Earlier this month we had a great trip to County Cork, Ireland, to visit Sue’s brother, Mike, his wife, Helen, and daughter, Yola.
Mike, Helen and Yola live in Schull, a delightful village on the Mizen peninsula, one of south-west Ireland’s ‘fingers’, which stick out into the Atlantic ocean. The coastal scenery in their part of the world is spectacular, and we were blessed with fine weather in which to enjoy it.
Superb hosts in every way, Mike and Helen sorted bikes for us to ride whilst we were there; nothing flash, but good enough to get us around. Actually, although I jokingly referred to it as ‘a farmer’s bike’, the machine Mike borrowed for me from his mate Matt was great.
And Bobby, who normally rides either his road bike or BMX, loved riding a mountain bike.
Without our usual cycling gear we rode in ordinary clothes and managed fine, although on longer rides I sometimes wished I’d got a pannier to put my waterproof and/or jumper. I found it refreshing to be reminded, through the circumstances, how it’s perfectly OK to ride 25 or 30 miles in jeans, shirt and jumper. (In the past Sue and I have cycled thousands of miles, often through very hot places, wearing ‘ordinary clothes’ – including fully covered legs and arms, for both modesty and sun protection, in countries such as India and Nepal; but more recently this has given way to ‘lycra-as-normal’.)
One day Mike and I rode out to Mizen Head, where the Irish end-to-end either starts or finishes. On another, Mike, Sue and I rode up Mount Gabriel, at 407 metres the highest point on the peninsula.
And Bobby and I took bikes over to Ireland’s most southerly island, the beautiful and rather romantic Cape Clear.
I’ve cycled in this part of the world a lot in the past, but not for a few years. And I was struck by how different it felt to cycle here, compared to England. The following observation is based only on nine days’ riding in which I covered only around 150 miles; nonetheless I noted it sufficiently often to feel confident it’s not groundless.
As someone on a bike in this part of Ireland, you clearly belong to the ‘road community’. Initially, I noticed this through the ways we were generally treated – drivers stopped or slowed down when approaching us from the opposite direction; if they approached from behind, they didn’t try to force their way past, but waited patiently for an opportunity to pass courteously (or for us to pull off the road and out of their way, if that made sense). Such behaviour is quite unlike that I’ve come to expect when riding in England, where drivers rarely either slow down and/or make any other obvious concessions for you; it’s much more similar to behaviour we’ve experienced in France and The Netherlands.
Only later did I start to notice how my presence as a cyclist on the road was actively acknowledged by most drivers. Typically this ‘salute’ takes the form of a raised finger from one hand, off the steering wheel. A small gesture, but a significant one. It’s active recognition of you as a person, and validation of your presence on the road – as I said, a sign that you’ve a right to be there, that you belong to the community of road users.
In England I much more often feel I’m an ‘outsider’ on the roads. This outsider experience stems mainly from the lack of respect often demonstrated towards me through the behaviour of other road users. Occasionally I’m treated well, and I tend to think “they must be a cyclist too”. More occasionally I’m treated so badly that I fear not only for myself, but for everyone else – though especially of course other cyclists – who has to share the roads with such behaviour. My most common experience, however, isn’t of hostility but of absolute indifference towards me, almost as though I’m not there. This is close to, but not, the kind of civil inattention described by the sociologist Erving Goffman as required to live comfortably in close proximity among strangers; civil inattention is not cold and indifferent, but a deliberate inattention in the interests of living together anonymously yet respectfully.
It’s perhaps closer to what another sociologist Georg Simmel characterised as ‘the blasé attitude’; a kind of de-civilising (or certainly anti-communitarian) process brought about by the scale, pace and density of metropolitan life (Simmel was writing at a time of rapidly industrialising and expanding cities across Europe). This results in a disregard for others who are seen as not belonging to your own community. Speed, scale and proximity definitely have an effect on levels of civility on our roads; on quiet country lanes you’re more likely (for most of the year, even in tourist areas) to be cycling among ‘locals’ in ‘a neighbourhood’, but as roads get bigger and busier you’re more likely to be riding amongst strangers who are moving faster, live further apart, and have less time and inclination to acknowledge one another. The shift from ‘familiar to strange’ is generally a distancing (and for the cyclist a dangerous) one.
Certainly, and loosely following the work of another sociologist, Norbert Elias, the delegitimisation of the cyclist as a figure on our roads during the last half-century of runaway and increasingly taken-for-granted automobility has on the UK’s roads led to a retreat in the ‘civilising process’, and a return of a repressed animosity towards ‘the other’, an animosity which needs now urgently to be re-civilised.
Why are motorists more civil towards cyclists in south-west Ireland than in north-west England? It’s possibly to do with style of dress and style of cycling. When cycling the lanes of north-west England I’m usually wearing lycra and helmet, riding a road bike, often with others, and going quite fast. In south-west Ireland I wore ‘normal’ clothes, no helmet, and rode an ‘ordinary-looking’ bike not very fast, and if I wasn’t riding alone I was riding with other people (Sue, Mike, Helen, Bobby and Flo) who also didn’t look like ‘proper cyclists’.
It also possibly has to do with the numbers of cyclists and profile of cycling in general. In north-west England cyclists are asserting their presence on rural roads, particularly on weekends in good weather. Some motorists, maybe, don’t like that – cycling’s presence antagonizes them. In rural Ireland my sense is that cycling remains for now lower in profile and popularity, so that cycling hasn’t become constructed as adversarial to driving in the same way.
Those analyses would implicate (but not blame) the behaviour and/or dress of ‘road cyclists’ in their own (and cycling’s more generally?) marginality, and anyway, I’m not sure they’re quite right. (Although as I wrote in ‘Fear of Cycling’, I do think we’ll see more conflicts emerge around cycling as it becomes more significant a mode of mobility.) They certainly don’t tell the full story.
I think the answer has more to do with broader social and economic conditions. I think motorists in south-west Ireland are less hurried, more accustomed to slower-moving vehicles (such as tractors) and delays on the roads, and more patient. I also think there’s a clear link (though not one which has to the best of my knowledge been proven by rigorous research) between the age and size of a car and its drivers subjective sense of ‘a right to the road’. Older cars make up a far greater proportion of all cars in south-west Ireland than they do in north-west England, and I think the drivers of older cars tend to be more careful of cyclists than do the drivers of new, expensive cars. Finally, I think that in south-west Ireland the person hasn’t eclipsed the mode of transport as a source of identity and (mis)recognition, so whether you’re riding a bike or in a car you still belong to the broad community of persons, rather than fall into one or other smaller communities defined by transport mode (motorist or cyclist).
I’m not saying south-west Ireland is cycling nirvana; far from it. I’m saying I felt a qualitative difference in the way I was/we were treated by motorists there compared to back home in north-west England – especially on the smaller, quieter roads (what we call ‘lanes’). And I think it’s worth wondering why this might be. As I’ve said, a partial potential explanation is how I/we looked – ‘ordinary people’ riding bikes. Here’s Mike and me at Mizen Head …
And Bobby riding on Cape Clear Island …
To reiterate, we look like ordinary people riding bikes, and are perhaps then seen as such – as belonging to the community of persons. In contrast, when I ride in lycra and helmet on a road bike, whether alone or with others, I wonder whether I/we ‘disappear into a category’ – ‘the cyclist’. As such, I/we stop being identifiable as fellow members of the road community, and it’s easier for us to be treated with impunity. I’m not condoning this treatment, but nor do I want to deny its plausibility out of some misplaced sense of political correctness. (I am attempting to establish the situation, not make judgements.)
But I think there’s a wider (albeit inter-connected) story here, too – about changing attitudes and behaviour towards others, about who counts, why and when. This story has more to do with broad, gradual and difficult-to-grasp changes in culture, and related norms of civility. It’s a story which recurs often in sociological literature; the version I know best (because it was influential during the process of my doctoral studies) is the story told by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, although a more poignant version is elaborated by Richard Sennett in The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism. Basically, crudely and for the sake of my argument, as our lives become busier, more dictated by the needs of a global capitalist economy and more stressed, our identities become fractured and the long-term development of character becomes more difficult to accomplish. It is such character – and the civility towards others which it tends to nourish – which we need on our roads; and which can still in my experience be found on the back lanes of south-west Ireland, but less so on the (more commuter- and/or consumer-dominated?) lanes of north-west England.
Finally, then, how do we re-embed (or perhaps embed for the first time, because there is almost certainly no lost ‘golden-age’ here) a civility of the road? How do we get motorists to show more care towards cyclists?
One ‘shallow’ answer (because it doesn’t deal with the deeper, historical, structural issues) might be awareness-raising campaigns – for example, TV adverts which attempt to inculcate greater understanding of cyclists’ experiences, and greater respect towards people riding bikes.
Absolutely. But a ‘deeper’ answer needs to recognise how discourteous treatment of cyclists by motorists is an outcome of motorists’ (more theoretical) sense of ‘a right to the roads’ (whether rural or urban) and (more practical) experience of having domination of those roads; so this deeper answer needs to challenge both theoretical and practical sense of entitlement to something (the space, time and rhythm of the road) which ought to be much more democratically, and sustainably, held.
If cyclists truly have a right to the road, we urgently need a range of practical initiatives (such as slower speeds, reallocation of road space away from motorised modes, and a general de-privileging of the car’s ‘right to roam’, as well as awareness campaigns) to demonstrate that fact. Otherwise, it’s bullshit.