The world is missing our wisdom.
In your work for cycling, do you sometimes attend meetings? If so, have you ever sat through a meeting with the growing, gnawing feeling you’re talking at cross purposes with the other people present? Have you ever left a meeting utterly dejected, feeling you might as well give up because ‘people just don’t get it’?
Meetings about cycling inevitably involve different agendas and compromise. But is our struggle to make cycling mainstream so difficult because we – it’s strongest advocates – still haven’t learned how to speak about it? Are we yet to find our voice? If so, other people, understandably, would struggle to hear it. So perhaps ‘people don’t get it’ because we’ve yet to tell them?
Partly, we’ve inherited a problem. Cycling advocacy for the past half-century has been on the back foot, so busy complaining, criticising and protesting it never paused to build – let alone proselytize – progressive visions of an alternative society with the bicycle at its heart. Yet isn’t that what we must do if we’re to convince others that cycling matters?
Why don’t we have compelling visions with which to convince ourselves and others of cycling’s value? Partly, as I’ve said, because our tendency has been reactive, not pro-active. But partly also, cycling advocacy has become pragmatic, maybe too pragmatic. We have learned how to fit cycling into other agendas rather than develop agendas of our own. We try particularly to sell cycling in ways most likely to resonate with institutional agendas – ‘cycling cuts congestion, pollution and carbon emissions’; ‘cycling increases health and fitness, and reduces obesity’. We try to make cycling make sense to others, but at what cost?
We advocate for cycling despite never having stopped to build compelling cycling visions. Then when we argue for cycling we get this unsettling feeling that ‘other people don’t get it’. That’s because their ambitions for cycling don’t match the visions we have, but which we have repressed and can’t express.
We have jumbles of ideas, impulses and convictions around cycling’s worth. But we lack the confidence to develop these jumbles into coherent visions, because they’re about bicycles, and bicycles don’t count. Personal and collective development of mass cycling visions is immature because we have internalised the cycling shame of the last half-century. This shame got forked on bicycles as the car became everyman’s vehicle (and gradually every woman’s too). So now we are embarrassed to say we believe in bikes, believe in society re-organised away from cars and towards bikes. As many people today are embarrassed to think of themselves as people who might cycle, we are embarrassed to advocate boldly for their cycling.
We work towards visions we can’t articulate, and we are shy in sharing our ambitions for cycling. Our private thoughts don’t find public expression; they don’t cohere into comprehensible speech. We are silenced. And so the world misses our wisdom. How powerful is the dominant ideology that it stops us articulating even to ourselves, let alone asking for, what it is we really want! This our silence contributes to cycling’s continued repression.
So? So we need to develop our visions and move beyond the shame of speaking them. Find our voice. Of course we must compromise – to make cycling big requires working with others, and that inevitably entails compromise. But unless they know what we really stand for, those others can’t know by how much we’re compromising.
We believe bikes should replace cars. We think half of all journeys could easily be made by bike. We see a bicycle-based society as better than a car-based one. We look forward to the time when bicycles proliferate as cars disappear and die. People won’t know these things unless we tell them, so we should tell them. We need to make our stories, to help make sense of the changes we’re calling for.
Just one example – the conversion of two lanes of a dual-carriageway’s four into top-notch space for cycling. Howls of protest, obviously. But the prospects of such change have to be higher the more people see them as forming part of an ongoing societal project to re-design our cities away from cars towards bicycles. The more people can see and understand the bigger picture, the more supportive they will be. That’s why we need vision, narrative and discourse elucidating change, helping people make sense of, rather than react against, it.
Airing these things will facilitate not sabotage progress. It’ll transform cycling from ‘a special interest’ into a public good. It’ll break us free from being seen as ‘a self-interested culture of cranks and hobbyists’. And others will finally see what it is we’re going on about – ‘they’ll get it’. And at the very least, if still too little changes, politicians and policy-makers will be able to see that – from our perspectives –not nearly enough is being done, and that’s why we’re angry and keep demanding and expecting more.
Others lack visions for cycling because we’ve not even tried to sell them ours. Until we do, cycling will keep getting incorporated – where it gets incorporated at all – in trivial, tokenistic ways – in ways that make sense to those without visions of mass cycling. They’ll keep giving cycling at most a little because they have learnt and assume that a little is enough. And we as advocates will continue to feel that cycling’s being sold seriously short.
If you want a society based on cycling, start talking about a society based on cycling. Like everything else, the way to develop, refine and sell our cycling visions is to practise – and as we get better at telling the new cycling stories, others are more likely to hear, believe and start telling them too.