When I first started Cycle Lifestyle magazine in 2009, I was fascinated by the question of why there is so much hostility among the general population towards cyclists.
You’d think that people everywhere would welcome with open arms an affordable vehicle that alleviates congestion on roads and public transport, reduces noise and air pollution, and hardly ever harms pedestrians. Alas not. Buy why not?
I’m still no closer to finding the definitive answer, but, occasionally, possibilities suggest themselves to me. There is one in particular I find very plausible, precisely because it doesn’t try to make sense of why noncyclists are so hostile. Rather, this particular explanation is based on the sheer arbitrariness of noncyclists’ hostility.
The arbitrariness has all the hallmarks of a taboo.
Taboos, found in all societies, are arbitrary moral prohibitions against certain behaviours or items. Taboos are reinforced by ostracizing people who break them, or sometimes even by violence. Taboos, once established, are very difficult to eradicate.
The idea that there is a taboo against cycling (in Britain, anyway) explains a lot. It explains why so many people are so quick to casually condemn cyclists. It explains why people are so confident in their condemnation despite this being based on scant evidence, or none whatsoever. It explains why people are generally not swayed by the tidal wave of evidence showing that cycling is a beneficial force for individuals, communities and economies. It explains why cyclists are often subjected to ostracisation or even violence.
The psychology of taboo also explains a lot about the cycling community. When certain groups are ostracized by society they can become more extreme in their views as a result. This can lead to confrontational behaviour which, although entirely understandable, is counterproductive.
It often takes heroic leaders like Gandhi or Martin Luther King to inspire minority groups to respond to persecution in a measured and constructive manner.
Some might think that mentioning these illustrious names is a little over the top. The struggles of cyclists hardly compare to the monumental struggles of blacks in America and the Indian Independence Movement, surely?
I’m not so sure. Every day, millions of Londoners experience dreadful stress getting to and from work. Reports have estimated, for instance, that rail and road commuters in London experience more stress than a riot policemen or a fighter pilot going into action. These stressful moments blight people’s days and lives. If this isn’t a humanitarian issue, I don’t know what is.
At Cycle Lifestyle we want to help lift the taboo that currently oppresses cyclists in the capital and beyond.
But we think that confrontational campaigning is not the right approach. For instance, the assumption of London’s most ardent cycle campaigners is that there is a territorial war taking place between motorists and cyclists, and that cyclists should ‘reclaim the streets’. This includes, without exception, London’s major roads, which allegedly should all be ripped up and redesigned with segregated cycling facilities incorporated – to hell with the motorists.
Although not always unhelpful, this approach is unrealistic – prohibitively expensive or impossible – when applied to all or even the majority of London’s main roads. Worse, it feeds into the hostility which noncyclists feel towards cyclists. The idea that motorists in London are cyclists’ enemies simply provokes noncyclists into reinforcing the taboo against cyclists.
Instead of pursuing counterproductive campaign strategies, Cycle Lifestyle is championing a better option. There are thousands of kilometers of cycle routes already in London. Many of these routes are on backstreets, or, where possible, on well-provisioned main roads. You can more or less get from anywhere to anywhere in London on its comprehensive network of cycle routes. In theory.
In practice, these cycle routes are impossible to follow because their signage and road markings are useless. The London Cycle Map Campaign is calling for the authorities to make the capital’s cycle routes more accessible, by painting easy-to-follow trails of colour on the streets, and erecting corresponding signage.
Simon Parker’s amazing London Cycle Map reveals an ingenious way of colour-coding these cycle routes, so that any two areas of the capital would be connected by a single, coloured route that could be followed safely and simply.
If that doesn’t lift the taboo against cycling in London, I don’t know what will.
Yet the taboo surrounding cycling makes it hard to convince the public what a wonderful idea Simon Parker’s London Cycle Map is. And, even more tragically, the same taboo also tends to make cyclists indifferent to the idea. Cycle advocacy groups are so busy campaigning confrontationally that they are overlooking a measured and constructive way to make cycling in the capital mainstream.