Monday, 7 November 2016

A rainy weather puncture, a wave of negativity - and how the haters aren't sweating cycling's details

As conditions for a cycle commute go, the steady rain this past Friday - which supplanted the recent foggy weather - was unattractive even before I started hearing a strange clicking sound from my bike’s front wheel. An inspection revealed the sound was coming from a drawing pin - or tack - stuck in the tyre. I was, briefly, hopeful that the robust puncture proofing of my Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres might have protected my inner tube. When I pulled the tack free, however, I heard a steady hissing that told me I was going to be undertaking a roadside repair.
A chance tack in a cycle lane or a symbol
of the anti-cycling backlash? The mystery
remains unsolved

Then, after I’d discarded the tack, I started to ponder the antipathy towards cycling and cyclists that I’ve spent considerable time recently discussing in person and via social media. The UK is in the midst of one of its periodic anti-cycling backlashes and I suddenly wondered if the tack had ended up in the new cycle path by Kennington Park by happenstance or malice. I scoured the wet pavement for the tack, photographed it then posted a query on twitter to ask if anyone else had suffered similar problems in the same area.

The act of posting the picture turned my mind back to thoughts about the roots of the recent rage in some newspapers and by some politicians against the growth of cycling. After I recently wrote about the gulf in understanding between cyclists and cycling sceptics, I was bombarded with complaints that I was ignoring some vast conspiracy by the media and politicians to do down cycling. Commenters accused me of varying levels of complacency or complicity in this plot.

I've been assured that I was naive to believe there was no generalised campaign against cycling because it was naive to think automakers had changed tack since their 1920s campaign in the US to have jaywalking outlawed. I've been told that Volvo engineers' designing of a cycle helmet shows there's a plot - use of cycling helmets, after all, correlates with lower cycling levels. I have been repeatedly told that the recent spate of newspaper anti-cycling stories can't be coincidence and even seen it posited that a particular national newspaper reporter "must be in somebody's pay".

The truth is less exciting but no less worrying, I’m convinced. Having spent most of the last 13 years writing at least partly about transport, I simply don’t think most opponents of cycling - either in the UK or the US, where I lived for four years - care enough about the mode to mount such a conspiracy. It seems to me that, instead, many of the media attacks draw on unspoken paradigms about the nature of government. The sprouting of cycle lanes is taken to be an example of the work of politically correct (or possibly “bungling”) bureaucrats, who wrongly think they know better than the average, car-driving newspaper reader what the transport system needs. Cyclists are regarded as some sort of strange out-group like vegans or hardline environmentalists seeking to destroy the lifestyles that ordinary, common-sense people regard as entirely unproblematic.

The best way to combat this narrative, it seems to me, is to seek to change the terms of the debate. I believe there’s a sound, common-sense case for promoting cycling that, in the UK at least, is getting drowned out by complaints about the alleged anti-cycling conspiracy and bitter rows on twitter. It’s all the more urgent to get progress re-started because present conditions continue to prove deadly. Lucia Ciccioli, a 32-year-old Italian woman, was killed on October 24 cycling to work in Lavender Hill, not far from my house in Brixton. A week later, another Italian, Filippo Corsini, 21, was crushed by a lorry in Knightsbridge. I hope that a new venture, Humanstreets, modelled on the admirable, New York-based Streetsblog, will play an important role in making that case.
London's North-South Cycle Superhighway,
at Southwark St: yes, the Daily Mail's
written angry stories about this facility's
existence; no, I don't think they're angry
for the reasons many others suppose

But, as I stood by the side of Kennington Park Road wrestling with my hard-to-remove tyres, I wasn’t feeling optimistic.

I started to think about the nature of anti-cycling anger after seeing a post on Twitter querying why the Daily Mail - which recently ran several pieces claiming that new cycling lanes were “paralysing Britain” - had run a piece touting cycling’s health benefits. The tweet’s tone was to query the Mail’s consistency. But, to anyone who’s worked in a newspaper, the idea that different sections of a paper would need to agree on such a matter is, frankly, ludicrous. British newspaper reporters are, in my experience, mostly uninterested in the content of the policy issues that they cover and far more interested in framing it into what they regard as a compelling narrative. The Daily Mail has a powerful bias in favour of thinking civil servants and council officials are engaged in some plot to impose bad ideas on ordinary Britons. The recent attacks follow that narrative, it seems to me, rather than being based on any strong idea about cycling.

The Daily Mail’s sinister genius is its ability to seize on almost any policy development as evidence that the world does indeed work the odd way its news editors believe it does. Like many people with an interest in road safety, I’m sure, I felt my heart lift this week when I saw that the Mail had run a front page story on distracted driving - only to feel it sink again when I saw that it was defining the problem as being one of foreign drivers. The story was a reminder of how different worldviews compete within many media organisations to shape how issues are reported. The story about cycling’s health benefits reflected the paper’s conviction that its readers want to find out ways to better their health. For that section, that narrative trumped the notion that cycling promotion was the work of nanny-ish bureaucrats.

The Mail’s tendency to report the world according to a set of preconceived notions is unusually pronounced but it has its less sinister counterparts in other places. The Guardian, for example, tends to report public-sector activity favourably and to report on business’ behaviour unfavourably. Some financially-orientated publications are apt to identify strongly with private businesses’ perceived interests. Most politicians I’ve met have a similar tendency to believe in a few core principles and then, in George Orwell’s telling phrase, to buy the rest of their opinions in “matching pairs”.
The East-West Cycle Superhighway by
the Palace of Westminster: inhabited by
owners of opinions bought in matching pairs

Some of the reporting, meanwhile, reflects the one circumstance when cycling policy does get people's attention - when it threatensomething important to them, such as the free parking space they regard as a right. This explains, for example, the regular rows in New York when the Citibike bike-share scheme arrives in a new neighbourhood. People have seen that Citibike is coming but take little interest until suddenly a parking space disappears. The same phenomenon explains the perennial popularity of bad and dangerous on-road cycling facilities. Many politicians are eager to enjoy the chic, green-tinged halo of introducing a bike-share scheme or theoretically encouraging cycling. Yet few are prepared to weather the political storm of introducing facilities, like London’s new segregated cycle superhighways, that truly reallocate space away from motor vehicles and give it to cyclists. Unsatisfactory compromises - bike routes down hard-to-access old railway lines, for example - proliferate.

During my 25 years in the newspaper industry, I have been far more dismayed by other reporters’ cynicism, willingness to go along with news editors’ ill-informed instincts and incuriosity about policy detail than I have by any willingness to cave to outside lobbying. Much the same goes for politicians. When he first became mayor, for example, Boris Johnson - now practically sainted among active travel lobbyists as father of the segregated superhighways - took a series of harmful steps to further what he saw as a pro-business, anti-bureaucrat agenda. He removed space-efficient articulated buses, replacing them with a far worse alternative, scrapped the successful western extension of the congestion charging zone and undertook other measures aimed at “smoothing traffic flow”. Among the traffic-smoothing measures were the admission of motorbikes to bus lanes and a tinkering with traffic-light timing that reduced the time for pedestrians to cross at many busy junctions. All of these measures have contributed to London’s continuing problem with congested, unsafe roads.
The new bus for London: one of Boris
Johnson's early contributions to making
London's roads less efficient

I see this intellectual laziness and policy cowardice as far bigger barriers to the advance of cycling than alleged campaigns - always described as “well-funded” - by sceptical cycling opponents. I recognise that the main incident that fuelled these fears - the circulation by Canary Wharf Group of a screed complaining about plans for cycle superhighways - occurred while I was in New York and away from London policy issues. I also know that London business lobby groups continue to agitate about congestion in London and to blame it disproportionately on the cycle superhighways, which are only one of a series of factors contributing to the current worsening of motor vehicle congestion in central London despite falls in traffic levels. The London Taxi Drivers’ Association continues to fight sensible cycling schemes such as the Tavistock Place cycle tracks in Bloomsbury.

Yet it seems clear to me that the basic instincts of the media organisations concerned and reporters’ tendency to copy stories that they feel have touched a nerve with readers are more than sufficient to explain the current rash of stories. The cowardice of the worst kind of local politician in the face of what he or she perceives to be the public mood is more than adequate to explain the backtracking in many parts of the UK on cycling plans and the actual ripping out of an already-built facility in the Scottish town of Ayr.

Congestion on Southwark Bridge: campaigners need to
get better at combatting fears about such conditions
if progress is to resume
The good news is that fights against prejudice and cowardice are winnable. It was once held as axiomatic on both sides of the Atlantic, for example, that the struggle against drink-driving was driven by politically-correct nannyism. The practice’s dangers are now universally accepted. There was shock last week when part of the Daily Mail’s criticism of a judge involved in the Article 50 Brexit case was that he was “openly gay”. Until the 1990s, it might have been regarded as a legitimate scoop to expose his sexual orientation.

The bad news is that such battles tend to be protracted, painful and to require considerable guile. Cycling advocates need, it seems to me, to do a far better job of addressing people’s fears about what allocation of space - and time at traffic signals - to cycling means. Will it hold up bus passengers? Can a lower-capacity road really handle all the deliveries businesses along the route expect? I’ve said before that campaigners’ arguments should be far less nit-picking and far more addressed towards a mainstream audience.
After the repair: my bike as I prepared to ride off, feeling
down at heart

It’s not only because of Friday’s experience that I feel pessimistic about prospects, however. Battle lines on both the pro and anti-cycling side seem very clearly drawn. Few people are airing novel arguments.

The worst and most bitter people, meanwhile, are resorting to more direct measures. While I don’t know how the tack I picked up came to be on the cycle path, another twitter user told me he recalled hearing of a tack’s being left around the same place recently. Multiple cyclists riding on the Bearsway cycle path north of Glasgow on Sunday picked up tacks, suggesting a co-ordinated effort at sabotage. That follows a recent, similar incident in Regent’s Park, in London.

Whether my incident was part of that pattern or not, I rode off after 20 minutes’ repair work damp and cold, with skinned knuckles, feeling decidedly downbeat. I will feel more optimistic only when the UK's debate about cycling policy breaks free of its current, unproductive impasse.


  1. This is an interesting, thoughtful piece, but what strikes me when reading it is that doesn't actually present (or link to!) any of the opinions and arguments it is rebutting. It is a little like only hearing one side of a discussion. The impression given in the piece is that cycle campaigning in the UK has submerged into conspiracy theorising about a centralised media elite deliberately running misinformation about cycling infrastructure, but I really don't know that there are that many people making these kinds of claims. (Indeed, I only know of one, and he is hardly a mainstream cycle campaigner).

    While I am here, I will comment on the Daily Mail 'health' example, which I did see referenced on social media. The suggestion here appears to be that the people pointing out the apparent contradiction between the DM running articles about the health benefits of cycling, while simultaneously running a campaign against cycling infrastructure, somehow believe that the entire content of newspapers should always be consistent (and perhaps that, therefore, at a higher level, newspaper content is 'coordinated').

    But I don't think that follows. From what I saw, people were merely pointing out the silliness of campaigning against something that the same newspaper is pointing out has considerable health (and therefore economic) benefits. Nothing more than that. To point out that a newspaper's content is contradictory does not of necessity entail a belief that newspaper content has to always be strictly consistent, because they have 'an editor' and 'an owner'.

    To take just one example, Private Eye run precisely these kinds of inconsistencies in every issue (I think it's called 'Just Fancy That', as well as 'Number Crunching') - but this doesn't mean the Private Eye editor and contributors (who are journalists themselves!) subscribe to a belief that newspaper content is tightly coordinated. Why would cycle campaigners doing the same thing be any different?

    1. aseasyasriding,

      Thanks for your comment. I didn't link to the opinions for two reasons: one is that the post is already too long, while the other is that it took too long to write.

      I can only say that, in a number of recent twitter conversations, and in the comments thread on some of my recent pieces, you will indeed see many people claiming that there is a vast conspiracy by motor companies and so on to do down cycling. I was recently assured, for example, that motor companies' success in getting jaywalking outlawed in the pre second world war United States meant they must still be lobbying against cycling today. I have also been told some recent stories must be a result of journalistic corruption. I've seen other people saying car companies must be terrified about the rise of cycling and so must be campaigning against it. I've been blocked on Twitter by the main exponent of these theories, so it is not just he from whom I'm seeing this. I'm seeing a lot of it. On the media side, it's frustrating because I know it's not down to the factors I see many people claiming. I think it's also a general truth that neither policy-makers nor most of the media care much about cycling and instead care predominantly about what it represents. I think that's a critical point to grasp because cyclists should start thinking about how they can get themselves hooked up to more positive, popular ideas.

      I'm sorry this isn't quoting chapter and verse. But a look at my recent mentions will illuminate the point, I think.

      As for the Daily Mail point, I still think it's silly to expect any coherence from a newspaper. The contradiction strikes me as an instructive example of how newspapers' different instincts conflict.

      All the best,


  2. So, a case of "Never attribute to malice what can be attributed to stupidity". Or, in the case of journalism, "never attribute to conspiracy what can be attributed to pandering to the basest fears of potential readers".

    Conspiracies are attractive, because they imply that: there is someone actually in control, rather than the visible mess; there is someone benefiting from the situation, rather than just us collectively shooting ourselves in the foot; and if we find the person in charge and stop them, the problem will go away.
    Universal selfishness and ignorance are much harder problems to fix, including in ourselves.

    Thankfully, most of the rows on Twitter don't reach the general populace, leaving plenty of space for the common-sense arguments to be put forward. Unfortunately, if you can't convince people with "cheap, convenient, fast, good for your health, good for your kids' lungs, reduces congestion, doesn't cause climate change, did I mention cheap", then I don't think words will shift them...

    1. Ollyer,

      Thanks for your comment. I obviously agree that conspiracies seem attractive but are generally misleading.

      I perhaps wasn't clear enough in what I wrote about the arguments. A lot of the debate among cyclists focuses on the idea that arguments' effectiveness or otherwise is down entirely to their content. That's obviously not true. People need to do a better job of wrapping those arguments in better clothing. For example, Transportation Alternatives in New York calls streets that have good space for pedestrians, narrow motoring lanes and protected cycle lanes "complete streets". That's a great way to brand the idea. Why haven't we got a better name for streets with segregated bike lanes? Why aren't we at least always calling them protected bike lanes? Why not call streets with superhighways, say, "common sense streets" on the grounds they allow more people to use the streets? Far too often the most compelling phrase-makers are on the anti-cycling side.

      All the best,


    2. Thanks, that's a helpful clarification.

      I've noticed a more positive response for "protected cycle tracks" than "segregated bike lanes", and that just from existing cyclists. So that's now my preferred term.

      Val Shawcross et al have adopted the term "Healthy Streets", encapsulating prioritisation of active travel and reduced pollution and danger. I think we're going to be hearing/using it a lot more in future. (I've heard it from TfL and borough council representatives already.)

      Do you have suggestions for branding the Mini Holland / filtered streets / road closure proposals? Those names are either non-descriptive or misleading, or both. Most of the succinct alternatives sound too negative: "No rat-running, no through-traffic". Something like "local traffic only areas" isn't very catchy.
      I believe the Dutch term is "Home Zone" - does that convey the right idea? Or is it also too vague? The local areas that could benefit from the "home zone" treatment include shops and other businesses, and I worry that "home zone" implies it is not good for them.

  3. I have no evidence of any such anti-bike conspiracy, but I know that largish American corporations are attentive to minor shortfalls in their planned future profits. To the extent that more people cycling might cause fewer people to buy gasoline, or cars, or medication for chronic lack-of-exercise-related-conditions like diabetes or high cholesterol, I'd expect the companies that sell those things to be aware of that risk to their bottom line. That might not be as nakedly and absurdly avaricious as Martin Shkreli, but I expect they'd care, and might act on it. I'd be surprised if they had a literal conspiracy, though.

    The mainstream angle I think would be interesting to try comes from some of the the videos I've seen of the new London cycling highways. A couple of years ago I noticed that I did a bad job of counting cars and counting bikes; that in fact, in the summer, that bikes made up as much as 30% of the traffic on some routes home, but unless I deliberately set out to count, I would not "see" this -- and this is on a road with intermittent bike lane and sharrows. I expect this is true of most people, especially those who only drive.

    Videos of better infrastructure in London show bicycles streaming out of undersized lanes at 3x the rate of attainable by cars (3 every 2 seconds, instead of 1 every 2 seconds). You won't get a 3x improvement in efficiency from tinkering with traffic lights. And this is London, right now.

    The next thing I might try would be a pitch to impatience and greed -- the lanes are there, clearly they're reducing crowding somewhere. If the roads are still crowded (induced demand suggests this will be the case) if the tube is still crowded, you know, you could ride a bicycle too, it looks like they're doing okay. Do you really think that enough roads can be built to get rid of London's congestion? You can solve the problem for yourself today, just start biking.

    1. dr2chase,

      I didn't get into this in the post, but I do have some feelings about the role of corporations in this business.

      I've often seen it said that car companies are seeking to do down cycling. It's one of the explanations I've heard for the alleged anti-cycling campaigns. I don't think it's really true, for various reasons.

      Carmakers are, essentially, the status quo powers in the transport hierarchy. If little changes, they win. So, during four years of covering the US auto industry, I never saw any sign that carmakers were actively looking to do down cycling. Let's face it: in New York City, one of the most cycling-friendly places in the USA, bikes account for 1 per cent of commuting trips. There are far bigger issues affecting people's propensity to buy cars, particularly the economic cycle (an issue that definitely does worry carmakers). Carmakers do, nevertheless, like all big businesses, seek to influence the regulations they face. So different carmakers lobbied hard for versions of the new Cafe standards that suited them best (VW, for example, argued for better treatment of diesels, a position that looks different in retrospect from how it looked in 2012). Most auto executives I've met are simply complacent and believe the world - or at least the US - will continue in perpetuity to be auto-dependent. They're happy, from what I've seen, to regard this as a natural state of affairs and argue neither one way nor the other for change.

      They are, however, hedging. I wrote several times while in the US about car companies' efforts to get involved in ride-sharing and car club systems, since they believe individual vehicle ownership might decline in future. At Ford, the company most committed to this stuff, I've even seen engineers working on a bicycle. I wrote in 2014 about how Alan Mulally, then Ford's chief executive, thought more cars weren't the answer for cities: The carmakers certainly are keen to paint a picture of a future city where there are still lots of cars, albeit possibly used mainly in combination with other modes. But I think at this point anything they could achieve by anti-bike lobbying would not be worth the damage they'd risk if they were found to be engaging in such lobbying. There are lots of things I dislike about car companies - but I think they fall into the "care too little about cycling to do it down" category.

      I know less about the oil companies and pharmaceutical companies. I suspect they broadly follow similar paths, although I know some oil companies are currently in trouble for trying to minimise the effects of climate change.

      I like your ideas for positive campaigns, meanwhile. The crowding on London's roads, however, really isn't a case of induced demand. Traffic in Central London was down more than 4 per cent in the March to June quarter. The problem is that the road network's capacity seems to be shrinking still faster than demand, which is why congestion continues to worsen.

      All the best,


    2. I'd expect companies to be somewhat game-theoretic, but another thing to pay attention to is how biking affects their sales differently. US transit patterns, many *trips* are suitable for biking, but we pile on the miles in the minority of longer trips. An increase in bike trip share of 1 percentage point does not lead to a corresponding decrease in fuel consumption or car wear-and-tear (except that we believe urban miles are harder on cars).

      But for medical costs, it might really matter, anyone getting a good solid slug of exercise stands a good chance of avoiding or postponing some of the chronic-medication conditions, and I think it's pretty much proportional to share.

    3. dr2chase,

      You're right about cycling's health benefits. But I'm still sceptical that it's really in pharmaceutical companies' interests to put people off cycling. The things against which I see them lobbying are price controls, tough bargaining by Medicare and Medicaid and anything else that limits what they earn from a particular drug. The exercise benefits of cycling certainly help cyclists - I know they're hugely beneficial to me. But I suspect cyclists are largely a group who would be reasonably healthy anyway. As with car companies, I get the sense Big Pharma is a status quo power on this. They let people continue to act as if the main solution to problems is to develop new drugs, rather than to work out better, longer-term solutions. They don't need to do an awful lot to ensure the system keeps working for them.

      All the best,


    4. Agreed on the selection effect as things recently-to-currently stand -- cyclists either start healthy or are well-motivated to become healthy (that's me) -- but I'd love to know more about how the crowds using the cycling superhighways now got around before they were built. Or in New York, same for the better bike lanes there. Pretty much the whole point of better infrastructure is to attract people who are not so severely motivated.

      I also agree that it could be counterproductive for drug companies to seem loudly and greedily anti-cycling, but they could (for example, no evidence) support "distracted pedestrians" and "helmets for cyclists" safety campaigns that would have the effect of making walking and cycling slightly less pleasant, yet preserving their apparent "health mission". I figure that if I can think of this (and it's surely not my job to think of this) than so can they. Still not an industry-wide conspiracy, but it also not far-fetched, no chemtrails or illuminati. And obviously I wouldn't expect them to brag about it or mention it in casual conversation.

    5. dr2chase,

      In London, I think the Cycle Superhighways have attracted some new cyclists, particularly the east-west superhighway, which opens up more routes). Given London's travel patterns, most of those people will previously have been using the underground or heavy rail. So those people will be fitter.

      On the corporate stuff, obviously I know they wouldn't just tell me they're doing it. But I think big corporations are generally fairly wary of being seen to be actively campaigning against things, precisely because people like us can point at it and use it as evidence to support our own cause. I think they generally try to dress up their views as support for doing a different set of things.

      But perhaps I'm being naive.

      All the best,


  4. I can testify that foreign drivers are, indeed a hazard on at least SOME UK roads. Years ago, my wife was driving us down one of those single track roads in the north of Scotland, when over the hill suddenly a giant lorry appeared. Falling back on her "during an emergency" instincts, she swerved to the right. Fortunately, both parties were going slow as you might have guessed since I'm actually typing this comment.

    1. Steve,

      Thank you for your comment and I'm glad the incident in question ended well for all concerned. But I think your case is a rather unusual one. The Daily Mail made out that non-British drivers posed a general risk because of their tendency to use cellphones while driving. I'm not convinced that's a peculiarly, say, Polish or Romanian tendency.

      All the best,


  5. I see the partisan mindset exists as much socially and demographically as it does in politics.

    1. Tal,

      Thank you for your comment. You are absolutely correct.

      All the best,


  6. Partisan cycling campaigners (Ashok Sinha at the LCC and the bloggers) have delivered segregated tracks in central London and forced TfL to consider cycling in their plans. Weakening that stance will do nothing for cycling.
    On my book shelf is a guide to cycling in North and East London from 1980 titled Bike It! The contents dominated by vehicular cycling jargon and instructions. Until the Go Dutch vote almost 30 years later, every LCC publication ploughed the same, barren, furrow.
    The LTDA, the Road Hauliers Association etc are putting their members interests front and centre, so should the LCC.

    1. Bill,

      I agree that cycle campaigning has won remarkable victories in London recently and I've made no secret of my delight at being able to use the cycle superhighways, which almost certainly wouldn't have been delivered without their efforts. But your comment suggests that that uncompromising campaigning style was responsible for delivering the cycle superhighways yet has nothing to do with the current halting of progress. It might be inevitable and maybe no-one will ever get round it, but it's unfortunate that London cycle campaigning became so closely associated with a single mayor and that the superhighway plans didn't win the kind of cross-party assent that might have ensured seamless progress after Boris Johnson left office.

      All the best,



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