Why don’t people cycle?
The last three posts have shown how three different people cycle despite atrocious cycling conditions; this one shows how one person has clearly decided not to cycle because of those atrocious conditions. Of course she is not alone – indeed, this kind of story was the one most frequently heard during the three years I spent trying to understand cycling.
It was a privilege to hear Holly’s story, and others like it; to sit and listen to someone thoughtfully articulating their concerns about cycling. We need more people – and especially, of course, those with most power to implement change, to listen to stories such as these, and to hear the reasons why people don’t cycle, and what it will take to get them cycling.
4. Holly’s cycling story
For her everyday journeys, Holly either drives or walks. In recent years, partly out of environmental concerns, partly to stay fit and healthy, she has transferred more of her shorter trips from car to foot. She now walks almost all journeys of less than two miles.
Utility walking makes sense for Holly. It provides training for the recreational walking which she loves to do. A medical practitioner, she is also aware of the importance of walking to mental and physical health. And she knows how much money she’s saving, particularly in car parking costs.
But it could make more sense for Holly to cycle. As she says, “obviously in terms of time it would make sense to cycle the journeys that I do on foot.” And saving time is clearly important to her; she leads a busy life – juggling work, study, and an active social life.
And of course, not only could she save time by cycling some of her longer walking trips; its greater range means that cycling could replace more of her car trips – increasing her fitness, saving more money, and further reducing her environmental impact.
She can cycle.
“I did my cycling proficiency at primary school, and I took a bike with me when I first went to University.”
But she is scared to cycle.
“I’m a complete coward when it comes to cycling on roads.”
She elaborates on her ‘cowardice’ (a word very commonly used by people explaining their reasons for not cycling):
“Everybody I know who does a considerable amount of cycling at some point has been knocked off and hurt themselves in some way.
“As a driver, cyclists on the road just seem so vulnerable that I just don’t want to join them.”
Holly appreciates there are some off-road routes which she could use for some of her ordinary journeys, but “even so you can’t avoid cycling on the road at some point, and if not cycling on the road then cycling on pavements which isn’t legal and does expose pedestrians to risk, which I can’t justify. So it’s just not something that I’d consider.”
Holly recognises there are more barriers to her cycling than fear of motorised traffic. She goes on:
“There are other factors as well, like what do you do with the bike when you get to wherever you’re going. If you can rely on somewhere safe to put it, then all well and good, but if you can’t then it’s something else you have to factor.
“You’ve got your cycle helmet, possibly reflective gear, which you’d have to then carry about with you. Or leave them with the bike, but for security reasons you wouldn’t do that either.”
But listen to what she says immediately after this:
“My ideal would be if it were possible, transport wise, for cycle paths to be absolutely physically removed from roads as in a proper kerb separating cyclists from traffic so that cyclists didn’t have to use the pavement but weren’t sharing the road with cars. Then cycling would definitely be an option and I’d find ways around the other inconveniences of cycling. But as it is, with cyclists having to mix with traffic, it just seems crazy.”
Some people might say that Holly is like many people, generally fearful. Indeed, I have in the past suggested that fear of cycling is just one manifestation of a broader, fearful culture. But Holly is not generally timid. She walks regularly and widely, including alone after dark along routes away from roads. When I ask directly if her walking is circumscribed, she responds: “I don’t really think about personal safety very much.”
Holly is fit, active, healthy, and environmentally concerned. She is not afraid to walk. But she is afraid to cycle. Yet it is clear to me that if conditions were different, she would probably do so. And of course, she is not alone. In fact, she is in the majority, and a big one.
Let’s examine in a bit more detail Holly’s idea of appropriate cycling infrastructure.
The current idea of cycling infrastructure, she tells me, “is to paint cycle paths on the road. But that’s just not going to do it, because there’s no physical barrier between the cyclists and the traffic.”
I mention some local examples of off-road infrastructure. “That’s ideal. That’s fine. That’s really good. If that could be extended it would be brilliant.
“But you still have to get there. At the moment it’s just not joined up. So it doesn’t work. It doesn’t help.”
This is something I heard time and again, across all four cities in which I conducted fieldwork.
That’s my key message here. The big majority of people won’t cycle in an environment dominated by motorised traffic.
But there’s another issue that my conversation with Holly brings up, which although it seems tangential I think is actually connected and worth mentioning. Although she’s uncomfortable in telling me so, Holly clearly has issues with the presence of cyclists on rural roads.
“It’s terrible, but in one respect, I actually feel that it’s not right that cyclists are on those roads.
“But at the same time they’ve got just as much right to use those roads as car drivers.
“It doesn’t feel right in terms of my philosophy, about what’s right in terms of the environment and personal health and fitness, but just because of how dangerous [cycling on rural roads] is, I feel uncomfortable about it.
The presence of cyclists on rural roads upsets her, as a motorist.
“It’s country roads in general. It just, it makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like it. It’s not good.”
If you do much rural road riding you’ll probably have come across people who are incredulous that you do so. And you’ll almost certainly have come across drivers who treat you as if you don’t belong there, and have no right to be there. Holly’s perspective is a benevolent rather than malevolent form of this attitude, and I think it’s widespread.
I think her discomfort about the presence of cyclists on rural roads is connected to her discomfort about the idea of herself cycling on urban roads, and that both are based on a sense that cyclists are anomalous, because bicycles and cars don’t mix, and as cars so dominate road space, cyclists have no place – no obvious place, no safe place, anywhere – except when they’re separated from those vehicles which can (and of course do) kill them.
Of course, we can say that cycling’s place is everywhere – I do say that, I do think that, and (unless I’m with my children) I do act that way.
But the big majority of people simply don’t agree. We can say cycling’s place is everywhere until we’re blue in the face, but it won’t build a culture of mass cycling. We cyclists will continue to have the good bits of cycling infrastructure more or less to ourselves, and we’ll continue to survive/thrive in the hostile conditions which prevail in its more general absence. And Holly won’t cycle.
The solutions are as simple and radical as they are obvious.
We must undermine motorists’ current monopolisation of road space. We must fundamentally challenge motorists’ sense of entitlement to that space. We must pursue a radical programme of civilising motorised traffic. And if/where we’re not as a society prepared to do those things, we must build separate space for cycling.