06 October 2009

Fear of Cycling 05 - Making Cycling Strange

Fifth and final installment by 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.

No Cycling Here, Please

I am now switching from thinking about a fear of cycling which is produced from constructions of cycling as inherently dangerous, and thinking instead about how the identity of 'the cyclist' tends to invoke fear. There is undoubtedly scope for using psychoanalytic theories here, and in particular ideas to do with projection and transference. But I do not venture far into that territory in the remaining part of this chapter, and draw instead on Georg Simmel’s classic sociological account of the stranger (1971[1908]), as well as more recent sociological work on stigma (Goffman 1968), stereotyping (Pickering 2001) and scapegoating (Cohen 2002[1972]).

In the UK during the twentieth century, cycling gradually moved from being a major mode of mobility to being a minor one. As the volume, speed and dominance of motorised vehicles grew, cycling was designated ever more marginal road space. We have seen that the impulse to altogether eliminate cycling from the road only succeeded on motorways, for which cycling organisations campaigned. Nevertheless, cycling was everywhere else reduced to a practice taking place on the edges of a transport infrastructure which increasingly centred on the car. Automobility's massive power is well expressed by its current monopolization of space.

The seemingly taken-for-granted dominance of automobility saw UK cycling in a perilous state across the latter third of the twentieth century.6 By the century’s end, cycling was spatially in the gutter. The spatialities of a practice always have implications for people's identities (Lefebvre 1991; Shields 1991; Sibley 1995). If cycling was spatially in the gutter, then so were cyclists' identities. Cycling, and most especially urban utility cycling, had become a polluted and polluting practice and ‘the cyclist’ a polluted and polluting identity.

The cultural acceptability of cycling's spatial marginality, particularly when combined with the cyclist's stigmatised identity, is highly consequential. It means that those cyclists who do not stick to the margins, but either consciously or unconsciously attempt to 'centre' themselves, are experienced as threatening and unsettling, and are demonised - most visibly and powerfully within the mass media.

So cyclists' collective protests, such as Critical Mass, are particularly vilified (Carlsson 2002). But even the least ‘political’ of cyclists will sometimes break from the invisibility of the margins and therefore inadvertently challenge automobility's spatial monopoly. This cyclist can execute a whole range of manoeuvres designed to take short-cuts, avoid hold-ups and escape danger. It should be stressed that many such movements, whether actually ‘illicit’ or simply unavailable to people in cars, are risk reduction strategies, tactics developed by cyclists to reduce conflicts and risks of collision with others.

But unlike road safety education, helmets and new cycling infrastructure, many are not officially sanctioned and are therefore not regarded as wholly legitimate. Those very same tactics which have enabled cycling to survive as an urban practice can also therefore reinforce the cyclist's already stigmatised identity.

The mass media is very alert to the potential of the cyclist's stigmatised identity to make 'a good story', especially in a social context which increasingly encourages people to reflect on transport choices and question their own automobilised lives (see below). Newspaper editors are attuned to knowing what their readers and advertisers want (and we should note how a high proportion of those advertisers belong to the system of automobility, on whose revenues newspapers depend). Media accounts are therefore likely to reproduce dominant representations of the cyclist as a 'yob', law-breaker and outsider (for example, Hoey 2003).

Such stereotyping works by isolating certain behaviours, stripping them from their meaningful context, and attributing them to ‘everyone associated with a particular group or category’ (Pickering 2001, 4). And these stereotypical representations contribute to the maintenance of the cyclist as a strange 'other' (Basford et al 2003; Dickinson 2004; Field 1996; Reid 2004).

Against the context of socially and ecologically destructive automobility, the reproduction of concerns about cyclists’ behaviour is a classic example of scapegoating (Cohen 2002). Scapegoating deflects attention away from greater crimes, by in this case sacrificing the cyclist in the ideological pursuit of ‘motoring-as-usual’. Through representing the marginal practice of cycling as ‘deviant’, the dominant practice of car driving is reproduced and reaffirmed as ‘normal’. Representations of cycling as deviant and cyclists as outsiders both contribute to, and are facilitated by, low levels of cycling which mean that few people are able to take, and defend, the cyclist's point of view.

But times are changing. Cycling has become strange, and the cyclist has become a stranger. Yet there is an intense ambivalence about the stranger (Simmel 1971). The stranger's presence suggests the possibility of another way. Against a backdrop of increasingly vocal concerns about climate change and growing unease about 'the car', the cycling stranger embodies the possibility of a different social order.

So here is another challenge to cycling as a marginalised practice and the cyclist as a stigmatised identity. But this time it is not Critical Mass or aberrant cyclists who, by moving from the margins to a more central position, are issuing the challenge. It is governments. More accurately, it is transport discourse and policy, which especially in light of a range of social and environmental ‘problems’, is now pushing cycling back towards ‘the centre’.

UK Government transport policy (most notably Transport for London) is recognising cycling as ‘a good thing’, and making it clear that people should give cycling a go. The mass media, albeit at its more progressive end, is also now representing cycling in more positive terms. On 7 June 2006, the front page of one UK newspaper, The Independent, featured an image of the front wheel of a bicycle alongside the headline 'Revolution! Britain embraces the bicycle' (Milmo 2006).

For the last third of the twentieth century, the cyclist was relegated in favour of the motorist. But the cyclist is coming back. And again, it is experienced by many people as as a threat. The radical separation of the cyclist from the motorist within UK society returns as an unsettling haunting. The push to bring cycling in from the margins suggests that car-centred lives will not continue forever. Forcing an encounter with the idea of oneself as a cyclist, it provokes fear of cycling. So my argument is not only that a fear of cycling is produced by varied attempts to make cycling safer, but also that a fear of the cyclist is related to people's anxieties that they, too, might end up taking to cycling, and becoming a 'cyclist'.

Fear of cycling constitutes a significant emotional barrier to cycling. Ironically, this fear is partly produced through attempts to make cycling safer. For as long as cycling remains something to fear, it remains a marginal and marginalised practice. The constant cultural construction of cycling as dangerous justifies the continued spatial marginalisation of cycling practice, which then enables the continued construction of the cyclist as other, a stranger pedalling on the margins. The ideological, spatial and cultural marginality of cycling are continuously reproduced, together.

But cycling is pedalling in from these margins. There are - admittedly tentative - signs of a cycling renaissance. A range of actors is today seeking to elevate cycling’s position in transport policy, to move it into the mainstream. If this push continues into the future, we may well see people's anxieties, about change away from currently dominant automobility, increasingly projected onto the cycling stranger (Sandercock 2002, 205; Sigona 2003, 70). As people feel increasing pressure to get on bikes themselves, and thus really start to engage with the realities of currently dominant cycling conditions, we may also hear more cries that cycling is too dangerous.

People's fears of cycling will become more real and powerful as the prospects of their cycling grow greater. And people will feel and fear the loss of a way of life as it has come to be lived, as automobilised. When these anxieties become intense and the calls that cycling is too dangerous become really vociferous, we should I think take them as a sign that - as a culture - we are getting really serious about once more getting on our bikes.

In the meantime, what can be done to allay people's fears of cycling? Although it is constantly produced and reproduced, fear of neither cycling nor the cyclist is inevitable. Both the conditions for cycling practice and representations of the cyclist can change and be changed, and thereby produce different effects. Many people who cycle today - racing cyclists, touring cyclists, cycle campaigners, bike messengers - belong to cycling cultures which produce and reproduce positive experiences and representations of cycling. These people may be aware of constructions of cycling as something to be feared, and of the cyclist as deviant and strange, but such negative representations are easily exceeded by the celebratory and confirmatory evaluations of cycling and the cyclist continually flowing through their specific cultural worlds.

Correspondingly, we can in varied ways promote a pro-cycling culture. At the level of representation, our task is to generate and continuously reaffirm positive representations of cycling as an ordinary and enjoyable practice, something I am pleased to see happening in, for example, the recent marketing campaigns of both Transport for London and Cycling England. Certainly, we must stop communicating, however inadvertently, the dangers of cycling, and instead provide people with very many, very diverse, positive and affirming representations of both cycling practice and cycling identities. Current fear of cycling can be otherwise, but we must help make it so.

- Basford, L., S. Reid, T. Lester, J. Thomson and A. Tolmie (2003) Drivers' Perceptions of Cyclists (Transport Research Laboratory Report 549, Crowthorne: TRL).
- Carlsson, C. (2002) Critical Mass: Bicycling's Defiant Celebration (Oakland, Ca. and Edinburgh: AK Press).
- Cohen, S. (2002[1972]) Folk Devils and Moral Panics, third edition (London: Routledge).
- Dickinson, J. (2004) 'Social Constructions of Tourism and Local Travel: Implications for Mobility in a Rural Tourism Context', in Proceedings of Tourism: State of the Art II (University of Strathclyde, Glasgow).
- Field, P. (1996) 'Call it Slaughter', Cycling and Mountain Biking Today, December (accessed at http://www.motorcarnage.org.uk/motorcarnage/otherarticles/slaughter.html, 7/6/04).
- Goffman, E. (1968) Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (Harmondsworth: Penguin).
- Hoey, K. (2003) 'The Real Menace on Britain's Roads are Selfish, Aggressive, Law-Breaking and Infuriatingly Smug Lycra Louts', The Mail on Sunday, 19th October.
- Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space, trans. Nicholson-Smith, D. (Oxford: Blackwell).
- Milmo, C. (2006) 'Revolution! Britain embraces the bicycle', in The Independent, 7th June, pp. 1-3 (available online at http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/transport/article656400.ece; last accessed 4/2/07).
- Pickering, M. (2001) Stereotyping: The Politics of Representation (Houndmills: Palgrave).
- Reid, S. (2004) ‘Fear and Loathing?’, Cycle, February/March, 29-30.
- Sandercock, L. (2002) 'Difference, Fear and Habitus: A Political Economy of Urban Fears', in J. Hillier and E. Rooksby (eds), Habitus: A Sense of Place, 203-18 (Aldershot: Ashgate).
- Sigona, N. (2003) ‘How Can a “Nomad” be a “Refugee”? Kosovo Roma and Labelling Policy in Italy’, Sociology, 37(1) 69-79.
- Simmel, G. (1971[1908]) On Individuality and Social Forms, ed. and intro. by D. Levine, (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press).
- Shields, R. (1991) Places on the Margins: Alternative Geographies of Modernity, (London: Routledge).
- Sibley, D. (1995) Geographies of Exclusion (London: Routledge).

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

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.


Andy B from Jersey said...

Wow! Excellent!

I only had time to skim over the 5 parts but there seems to be a parallax shift by many in how they view the relative dangers of cycling.

In the same vein comes this essay by Mighk Wilson, one of America's best bicycle thinkers.

Which Cycling Politics: Doom or Possibility?
Bicycling is Better • Thursday, October 1, 2009

mikey2gorgeous said...

I had no idea the 'Culture of Fear' issue was inextricably linked to the abuse one gets trying to promote cycling in forums & Letters pages.

Great article!

C'mon everyone, let's ALL write in to our local paper & spark off some debate! It may feel an uphill struggle (as most respondents will be fiercly anti-bike) but remember that most of the READERS will be pro-bike!

Anonymous said...

Did Mikael ever find out what Dave Horton really thinks of segregated cycling facilities?

Anonymous said...

A really thought-provoking finish; this whole five-part essay is already a classic. I'm sure it's going to be much quoted in future.
Hope you keep it in your notables sidebar!
- WeeE

Kim said...

Thank you for such an interesting and thought provoking series of essays.

Anonymous said...

A really though-provoking series of essays. Very balanced too.

Chris Hutt said...

The perception of cycling as dangerous is of fundamental importance but for many of us it is rooted in reality and not just a social construct to marginalise us.

In Bristol (Cycling City, UK, would you beleive) harassment and intimidation of cyclists is commonplace. Cyclists experiencing this are deterred from cycling, if not actually injured or killed, and many eventually give up cycling altogether.

But the council won't address the problem because they don't want to acknowledge that there is a problem since their 'Cycling City' strategy is to get more people cycling.

So we have a Catch 22 operating. The authorities won't address the harassment and intimidation that puts cyclists off cycling for fear of putting non-cyclists off cycling. So cyclists are being put off when they experience the harassment and intimidation.

My view is that we must first deal with the problem of harassment and intimidation before we encourage more people to cycle, but I could be wrong.

kfg said...

". . .harassment and intimidation of cyclists is . . ."

. . . a social construct to marginalise us. It's the form that comes after ignoring and ridiculing have failed to prove effective and the bit that some of us have to endure just before we win.

"Cyclists experiencing this are deterred from cycling . . ."


"I could be wrong."

Could be. Personally, however, I think its pretty much the whole ball of wax. Facilities vs. Vehicularism, Helmets vs. Freedom,Baby!, Lycra(tm) vs. Rasta funk (or whatever) are all "one percenter" issues. Many of us are shedding blood over the margins (and those who wish to marginalise us can keep our focus there, spilling our own blood over triffles).

If we were all excellent to one another I think this would become obvious. Cycling will thrive, safely and pleasantly, anywhere and under any conditions it is simply found an acceptable thing to do by The People.

Having to fight, or in essence even to go into combat, just to toddle down the block on a bicycle is such a silly and pathetic waste of human energy; and unfortunately, in some cases, even lives.

I don't get it; but there it is.

lagatta à montréal said...

Andy B, at first Mighk Wilson's article appealed until I saw he was a damned "vehicular cycling" advocate. The most successful bicycle cities have set aside space for bicycles in the form of cycle lanes or otherwise; this is also essential for cyclists from very young to very old to be able to cycle. Fighting for a larger share of urban space does not depend on fear.

sexify said...

I echo all the comments above about the excellent and intelligent essay. Especially appreciate the can-do advice at the end.

Chris: Why can't the authorities there go the path of making clear what they are doing to make cyclists as safe as possible from ANY threat? Admit there 'has been' a problem and that they will put a stop to it immediately. Isn't that the point of segregated lanes and such in the first place?


kfg said...

"Isn't that the point of segregated lanes and such in the first place?"

Well I should hope not. Attempting the impossible is always bound to result in some sort of catastrophic failure.

In any case, the authorities are supposed to provide protection from/prosecution against harassment, assault and battery. I haven't a clue what "cyclist" should have to do with it, any more than I would have a clue what "left handed" would have to do with it.

Anonymous said...

"So cyclists' collective protests, such as Critical Mass, are particularly vilified"

Do you really not understand the Critical Mass goes out of its way to irritate everyone in sight? They routinely block all traffic while yelling insults at motorists. Women have miscarried during Critical Mass demonstrations and several people have died because they were blocked from getting to emergency medical care.

Chris Hutt said...

To Adam et al,

"Why can't the authorities (in Bristol) go the path of making clear what they are doing to make cyclists as safe as possible from ANY threat?"

I suppose they could, but they won't.

In Bristol we have a situation where there are very few CPN style segregated paths nor any realistic prospect of many more within the foreseeable future. Narrow on-street cycle lanes exist in places but are of little practical benefit and are generally used for car parking.

So cyclists and motorists have to share the same space. There is no realistic alternative. But many motorists are resentful of sharing 'their' space with these interlopers (cyclists) and this resentment is often expressed through harassment, intimidation and worse.

That is the problem but the authorities don't want to recognise that because they do not want to have to confront motorists who constitute a majority group with a lot of votes.

That is the situation in most UK towns and cities and probably beyond except for those north European cities like CPN that had a very strong cycling tradition to build on in the first place.

Krakonos said...

"But many motorists are resentful of sharing 'their' space with these interlopers (cyclists) and this resentment is often expressed through harassment, intimidation and worse."

Yes, but I feel that segregated bike paths contribute to that greatly. There will be a point at which it is not acceptable any more to ride on the road even when that particular road doesn't have a bike lane, because people think you should just keep to your seperate bicycle infrastructure. Too much separation strengthens car driver's view that the roads belong to them. And cyclists are not tolerated any more. I experience that in my city a lot even though bicycle infrastructure is still rudimentary. I don't know a solution to that because on the other hand I can see that bike lanes get more people on bikes. I think one should at least not be required to use a bike path that goes parallel to a road, because of the dangers often involved. But will that help to get more acceptance from motorists?

Chris Hutt said...

Krakanos, that was my point too. The more we say cyclists should be segregated from motor traffic the more we undermine our right to use the ordinary roads.

I remember a visit ot CPN 20 years ago when I enjoyed the cycle tracks but the instant I cycled in a traffic lane (where there was no parallel cycle track) I was immediately harassed by a motorist.

Above all we must assert the right of cyclists to use ordinary roads and the responsibility of motorists to behave in a way consistent with the safety of cyclists. That is the real challenge, not trying to build segregated infrastructure.

Kevin Love said...

Here is one example of making cycling strange in the UK: Andy Capp no longer bikes.

When I was a child, Andy and his buddies went everywhere by bike. No more.

Yes, its just a cartoon, but it reflects the culture.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the series but going back to the first paragraph, exertion and fear, it is exertion that puts people off cycling. Many people in the UK are lazy, how else do you account for those who drive 600 metres to the local shops, what is it that they are scared of? They are certainly not scared of obestity.
Mark Garrett

Alan Preston said...

Having enjoyed 10 uneventful years in Japan cycling unhelmeted on the footpaths (as 86million other cyclists choose to do) and now having endured the last 3 years 'sneakling' and dodging my way around around on the roads in New Zealand's mythically 'most cycle-friendly'city ( Christchurch) I make no apology for advocating for the provision of segregated cycle facilities.
Merely asserting that we are depriving ourselves of our own rights by denying the validity of our perceptions or fears goes nowhere towards making cycling practicable for the vast majority of us.
Democracy is a numbers game.
The vast majority here drive cars ( and don't ride bicycles)and any elected official who'd advocate limiting motorists rights or behaviour in favour of a virtually non-existant minority would be committing political suicide. The right to use existing segregated facilities is a pragmatic step towards enabling the uptake of cycling by risk-averse''vulnerable'user groups ( i.e. the vast majortity of us ) in order to increase awareness of our needs and thereby the political imperatave to recognise and make provision ( on road or off ) for us.



Paul said...

I wonder what *evidence* there is that cycling is seen as "a polluting practice"? Presumably this is a sociologist playing with a sociological technical definition of a word which doesn't tally with general use, in a sort of Humpty Dumpty fashion.

And cyclists executing "a whole range of manoeuvres designed to take short-cuts, avoid hold-ups and escape danger", in my experience, is not in the slightest an attempt to break automobility's so-called spatial monopoly. It's just a selfish way of getting somewhere faster. I note that the author is keen to stress that "many such movements [...] are risk reduction strategies, tactics developed by cyclists to reduce conflicts and risks of collision with others". "Many" is a very telling word. It betrays the fact that the author knows full well that most such movements are nothing of the sort. As a driver who's had to slam on the brakes when cyclists execute these movements, it's hard to see how the cyclist is trying to reduce risk or avoid collision. As a pedestrian who has to get out of the way, it's hard to see how the cyclist is trying to reduce risk or avoid collision. As a cyclist, I get really fed up of other cyclists contributing to the bad image of cycling in the UK by being so selfish.

If we want to be seen as traffic, as normal users of the road, then we have to *genuinely* aim for consideration, risk reduction, avoidance of conflict. Just as motorists should. Selfishly thinking we alone have the right to break the rules of the road (which are there so other road users have a chance of predicting our actions) does the reputation of cycling no good at all.

And, lest there be any doubt, I commute to work by bike and I've had my fair share of near-misses because of similarly selfish motorists. I just happen to think that thinking ourselves into a victim mentality in which we cyclists are an oppressed minority isn't necessarily the most helpful way to encourage more cycling. It's more about getting on with being cooperative people, showing how attractive cycling can be, breaking free from the selfishness implicit in the overuse of cars. If we just continue to be selfish in another way it won't help at all.

A shame, I enjoyed all the previous parts of this essay, but this last one does nothing for me, except betray the fact that it was written by a sociologist. I refuse to be a victim, a scapegoat or a stranger. I am just some bloke who goes to work on his bike and tries to be nice to people.

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Some natural anxiety remedies to look into are St.John's Wort, SAMe, L-Theanine, and Tryptophan. There's also cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and programs like Panic Away and The Linden Method, to name a few. Hope this helps!

Anonymous said...

Excellent article. Great.