Last Thursday a Birmingham councillor attacked plans to spend £6m of the council’s money (plus a £17m Department of Transport grant) on upgrading cycle routes and handing out free bikes. The crux of Deirdre Alden’s complaint is that cycling is a discriminatory form of transport that “[only benefits] white, young men”.
The local Sustrans branch swung into action, with Yvonne Gilligan saying: “Contrary to the comments made this week, the great thing about cycling is that it’s accessible for everyone, regardless of age, gender or background.” CTC were slightly less vocal, but included a paragraph within their weekly bulletin (although I’m not sure “media storm” is really justified…)
I have a problem with this knee-jerk rebuff from the big cycling groups; I fear that Deirdre may have a point.
True, it’s not the point that she manages to put words around, but somewhere mixed in amongst it all is something worth digging out. She’s wrong to say that the activity of cycling is in any way exclusive. Indeed, it’s one of the most inclusive things out there—some people who can’t walk more than a few yards retain their independence through their bikes, trikes and quads. However, if you look at examples of infrastructure that our councils spend your money on, it doesn’t take a great leap of logic to spot the discrimination.
However, before I start on that:
Watch your words, Deirdre
This really hacked me off:
“women of any ethnic group who wish to wear modest clothing, and I count myself in that category, are not going to cycle.”Deirdre Alden, Conservative Councillor for Edgbaston Ward on Birmingham City Council
Which is equivalent to saying that women who do cycle wear immodest clothing.
Clearly Deirdre did not intend to say that all women who currently cycle are brazenly flaunting their flesh, but she did. There’s far too much deliberate sexism in cycling already (Assos’ advertising strategy, Danny MacAskill, Columbian womens’ cycle team kit designers to name three recent incidents) without people lobbing in additional harmful remarks through lazy choice of words. Many women cycle in normal clothes. Even those who chose to wear Lycra aren’t revealing any more than leggings, tights, or short skirts, and much less than you’d encounter at any swimming pool.
Whilst we’re here, what on earth does she mean by “ethnic group”? Ethnic is not a substitute for “not British and not-white”.
I think we can all deduce that she’s trying to refer to cultures where men and women tend to wear long, baggy clothing. Please, Ms Alden; just say so. You managed to be mildly racist and sexist in the same sentence.
Which leads us to:
Is cycling racist and sexist?
Almost anyone can cycle, and certainly race and gender have no effect.
I’m not even going to cite anything for that statement, it’s so obvious.
If you’re struggling with loose clothes on a bike, then you need a step-through frame and coat/skirt guards.
OK, is the type of cycling encouraged by our councils racist and sexist?
Now we might be getting somewhere.
I’m going to swap “racist and sexist” for “cycle-able-ist”, which is a horrible-looking compound intended to mean “discriminating against those less able (or willing) to propel a cycle quickly whilst maintaining a good sense of balance”. It’s OK; we don’t have to use it much.
So, who are we dropping into our less cycle-able category? Some elderly folk, probably (although beware the ones who’ve been cycling their entire lives and will leave you in the dust whilst showing no signs of effort). Young kids. Me, when I’m wearing normal clothes and don’t want to reach my destination in a sweaty heap. People with an injury or disability that affects their cycling. Anyone towing a trailer. Anyone moving something fragile or heavy around (children tick both boxes). Anyone who just doesn’t want to go fast at that moment. Anyone on a bike that hasn’t felt the delicate caress of oil in some time.
Does our current cycling infrastructure discriminate against that lot?
Well, most cities in the UK currently subscribe to the “vehicular method of cycling” because it’s cheap, easy and doesn’t require them to do very much—effectively you just tell cyclists to behave as if they were driving a car. The down side is that vehicular cyclists can only keep themselves safe if they can approach the same speed as the rest of the traffic.
Technically it should work at all speeds, but that relies on drivers accepting your 10mph presence in the middle of the lane and waiting patiently behind you. And you can imagine how fun that is. As a result the slower riders end up cycling in the gutter and are intimidated, maimed and killed by the drivers of other motorised vehicles not giving them enough space.
If its design means that those who can’t cycle fast get killed more often, I think we can say that the majority of UK cycle infrastructure discriminates against the less able.
We could go further and talk about unnecessary obstructions, chicanes and hairpins that block trikes and trailers from those few segregated cycle routes do exist, but I think the vehicular cycling point is enough.
So is Deirdre right? Should we not invest in cycling?
The current route network in the UK discriminates against the less cycle-able because our councils are lazy, tight-fisted, and cherish their ignorance of what quality cycle infrastructure looks like.
We could spend money to put this right and in doing so open up our road network to huge numbers of people who currently can’t get around because they don’t want, can’t use or can’t afford to use a car. As a side effect we get improved air quality, better public health, and more money in our own and our council’s piggy banks.
So no. Deirdre is not right in saying we should starve cycling of investment. Deirdre could not be more wrong. But in leaping to the offence, Sustrans and CTC have missed a trick.
We must prioritise spending on high quality cycle infrastructure.
One of the many good reasons for doing so is based on the discrimination inherent within the vehicular approach in use at the moment.
PS: You could attempt to defend Deidre by saying she’s understood all of this and is simply saying that investing in more of our existing rubbish infrastructure is discriminatory. But I don’t think anyone would believe that.
PPS: Cycle-able is a grim phrase that implies that we should all aspire to be fast on bikes and that people travelling at a more sedate speed are somehow less able. Please don’t ever use it. I promise you won’t read it here again.