complaining about speeding, but how can you complain if you don’t abide by it? It has got a lot worse as time has gone by.”
Katie Court, whose partner was one of those caught, said she thought that the lorries were more of a problem. “My husband was only doing 35mph and I don’t think he deserved it.”