15 September 2009

Fear of Cycling 01 - Essay in five parts by Sociologist Dave Horton

Something new here on Copenhagenize.com. We've enlisted the help of sociologist Dave Horton, from Lancaster University, as a guest writer. Dave has written a brilliant assessment of Fear of Cycling in an essay and we're well pleased that he fancies the idea of a collaboration. We'll be presenting Dave's essay in five parts.

Dave Horton is a sociologist and lover of all things cycling. He is part of the Cycling and Society Research Group, which has pioneered a ‘cultural turn’ in cycling studies and which holds an annual symposium in the UK. Dave works at Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, on the project ‘Understanding Walking and Cycling’. He tries to do, to write about, and to promote all kinds of cycling, because cycling is essentially good.

Cyclist Shadow
Fear of Cycling - by Dave Horton - Part 01 of 05

Most people seem finally to have realised that cycling is ‘a good thing’, but many still don’t cycle. So what stops them getting on their bikes? Explanations typically focus on physical factors such as climate, hills and infrastructure. Emotional barriers to cycling are easily overlooked, but are also massively important. Chief among these emotional barriers is a fear of cycling. You probably already know this – certainly in the UK, talk to friends who don’t cycle and you quickly figure out that they actually feel a bit scared at the prospect of cycling.

Most obviously this fear relates to anxieties about being in close and unprotected proximity to speeding cars, it’s to do with a fear of crashes, injury and death. But fear of cycling is also more complex than this. People on bikes move through public space in a much more open, less mediated way than people in cars. That’s one of the pleasures of cycling, but it also potentially heightens feelings of existential vulnerability. Some people also undoubtedly fear looking inept on a bike, fear working their bodies in public, fear harassment or violence from strangers. Cities are full of fear, which is partly why and partly because people move in cars.

Fears of cycling are socially, geographically and historically variable, which is to say that they will depend on who you are (man, woman, child, young, old, black, white, fat, fit), where you are (Copenhagen, Brussels, Mumbai, town, countryside, road, cycle path), and when (day, night, rush hour, weekend, winter, summer, a century ago, now, the future …). Over time, some of these fears will also tend to become culturally embedded, and therefore hard to change. But it’s worth trying to change them.

I will explain later how fear of cycling is constructed, but I want also to make clear that it is real. Motorised metal objects can and do maim and kill, and in our cities they are everywhere. As people in cars are made to feel safer, the standards of driving experienced by those on the outside decline. People on bikes feel more threatened, less safe. In the UK, across the second half of the twentieth century, people took the sensible option – they got off their bikes. Cycling and cities deteriorated. Now, finally, we’re trying to win both back.

Fear of cycling is sensible. But advocates of cycling are also sensible in trying to persuade people otherwise. They quite rightly tell people that cycling is highly unlikely to kill you, and that cycling is objectively safer than horse-riding, or white-water rafting, or golf, or gardening, or something. Besides, not cycling is much more dangerous for your health than cycling.

So where are we up to? Some people fear cycling. We would rather they didn’t, because more people on bikes has to be a good thing. But rather than simply dismiss people’s fears of cycling, or try to persuade the fearful that they’re wrong, I think it’s worth exploring further how these fears of cycling get created. If we can understand the mechanisms by which cycling becomes constructed as dangerous and to be feared, we might be better able to confront and challenge those mechanisms directly, rather than the emotions to which they give rise. That’s why I wrote this article, now presented as a series here on Copenhagenize.com.

Fear of Cycling - Part 01 - Introduction
Fear of Cycling - Part 02 - Constructing Fear of Cycling / Road Safety 'Education'
Fear of Cycling - Part 03 - Helmet Promotion Campaigns
Fear of Cycling - Part 04 - New Cycling Spaces
Fear of Cycling - Part 05 - Making Cycling Strange


dr2chase said...

Even with the huge biking share in the Netherlands, there are still many who don't. Why? What are their characteristics? If nothing else, this tells us what sort of people to not even think about encouraging to ride (at least not for the next 2-3 decades) here in the US.

henryinamsterdam said...

This is the most interesting, thought-provoking article I've read in bike-blog land for a long time or maybe ever. I look forward to reading the following installments.

dr2chase, Good point. I run a bike company with two bike shops (WorkCycles) in Amsterdam so maybe I can provide some input:

The first thing that comes to mind is that the modal share of cycling doesn't directly reflect how many people cycle and how many don't. About 55% of all trips in Amsterdam are made by bike... but that doesn't tell us whether a small percentage of people are making lots of bike trips or everybody chooses the bike 55% of the time. The truth is naturally somewhere in between. Coincidentally I just read in the "Fietsersbond" (cyclists' union) magazine that 25% of people in the medium sized Dutch cities are primarily "automobilists". Given that the modal share of the biggest cities tends to be higher I'll guess there are also fewer automobilists; Let's guesstimate 20% in Amsterdam where driving is an exercise in frustration.

So who makes up those 20% "automobilists" in the major cities? At the risk of sounding like a bigot I'll note that cycling is far less popular amongst non-natives (primarily Moroccan & Turkish descent) and also to a lesser extent the temporary expat corporate crowd. For these groups cycling is perhaps unfamiliar and perceived as low-status. Many simply don't feel comfortable on, or can't ride a bike.

Out in the smaller towns and countryside many choose to drive cars simply out of convenience. The distances are greater, there's little traffic and parking is easy. Not surprisingly the cycling modal share here is also much smaller. But the number of die-hard automobilists is probably not greater. Most people still ride a bike for short trips as well as for recreation.

Adrienne Johnson said...

I look forward to the rest of this article. Cycling is a microcosm of so many things in the world. So much of what is applied to cycling is what plagues so many things that need to evolve in this world.

Krakonos said...

This is really exciting. I've always wondered how to efficiently persuade people to cylce more for example in my own little blog. And I've always felt that fear must be involved when people don't ride a bike at all. But it seems like no one ever directly addressed this. (You probably have, but I certainly didn't notice). And many people just outright ignore it, e.g. the many die hard cyclists in Germany who are categorically against bike lanes and bike paths because they are (possibly) objectively dangerous. They don't consider subjective fears of others at all or maybe they are not even interested in increasing the percentage of bicylce traffic.
So let's hope this series of articles turns out to be more than just another "helmets are bad" thing. I am really looking forward to this.

Jimm said...

great article(s)!

Anonymous said...

I think this is an extremely interesting and relevant topic - it's no use "blaming " people for not cycling when they have their reasons and points of view! Also - articles like this, with a scientific basis, can provide better ammunition to try and influence policy making . Looking forward to read the whole series

Robert P said...

I love it when Copenhagenize stretches out a bit with longer, more involved posts- yours (Mikael) and guests. Very thought-provoking.

(Nothing against the shorter posts, by the way!)

Looking forward to the rest of the series!

Greg Spencer said...

I'm a cycling activist in Budapest, and spend much of every day either biking, talking about biking or blogging about biking. However, I agree completely that fear of cycling is a real, and justified, thing.

In the last 14 months, I've been struck twice by cars, the last occasion being particularly scary. I was riding 25-28 kph down a thoroughfare at rush hour, and got slammed in the side by an apparently blind driver exiting a parking lot.

Friends' reactions tended to be of the you-should-be-more-careful variety. In fact, I was riding carefully -- not least of all because I'd been hit once before. The problem is, though, that I also ride quite a lot: 40-45 km per day for most of the year. It's impossible to be so careful that you're immune to accidents, and the more you're out there exposing yourself to risk, even slight risk, the greater chance you're number will come up: you'll cross the path of a driver who's not looking, who's fiddling with his iPod, who's waving to a friend -- or whatever. There are hazards you can't anticipate or guard against.

I know the same is true for a lot of activities we get up to each day -- nothing's entirely safe. However, in the wake of this last accident, I am really feeling the fear.

Kim said...

Great first part, really looking forward to reading the rest.

It is not just among non cyclist that you find fear of cycling, here in the UK there is fear of cycling among the cycling community as well, just read any of the forums, especially in the "commuting" sections. Hopefully we can change this over time and get more people on their bikes.

Anonymous said...

This is intriguing, particularly to a newbie bike-user in a densely-built part of a UK city - and who never learned to drive a car.
My town, Glasgow, still has some of the worst congestion in the UK, poorest health & fitness in the developed world, only 1%-2% cycle usage...and all this with a car-ownership rate of just 40% or so.

Before I got on a bike I thought I'd feel safer in cycle lanes and mixed-use paths, especially now the city authorities officially prioritised bikes. The reality is very different. The so-called bike lanes here are so fragmentary, so badly laid out and so badly marked that they're dangerous.

They're obviously as confusing to car drivers as they are to me - you get yelled at by drivers (a) for being a cyclist on a road at all and (b) for being a cyclist on a ("mixed-use"/cycle) pavement.
One mixed-use path that appeared around a newish shopping development in my part of town, it stops inexplicably in the middle of broad, mostly unused pavement in order to dump you and your shopping off a high kerb directly onto the (downhill!) exit/acceleration point of a big roundabout. Unfortunately, that's pretty typical.
Bicycle provision here is basically map-fiction, real-life hazard. It doesn't help that traffic tuition has been fobbed off by the city authorities onto a charity, and seems to be for schoolchildren only.
When you see me dithering on my shopping bike, please have mercy.

Klaus Mohn said...

looking forward to the rest of this series. thanks for the food for thought.

Anonymous said...

Acknowledging that technology advances (seat belts, airbags, cruise control, etc.) and governmental policies (laws, enforcement, infrastructure, etc.) help create perceptions of safety for those in motorized vehicles while actually decreasing safety for those on the outside, what must cyclists do to offset these additional real risks?

Friends from Europe (now living in the USA) cycle much less as they perceive our road environment designed for death instead of for safety (apparently not an issue of concern for those in motorized vehicles). One cycling family moved back to Germany as they described the quality of life in the USA as clearly more dangerous and inferior.

String Bean Jen said...

Sociology + cycling = A TOTAL WIN! Thank you for instituting this series. Fear is an obstacle - and probably the biggest one - that I come up against when trying to get my non-cycling friends on bikes. I don't have any solutions to assuage their fear though I have taken one friend out on a leisurely ride and it helped her feel a little more comfortable navigating crowded London. I have offered to do this with other friends who have made the initial step of acquiring a bike.

I'm so looking forward to the rest of this series. I'd love to see Dave Horton talk some time! I don't see a list of any upcoming talks on his academic web site.

bentguy said...

More please...

Emma J said...

So looking forward to the rest of this series.

As a biking family in rural northwest US, we've felt relatively safe biking on the roads here (mostly bike lanes or country roads) both on long multi-day trips and regular, daily tootling around our small town.

Because we've biked for over 10 years now with children and without a lot of "extreme sport" gear, I wonder if our obviously non-professional status inspires the drivers we share the road with to give us a wider berth?
Certainly we got a lot of smiles and waves when our children were very young.

When we moved here the only other bikers we saw were one determined old lady in her 70s, down-on-their luck types whose access to a car or license to drive was curtailed, or serious day-glo yellow cyclists training along the river highway for organized rides.

We do notice in the last few years that more ordinary people in our small town bike now than when we began - some of them frieds we've talked to about biking, but most of them not - and we've wondered if our being out there in rain, packing groceries in panniers and baby trailer, commuting to school, dawdling along and stopping to pick blackberries has helped in small ways to create a wider perception of biking as safe and maybe not so grim?

Looking forward to reading more.

Anonymous said...


I'm Dutch, and I can't think of anyone in my neighbourhood or knowledge who doesn't have a bike, except for the infirm, the very very elderly, the very very young (they sit on their parent's bike in a kiddie seat) or immigrants who come from a country where bicycling is a) unknown or b) something only poor people do.
The statistics are a bit muddled, I'm afraid. I often read things like '55 percent of daily trips under 2 miles are made by bike', but those figures do NOT include the trip with the bike to the trainstation (people who work in a different city from the one they live in often have two bikes - one to ride to the trainstation and one staying at the other station where it is used to bike to work).
So those trips are not counted. The, we also have a reasonably good public transport system (has been rumbling these past few years, but what hasn't) and a lot of people daily commute by bus, tram or train. And then, of course, people do walk.
I, personally, walk to get my shopping done. The nearest shops are twohundred meters away. If I want to go to different shops, or a shopping centre, I'd take the bike. When I want to go to the City Centre, well, I live just next to a small trainstation, and this makes the Centrum one five minute hop instead of twenty minutes on the bike. For my study (I'm doing a Masters) I have to go to a different city, which is fifteen minutes with the train. From the station to Uni is a ten minute walk.
So, I do bike (I'm Dutch, of course I bike) but I use public transport too.
Note: I'm 44 years old, and I don't have a car of even a drivers license. Never needed one.


Green Idea Factory said...

henryinamsterdam: There is nothing bigoted about noticing that people of Moroccan and Turkish origin cycle less than those of European origin, but what IS racist is dismissing them, i.e. saying that will never have a great interest. (No you are not saying that).

I have recently been involved in a similar situation in Berlin, not with bikes... but fear, and dogs.

Most white people think those of Muslim-origin think dogs are unclean/don't like them etc. so they don't even try to make friends (have their dogs make friends), in particular with the children.

But the dogs and I got friendly with a couple of local girls of Turkish origin (about 9 to 11 years old)and now one of them brings all her friends up to the dogs and I and introduces us, and it feels like they have never talked to any white people with dogs, because the white people even tried.

OK, it's late but somehow this can all be transposed to bike stuff.

Anonymous said...

I believe people don't bike to/from work because of the "path of least resistance"
Here in Canada, the US and most of the Americas, gas is dirt cheap. 55 cents a liter in some places. Why bike?!?!?

No incentive.
From an economic standpoint, people need incentives first.
Gas prices will do that.
Yet, they say peak oil is nearing...


that will change people big time. And, take into account many in the Americas just got caught up in teh housing hype... soon inflation and interest rates will kick in...

Lots more people on bikes soon enough.
No free lunch.
At this time, people will have to change.
No more free bee oil!!!

Canadians will suffer horribly at -40oC though. As natural gas is used to boil the oil from the tar sands... poor suckers. They are up next for cheap oil (70 bucks a barrel). Then its off to the artic! The last remaining easy to get at stuff.

read this -


and the book traffic

ignorance is bliss on teh planet.
And, we buy into a lot of nothing really...

cycling clears the mind. Put one back in sync with it all.

Techonology removes us from it all. Into a fake world of existance.

Anonymous said...

Try to get me past THIS fear ... maybe irrational, but I can't get over it. A few years ago my cousin was on his bicycle. A cement mixer truck made a right turn (on-side turn, for those in Europe who drive on the left side of the road), across his path, and he got caught under the rear wheels of the truck. The truck made so much noise that the driver didn't even notice anything was wrong for several blocks until someone stopped him. By that time they had to identify my cousin by DNA because there wasn't enough left of him or his bicycle to identify any other way.

Enough to keep me off bicycles (which I used to love) for the rest of my life.

vegasthedog said...

This was one of the most thought provoking articles I have ever read about cycling.

I would like to ask, because I cannot find the relevant information on the blog: under what license is the article published? Creative commons? Can we republish, share, reuse with attribution?

Thanks in advance.

Chris said...

the emotional barrier is very high. I am a cyclist and sometimes I go in bike tours with a bunch of other people. the emotional barrier occured when a fellow cyclist told me we should not get into a relationship because we are doing bike touring together (with the larger group). Also, on our yahoo mailing group everybody tells about their cycling experiences using all sorts of parameters like speed, altitude, geographic locations, and nobody says anything about feelings, like "I saw a dear and it looked straght into my eyes and made me feel very connected with nature".
So, the lack of feelings and the plenitude of only-object-oriented-socialization involving large cyclist communities became the emotional barrier and frankly I rather ride a horse. It is a being with brains and feelings, while the bicycle is just a piece of cold metal.
When someone experiences this kind of emotional barriers based on an object - and honestly - people get together based on this particular object, when there are few feelings and more technicaly important things like your brand new shimano disc brakes, let me tell you: most people refuse to cycle. Most of us want to meet people based on feelings, not based on objects. We are NOT `cyclists`, we are HUMANS.

John Morrison said...

Safety is largely a matter of perception and is thus very hard to measure. Highways authorities use death and injury statistics to measure whether roads are 'safe' for cycling. These statistics are inherently unreliable as hospital and police statistics don't match up, and near misses don't get counted at all. Worst of all are the roads where no cyclists dare venture at all because of high motor traffic speeds. Statistically these appear as 'safe' routes for cycling if there are no accidents, but this is nonsense. I often cycle on roads which I consider safe for adults but which any sensible parent (even a sociologist) would tell their children to avoid.