REVIEW: “BIKE NATION: How Cycling Can Save the World” by Peter Walker

This book is “…above all, a story of hope”. Those of us with a cynical mindset might be put off by such optimism and the extravagant claim of the title. But don’t be: Peter Walker is more or less spot on in each chapter of a book which clearly argues for cycling as a key solution to urban transport, health, social and environmental problems. Indeed, it should be read by all professionals – as well as campaigners and the general public – with  an interest in transport policy, not just those who find themselves in a “cycling” niche.

So let’s see how Walker, who has been writing on cycling matters for the Guardian over the last decade, sets out his stall. First and foremost, cycling has to break out of its niche: there may well be sports and leisure enthusiasts, but if it is to fulfil its true potential it has to be done by ordinary people, wearing ordinary clothes, making ordinary everyday journeys.

He kicks off with the latest research on the health benefits of cycling.  This should be persuasive – why hasn’t the “miracle pill” been adopted here?  The answer is “political inertia, powerful vested interests, a lack of real ambition and leadership, and a set of curious but persistent and damaging myths about cycling and cyclists” (p.35). Indeed, and it is so good to see a willingness to tackle everyday prejudice – of which more later.

Next up is a review of danger: the problem is simply one of “normalisation”. We have “ …a complacent, entitled, careless driving culture, where millions of people who would describe themselves as moral, kind and careful people nonetheless get into a motor vehicle and routinely, unthinkingly, put others’ lives in peril.” (p.43)

Then we have a couple of chapters on the social justice/equity argument and the economic case for cycling. We get a brief reference to a review of what economists call the “external costs” of motoring, which I think could have done with some more exposition – after all, a key prejudice against cyclists is that they do not “pay their way”, when in fact that argument would be more appropriately directed against motorists. It’s a tricky one – should we embrace cost-benefit analysis, with a clear indictment of the unpaid costs of motoring, if it implies that paying more should entitle drivers to endanger, pollute, congest etc.? (Incidentally, the one detailed reference to calculation of costs – using the USA as its basis – has a typographical error in including “not” before showing that “car owners pay only 35% of the total costs incurred”(p.95).)

For me the best parts of this book are Walker’s willingness to tackle – indeed to make a forensically detailed analysis of – two key areas where polite society fears to tread: anti-cyclist prejudice and cycle helmets. My view is this: don’t think these areas are unimportant or will just fade away with changes in transport policy. They are central to the way cycling and cyclists are conceptualised in this society, and are related to and affect the way cyclists are treated on the roads. And even if changes in provision of highway infrastructure are all you’re interested in, the opposition to this will be linked in with the kind of prejudices study of these areas reveals.

Anti-Cyclist Bigotry

What makes cyclists such an easy target, not just for pub bores and the usual hate-mongers in the tabloid press, but for supposedly enlightened journalists in the “quality” media? The first point for me is that it isn’t cyclists. Walker gives an historical portrait of prejudice going back over a century.  I have found it in the media for as long as I can remember. I remember personally confronting it in the 1980s, well before one might see an adult pavement cyclist or someone riding through a red light.

In a splendid chapter, Walker discusses social psychology’s theory of “the out-group”, and where anti-cycling bigotry might be picking up its tropes, such as the notion that anybody who rides a bicycle is somehow responsible for the actual or alleged behaviour of other cyclists. In just one chapter on anti-cycling ideas he manages to link in the ludicrous notion held by a minister responsible for cycling that the Dutch have a worse record on cyclist casualties than the UK  with the disproportionate attention  to incidents where pedestrians are hurt by cyclists as opposed to motorists. This anti-cycling bigotry – and we don’t even have a word for it to use in discussion – is also implicated in the refusal of politicians to support cycling: “For them it is an add-on, a sop to enthusiasts, something to be squeezed onto a road if there’s a bit of spare space and spare cash left over from the main task of motor traffic” (p.139).

But where anti-cyclist bigotry – and I call it bigotry because that’s what it is – is really important is in how drivers behave to people on bicycles in everyday situations. Walker gives evidence to detail precisely how anti-cyclist attitudes can exacerbate bad driving. The bottom line is, as he concludes this chapter, referring to pieces of anti-cycling prejudice articulated in the media, ”Every one of these, I am convinced, places me, my loved ones and anyone else on a bike, marginally yet incrementally in more danger every time we get onto a saddle. And that can’t be right”. (p.150)

I think that the general prejudice against cycling and cyclists is important for that reason. Even driving instructors claim that driving is a task which can’t be put on automatic pilot, and requires constant care and attention and a positive commitment towards a driver’s obligations. Any negative attitude towards other road users – including simply because they are using a particular form of transport – exacerbates an already unsatisfactory potential to hurt or kill. At the very least, prejudice which I claim is present even in the police forces, impedes the kind of law enforcement we need .

The “H” word

In his chapter “If Bike Helmets are the Answer, you’re Asking the Wrong Question”, Walker correctly identifies helmet advocacy along with hi-viz clothing advocacy as a victim-blaming red herring without a firm evidence base. Or to be more precise, he wears a helmet and doesn’t object to them or hi-viz: “But when it comes to genuine efforts to make cycling safer, they’re a red herring, an irrelevance, a peripheral issue that has somehow come to dominate the argument”.

He gives a good discussion about risk compensation (adaptive behaviour) by both helmeted riders and other road users, referencing myself (thanks) and Ian Walker respectively. The latter’s work on how drivers decide how much space to give when passing is salutary in bringing us back to what Walker – and all of us – should actually be looking at. So too is his consideration of the politics of hi-viz in a section aptly titled “Seeing, but choosing not to see”.

He quotes Goldacre and Spiegelhalter at length: “…current uncertainty about any benefit from helmet wearing…is unlikely to be substantially reduced by further research”. Popularity of bike helmets as a road safety measure was based less on any direct benefits, but more on people’s often very skewed personal perceptions of risk (p.186).

But if anything, he seems to give (although this may just be my reading) the benefit of the doubt – albeit slightly – to helmets, with repeated reference to not objecting to helmets, despite:

“…whatever the benefits in each individual case, a population-wide increase in helmet use, for example after legislation, is not generally matched by similar reductions in overall head injury rates” (p.176)

The problem with his discussion is precisely that he attempts to derail ideological pre-judgement simply by rational discussion. His persistent – and correct – claim that helmets mustn’t be seen as a panacea and that the danger from motor vehicles needs to be tackled won’t, in my view, cut it as long as helmets are seen as basically a good thing. Yes, I too think that people should be allowed to wear helmets irrespective of the lack of evidence of benefits. Insofar as risk compensation/adaptive behaviour is central to why the lack of evidence of head injury rates declining persists, at least other road users – unlike those adversely affected by car and highway safety engineering – are not going to suffer significantly as a result.

But I have seen apparent acceptance of Walker’s incontrovertible argument that motor danger needs to be tackled by government and “road safety” professionals for the last 30 years. And what have we had? Precious little in the way of helpful infrastructure, a recent glimmer of light with regard to close passing policing – and that’s about it. Perhaps some of the cycle training programmes have been genuinely empowering – but that’s dubious. The benefits of safety in numbers – such as they exist – have happened largely without any officially inspired increase in cycling.

And during this time we have moved from total absence of helmets to widespread wearing (although substantial pockets of lidlessness exist in, for example, outer London suburbs outside commuting hours) with its attendant message of cycling as inherently hazardous. While motorisation and car dependence have massively increased, and motor danger has not been properly addressed, “road safety”, medical and other professionals have continually acknowledged that something must be done, and that helmets are not a panacea. Yet their efforts to reduce motor danger have been minimal or negative, and their advocacy of helmets substantial and absolute.

Walker is excellent in this chapter – but in the current context I would consider the benefits of a slightly more circumspect approach to helmets than his.

The hope question

No doubt reservations I have are formed by a longer period of seeing official support for cycling bear little fruit. One of the first cycling-related conferences I attended was “Ways to Safer Cycling”, where the then Minister, Lynda Chalker, claimed she was there to “encourage cycling”. That was in 1984 – if you have some moments to spare you may wish to look at the change in cycling’s modal share since then, along with the figures for the growth in motor transport. That experience makes me more worried about the effects of prejudice and wary of red herrings.

It may also make me more circumspect about prescriptions for success. Peter Walker is a firm advocate of the new orthodoxy: success will come from networks of segregated cycle lanes. That strategy is not only central, but it apparently claims to be more or less sufficient for victory.

The RDRF position is to support this strategy and to push with Cycling UK and others for proper funding for such infrastructure. It also, regrettably, looks as though it will be necessary to make a stand against backsliding by politicians in London and elsewhere who have nominally committed to this approach. Existing cyclists should realise that new infrastructure isn’t necessarily for us, but for a new generation of cyclists inhibited by a hostile environment.

Nevertheless, a number of issues should be raised, and not just because of a pessimistic frame of mind.

Firstly, it needs to be made absolutely clear to motorists that cyclists are not going to disappear from their vicinity on most roads. Separated cycle lanes may be on main roads, but not the rest, and drivers need to be aware of that – logic should make that obvious, but in a world of the kind of prejudice that Walker outlines, separation may back up the ideology that sees cyclists as not belonging on the road.

That also means that we have to think of how danger will be addressed on such roads: will 20 mph limits, even if complied with, be enough? What of rural roads where, even with sophisticated traffic management, mixing will occur? Arguably reducing car dependency is more necessary in suburban and rural areas than the urban ones Walker focuses on. The kind of societal shift where close passing policing comes to be seen as necessary and commonplace will have to happen. Luckily – and here I can be allowed some optimism, there are cases where increased cycling modal share can lead to reduced cyclist casualty rates, due to a form of risk compensation known as Safety in Numbers.

Secondly, will the design features of separated lanes be adequate? Will give ways at junctions happen properly? Will less direct bi-directional lanes predominate over better mono-directional ones? Will bus stop bypasses and all the other features of segregated lanes fit in to a society not used to them and/or mass cycling?

Thirdly, what about all the other features of a society where cycling is commonplace? Simple but necessary things like secure and convenient home parking. Or accessibility of basic equipment: the lack of accessibility of sufficiently cheap bicycles and accessories for those on low incomes could be part of the reason why they don’t cycle much. Perhaps, if we have the necessary feature of normal clothing use as a key signifier of mass cycling, in the UK we need to make breathable waterproof and winter garments available to counter the drop in cycling that happens every autumn.

My suggestion is that in a society where cycling as a basic form of transport has been largely forgotten, direct one-to-one support may be necessary for people who have never cycled. Infrastructure can only be part of the solution.

And even if it is that important, it isn’t going to happen without the kind of struggles and cultural shift that Walker alludes to. He rightly talks about how dissuasion of car use (pace Stevenage) is going to be necessary, and refers to some of the problems of car-centred thinking. My view is that if cycling is to progress, there is a whole host of problems emanating from car culture which will need to be grappled with.


Conclusion: Hope revisited

At the start of my career, congestion and energy use were the key problems with car-centredness and the motorisation agenda. Then we got worried about noxious emissions, and then in the late 1990s climate change and transport-generated greenhouse gases. There were some concerns about the loss of local community and children’s independent mobility, and the founding of the modern road danger reduction movement. This century we have elaborated the health (active travel) agenda, and re-discovered noxious emissions.

In short, there have always been reasons to support cycling as a solution to car and motor traffic generated problems. My (cynical and pessimistic) suggestion is that we will need more than the fine optimism of this book. But with its concern to expose prejudice and red herrings, its exhaustive work on health and the other benefits of simply making cycling a normal way to get about, it’s an excellent – and necessary – start.




2 thoughts on “REVIEW: “BIKE NATION: How Cycling Can Save the World” by Peter Walker

  1. Pingback: “Who kills whom” and the measurement of danger. | Road Danger Reduction Forum

  2. Pingback: Review. Peter Walker: “The Miracle Pill” | Road Danger Reduction Forum

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