The “Get Britain Cycling” Parliamentary debate: Should anything be “done for cyclists”?

Now that I have your attention: the clue to my question is in the quotation marks. As we line up for the September 2nd House of Commons debate on cycling  , I discuss below how the phrasing of the question tells us about many of the problems confronting cycling.

As any transport professional concerned with cycling and sustainable transport knows, discussion of cycling at both central and local governmental level has featured regular episodes of consideration of cycling over the last three decades. A key feature, even with a strong positive slogan (“Get Britain Cycling”) is the idea that something or some things should be “done for cycling”.

I don’t know how much this will figure in the September 2nd debate, but I want to consider this form of argument because I think it (unintentionally) shows up many of the problems which need to be addressed if we are indeed to “Get Britain Cycling”.

1.     Doing cycling/cyclists a favour.

A key element in the “doing something for cycling” approach is the patronising attitude. Cycling and/or cyclists are to be considered by the powerful who may wish to do them a favour. It’s a kind of lord of the manor nonsense. Take this example from Christopher Snelling of the Freight Transport Association in his piece in the collection “Get Britain Cycling” which comes with Landor Press’ Local Transport Today:

“When cyclists jump red lights or undertake vehicles they put themselves at risk and decrease the motor driver’s enthusiasm for giving them the consideration they deserve”.

As with all dreadful arguments there is an element of truth here: it is a good idea to try to obey the law and be cooperative. (It is even more important to avoid endangering pedestrians by not stopping at red lights – a more important consideration than “putting themselves at risk” which interestingly does not get mentioned).

What is interesting here is that although friendly consideration is good, why should it be based on an “enthusiasm” which can be withdrawn if the driver feels like withholding it? This is a bizarre world where the motorised operate with a kind of noblesse oblige towards the lower orders – if they feel like it.

Is there any other scenario in a workplace or in air, maritime or rail transport where crucial health and safety regulations could be flouted if someone with the potential to endanger others decides not have sufficient “enthusiasm”?

2.     Trivialising cycling.

Part of the patronising of cycling/cyclists is to look at it as “fun activity” or in terms of cycle sport (the Prime Minister’s recent announcements of – quite trivial – amounts of funding for cycling were made a at a sports event). Of course, cycling can very often be fun, and cycle sport is great: countries with high modal shares of cycling tend to have a good grass roots cycle sport scene. But that is the point: for cycling to justify proper resource allocation, what counts is cycling as a normal, everyday form of transport. Even the (necessary) consideration of children’s cycling runs the risk of presenting cycling as something which is not quite adult and therefore not really serious.

3.     Dangerising cycling

There is a view that stressing the dangers posed to cyclists is always positive and will lead to the powers that be dealing with them. My experience suggests otherwise: we end up with red herrings of hi-viz and helmets and road danger remains unexamined. We need to focus on where danger to cyclists and other road users comes from – namely from the inappropriate use of motor vehicles – and address it properly. Going on about cycling being “dangerous” – not least in bringing together both the transitive (dangerous to others) with the intransitive (dangerous to cyclists) – is often not helpful in doing this. Take a look at Andrew Gilligan’s interesting take on how we talk about the dangers to cyclists here.

4.     Victim blaming cyclists

Even while nominally “for” cycling/cyclists, this approach features victim blaming   It is cyclists who are responsible for not “being seen”, not those with responsibility to look where they are going.  It is cyclists who should wear crash helmets, whether there is any evidence for a population which takes up wearing helmets having a lower casualty rate or not, or whether there is any more chance of car occupants having more head injuries than cyclists or not .

5.     Problematising cycling/cyclists

The common feature of the above themes is a focus on the cycling element of the traffic mix where the other elements are not seen as problematic. Cycling then appears as essentially some kind of problem. Even though it is only a few decades since cycling was commonplace, with as high a (journey) modal share nationally as motoring, Even though otherwise similar countries in northern Europe have far higher cycling modal shares. The key to this is the other elements in the traffic mix which are not seen as problematic.

6.     The elephant in the room


Elephant in the room by Banksy (see Wikipedia)

Hamlet without the Prince. The elephant (gorilla for north Americans) in the room. The bull in the china shop.  A key feature of discussing transport policy and safety on the road is the way in which what motorists get up to is not talked about as a problem.

This is a key feature of “road safety” ideology, normalising driving, even when it is rule and law-breaking.

In transport policy, this is most obvious with the Department for Transport’s traffic forecasts, with the built in assumption of increased motor traffic. This leads to persistent commitments to supporting this increase, despite arguments being previously accepted that such increases were neither inevitable nor desirable.

Another way in which motoring is not talked about is the questioning of its cost. Costs of housing (bought or rented) may have spiralled; hours worked may have increased; pensions may have been lost; wages (for public sector workers and others) may have been cut; becoming a student may be more expensive, etc, etc. But the idea that motoring should become more expensive or at least not cheaper is hardly ever raised.


WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT MOTORING: Pointing out the elephant in the room

I hope that the debate on September 2nd will be less likely to feature the familiar themes described above. Nevertheless, I think it worth pointing out that cyclists and others may miss out unless there is some more questioning of the transport status quo. Essentially this comes down to two factors:

A.    Cycling/cyclists need certain things to change which are likely to affect the motoring status quo.

Many motorists will be prepared to accept this, some won’t. Take a look at the Get Britain Cycling recommendations such as “strengthen the enforcement of road traffic law, including speed limits, and ensure that driving offences…are treated sufficiently seriously…”; or “reallocation of road space”.

Other changes “think bike at the beginning of a design” are more a question of challenging the status quo insofar as it is manifested by the culture of traffic engineers and transport planners, but the point is the same: a status quo favouring relatively unrestricted motoring will be perceived by some as threatening.

B.    If we are to have a sustainable transport system with a more civilised attitude towards safety and non-motorised users generally, we need to challenge basic beliefs and practices in car and “road safety” cultures.

At some point the demands for support for cycling require justification. There is a tendency, most noted among “Smarter Travel” practitioners, to try to achieve modal shift away from cars without saying that there is anything wrong with the car-centred, high motor traffic, status quo.

I would suggest that this is exactly what is needed – not just because business as usual will prevent any real support for cycling.

For example, if we continue with DfT forecasted increases in car traffic, where will an increase in cycling come from? Is it likely to just come from public transport – and although cycling is superior in most respects to public transport use, is this what we want?

I think that it is important to state that with continuing unquestioned car dependency we will have all the problems associated with the kind of mass car use we have, from the various kinds of emission, loss of local community, wasted resources etc. Presenting cycling as a key part of the solution to these problems actually gives justification to the programme for supporting cycling, and moves it away from just being special case pleading.


Much of this will not be easy for some people, including transport professionals who like to think of themselves as well disposed towards cycling.

To take another example of taboo-busting: If we continue with low motoring costs – which could become even lower with more fuel efficient cars – there will be even less price differential between cycling and driving. This may not be much of a factor in achieving modal shift towards cycling – we just don’t know – but it hardly sends out the right signals about which forms of transport and land use planning the society we live in values.

Let’s see what happens on September 2nd.

2 thoughts on “The “Get Britain Cycling” Parliamentary debate: Should anything be “done for cyclists”?

  1. Peter S

    I agree with your points here. To focus on just one, I wonder if there is ‘mileage’ in setting out all the costs that the taxpayer incurs so that motorists can drive wherever they want. I’m sure these costs are elaborated in detail on this website, but how can any die-hard motorist, or even just an impartial analyst justify these costs being paid for by all taxpayers? Whether that’s the disproportionate share that motoring offences make up in all offences prosecuted in the UK (38.3% in 2016, each court case costing the taxpayer several hundred posts; obviously plenty of offences will not be prosecuted but still require the time of the emergency services), the traffic enforcement measures that have to be introduced purely to stop errant motorists, the impacts on the NHS via ambulance call-outs and emergency operations, the premature deaths they cause through air pollution and the carbon dioxide that is casually emitted for the most trivial of reasons (“I ran out of milk so obviously had to drive the 4 mile round trip through heavy traffic to pick some up”), there is simply no way these external costs can be justified. Yes cars do offer some social benefits, but in most cases (because most people live in cities, where there are usually good alternatives to the car, even if that’s just walking) these benefits could be achieved just as easily through more sustainable transport options, so the social benefits are neither unique nor big enough to offset the huge social costs they impose. And these costs are borne equally by taxpayers regardless of whether they drive or not.

    I fully appreciate that these are arguments you’ve been making in different ways for a long time now. I just wonder whether by setting out all the individual costs that the taxpayer has to fund purely so that some people can drive, asking whether it is fair that non-motorists contribute to funding these costs, may be a useful approach.

    1. rdrf Post author

      Thanks Peter S. Do take a look at the posts under “Costs of cars”. there are a number of issues here which do need to be looked at – but I don’t think this is really the place.


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