Monday 8 April 2013

Exclusive or Inclusive

I am a person. I am also a cyclist. That is I am someone who chooses to use a bike regularly. I am also a driver. These are all, of course, just labels. Sometimes people take these labels very seriously, but in the end calling myself a cyclist does not define me. It's just something I do. Something that I enjoy immensely, but still just something that I do.

What does define me to some extent is my cycle campaigning. That is part of who I am, and is certainly something that I use when I describe myself. I am a husband, a father, a clinical scientist and a cycle campaigner. Depending on the situation, depends on which role I take.

Another label that is often used, and in my experience misused is 'serious cyclist'. That is, a cyclist who in some way takes cycling 'seriously'. I've been called that quite often, but it's a label that doesn't fit comfortably on my shoulders. Cycling for me is something that is far too much fun to be taken seriously. I take campaigning seriously, perhaps I should be called a serious cycle campaigner, but I'm not a serious cyclist.

It is however, interesting to look at how the label 'serious cyclist' is used in the UK today. Personally I find that I am called a serious cyclist by the majority of people I know who don't cycle, and I think that is the experience of most regular cyclists. Other cyclists certainly don't look at me that way.

What the label and it's use suggests is that cycling is an exclusive activity for those with enough love or passion for cycling to do it on a regular basis. It is also seen as a label for those 'crazy enough to take on the crazy traffic and all the dangers that come from that'.

I've talked about the realities of safety elsewhere, but my focus here is on the exclusivity. The fact that people pigeon-hole me and most regular cyclists into that group is worrying, and is a barrier that we need to break down. I think that barrier will be eroded with time, when (not if) we improve the environment for cycling on Scotland's roads. More worryingly though is the sense of exclusivity that I come across within the 'cycling community' (a phrase that itself suggests exclusivity).

Seven years ago I started cycling. and for about the first three years of that I argued that there was no need for segregated infrastructure. Why build cycle lanes when there are perfectly good cycle lanes already, called roads. I had an online discussion with another cyclist recently who felt this way. That's why I felt compelled to write about it.

My opinion changed dramatically when my first child started to cycle. As I watched him wobbling around the road in our cul-de-sac I started to think about how much fun it would be to go on proper cycling rides with him. Then it struck me.

Where could I take him cycling?

The cul-de-sac was fine, some of the very quiet country roads near by weren't too bad, but everywhere else was a no-go-zone. There were small pockets where my son could ride safely with me, but he was excluded from everywhere else. 

Of course, danger in cycling is generally overestimated and in general my son would probably safe riding on most roads with me (he is now 7). However, I know for a fact, considering some of the incidents that have happened to me, if my son was exposed to just one scary incident, he would probably give up cycling, if not for good, at least for a long time.

My child is not unusual. In fact most adults, whether we think it is understandable or not, feel the same way and would probably react the same way if a scary incident happened to them. Therefore, without change, without significant change, cycling will always remain exclusive.

Of course, exclusive does not mean that it will only be MAMILS or young males that will cycle on the roads. The demographic of those who are willing to cycle in the current road conditions is not limited to MAMILS or young men. Exclusivity is not based on gender, age or the type of clothes that you wear. It is based on a persons understanding or risk, and approach to risk, and we all have very different approaches to risk.

Cycling is, when compared to many other activities, is very safe. However, a large percentage of the population would not and should not have to be willing to put up with the close passes, left hooks and occasional agression that virtually all cyclists face from time to time. This percentage of the populations are not included if we base our cycling future on the roads as they are today. No amount of soft measures alone will work.

That is why Pedal on Parliament (POP),  has a vision of Inclusive Cycling; cycling where everyone from 8 to 80 and beyond can cycle in our cities. It can be done, and shining lights like Amsterdam show us the direction that our politicians must take if our cities are to be sustainable into the future. Everyone cycles in Amsterdam.

As Enrique Penalosa is quoted as sasying:

The great city is not the one that has highways, but one where a child on a tricycle or a bicycle can go safely everywhere.

Let's take that a step further:

The great country is not one that invests in more motorways, but one that invests in cycling so that everyone, child or adult can safely cycle everywhere.
By coming along to POP2 on the 19th May in Edinburgh you will not only help Scotland reach it's target of 10% of journeys by bike by 2020, but you will help us achieve a wonderful vision of Scotland as a healthy, sustainable, vibrant nation.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. See you on May 19th!

  3. This is a label I often find I get, even though I wouldn't really consider myself a "serious" or another often used one is a "proper" cyclist - quite what the second ones means I'm not sure :-)
    As such I often get the same predictable discussions and comments, how far do you cycle, isn't it dangerous, have you had any crashes and also often get asked for advice on cycle related purchases. These aren't generally something that I mind as I like discussing topics I really enjoy however the whole danger/accidents side can get a little tedious and most people (see drivers/non-cyclists) don't quite understand the whole "cycling IS safe, idiotic/impatient drivers or poor infrastructure make it dangerous" idea.

  4. I am a 'semi serious club cyclist' and had the same epiphany with my son (who is now 8). All well and good when he was in a trailer, or as he got older on a tag along. But now he cycles independently, I have lost the bottle to take him on some of our previous routes. I posted recently on twitter the 4 lane 40mph trunk road which forms part of our commute to school, which is bordered by a huge footpath. It would be simple to give some of it over to cyclists. I was hugely dismayed and angry that one of my friends suggested that at 8 he should still be 'made' to cycle on the road, to preserve their right to that road. I am incandescent to be honest at that attitude. I have been trying to write a blog piece about it, but I am that cross, I still cant put pen to paper

  5. My wife has cycled for personal transport since she was about 4. She is Dutch. She only became "a cyclist" when she moved to the UK as an adult, she was just like almost everyone else who just happened to ride a bike to get places before emigrating.

    I'm with you on the infrastructure thing. I am, and have long been, a "vehicular cyclist" with no particular fears of the roads and I figured if I can do it, so can anyone. But more lately I see that I was wrong about that, and it's only enthusiasts (or "[proper|serious]cyclists") who will take to busy roads in the UK and mix it with heavy and/or fast motor traffic. And while only a small minority are willing to do it then it will remain apparently dangerous to everyone else, and they'll leave it to the enthusiasts.

    My kids (9 & 11) get about here (Dundee) by cycling, often on their own now and using a fair subset of Real Roads, but they have something of a head-start in that their folks are "[proper|serious] cyclists" and dad (me) is a Bikeability instructor. There's one other lad in their school (roll of about 200) who uses a bike as much and... his folks are "[proper|serious] cyclists" and dad is a Bikeability instructor.