Singularity

Women and children first?

Dec.12, 2009, filed under Cycling, Rant

I seemed to upset a few people recently by getting worked up about the Beauty and the Bike campaign after it did the rounds on twitter.

Beauty and the Bike, for those of you who either don’t follow cycle campaigning or have an understandable mental blind spot when it comes to anything that’s all mouth and no trousers (pun entirely intended) is a cycle advocacy project that sent a bunch of teenage girls from Darlington across to Europe in an effort to see why girls over there cycle while British ones don’t.

While I have no problem at all with the basic premise — let’s find out why girls and young women don’t cycle and try to do something about it — I have a few issues with the apparent focus of the resulting campaign. Like the Sustrans BikeBelles project, there is an immediate presumption that a major reason why girls don’t cycle is cosmetic:

I cannot be fashionable on a bike.
Answer: On a Dutch bike with a low entrance and a skirtguard, you can even cycle with a long skirt.

As irritating and sexist as I find that (I hope the ladies of SweetPea Bicycles never read it), the bit that annoyed me the most is seen in this quote here:

“Why do British girls stop cycling? By simply asking this basic question, the film reveals the damage that has been done by 50 years of car-centric transport policies. Whilst we fill our lives with debates about risk assessment, cycle helmets, cycle training and marketing strategies to try to persuade people to cycle more, the basic barriers to cycling remain untouched – generous urban planning towards the car, and the resultant poor motorist behaviour towards cyclists. Is it any wonder that most people find cycling unattractive in the UK, but attractive in cycling-friendly towns and cities? It’s the infrastructure, stupid!

That’s their emphasis. It’s the infrastructure, stupid! So there you are. If you, like me, have been merrily cycling on the road, where you have every right to cycle, and explaining to moronic drivers that they need to learn how to share, that they shouldn’t be passing you so closely your elbow leaves a clean streak on their paint, or yelling at you for being on the road, or any one of the hundred other ways drivers treat cyclists like shit: you were wrong. It’s the infrastructure, stupid!

I’m not particularly keen on re-hashing the various arguments about driver culture and conflict points and engineering: they’ve been done to death elsewhere. I’m not going to detail the studies that show a strip of red paint down the side of the road is counter-productive, leading drivers to give cyclists even less room; nor Ian Walker’s report that women cyclists tend to be given more room anyway. Take a look through a few back issues of CityCycling. In fact, here’s your starter for ten — an article I wrote in response to the Sustrans Bike Belles launch.

It’s all very well having a bunch of teenage girls say “We want more cycle lanes!” Unfortunately I want doesn’t get. More to the point, paths are not necessary. They’re a placebo, a palliative aimed at making us shut up and giving the impression that the powers that be are doing something to follow through on their promises. It doesn’t address the underlying issue. In fact putting more cycle paths in place is just going to make things worse.

Here’s an example of the typical attitude of someone who is angry about cyclists who don’t use paths, as seen in the comments section of an article about the effect of the new Princes Street tram lines on cyclists:

Between Gilmerton and Dalkeith, Edinburgh and Midlothian council have spent millions of pounds on an off road cycle track, which runs next to the road. Guess what, these cyclists ignore it, and prefer to hold up the traffic by cycling on the main carriageway. Simple solution, get the police to stop every cyclist on this stretch of the road and obtain their details, then get the councils to bill each and every cyclist for the cost of the cycle track. That way, folk like me, are not paying for a cycle track that doesn’t get used, and cyclists are punished for failing to use facilities specifically built for them.

Error compounded by misconception, but clearly showing that providing a cycle path will cause at least a portion of drivers to behave even more negatively to cyclists who continue to exercise their right to use the road.

The cycle path gameIn contrast, here’s a good pictorial summary of the problems encountered on cycle paths and the reason folks might not want to use them (hope you don’t mind, Anth).

My point is that the current method of asking people who don’t cycle what’s best for cyclists is about as useful as asking a vegan how he would prefer his steak in the belief that will make him start eating meat. Rather than asking girls who don’t cycle why they don’t, how about asking girls who do cycle why they do? The main barrier to cycling isn’t external. The roads do not make it impossible to ride. What to do with your hair is not an insurmountable problem. If this were the case there wouldn’t be anyone out there on the roads at all. The very fact that we already have female cyclists riding on the roads means that the major problem is cultural rather than practical. It’s a mental, not a physical one.

It’s not the infrastructure. It’s the culture. It’s the fuckwit drivers who believe the myth of road tax and treat non-motorised road users as moving obstacles.

And don’t call me stupid.

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