Seeing differently: active travel revisited – changing the conversation

We were talking about this over supper the other night (a delicious meal all home grown and home cooked by our lovely neighbours).  We were mulling over why it is that a very aggressive and negative image of cycling seems to prevail in our home city (and elsewhere).  I was talking about cyclists and walkers, and our host expressed the view that part of the problem is the language we use.

We talk about cyclists.  We talk about walkers.  We talk about car drivers.  As if they were different species, or at the very least different people.

But of course, they’re not.  Most of us who cycle are also walkers, most are also car drivers, are also buggy pushers, are also runners (and may also at times be people with limited mobility).  And at each of those times we may be doing something different, but we are the same person.

Of course.

So it makes no sense to talk about cyclists as if they’re a different group of people from walkers and different again from car drivers.  These are false dichotomies, and we have to challenge them instead of accepting them, if we are to successfully challenge the status quo.

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Freiburg, cafe life

Yes I want to be able to cycle safely, and I want children to be able to cycle safely.  I also want to be able to walk safely,  I also want to be able to go for a pleasant stroll in the same places with my friend who uses a wheelchair.  I want people to be able to walk safely with buggies and push chairs.  Provision for the least flexible of these (wheelchair users) will be equally good for the most flexible (walkers).

The real danger to each of these groups is cars and other motorised vehicles.  This is what we need protection from, and this is what must be addressed.  Otherwise what happens is that the perceived danger to pedestrians (and others) is from cyclists, when in reality the actual danger to all is from cars, lorries and other motorised vehicles.

If you want to read more, here’s a brief but informative leaflet from RoSPA about cycling accident figures in the UK in 2013.  It puts the relative dangers into perspective.

Of course, what is also needed is mutual respect and consideration from all to everyone else.  I’ve had two accidents while cycling (other than the two caused by me and me alone, with only me being hurt): one was caused by a  lorry squeezing me off a busy road (fortunately I only lost a tooth: a friend lost a leg in a similar accident; every year others lose their lives).  The other was on the Kennet and Avon towpath, and was caused by a large group of elderly female walkers behaving as though the whole towpath was theirs and theirs alone.

Anecdotal I know, but I don’t as a result go around lambasting elderly female walkers as though they need to be carefully controlled and kept off the towpath.  I simply think that those individuals had no understanding of how to share a shared space and behave with respect to other users.

Can we please now apply the same kind of thinking to cyclists who behave badly?

All the while we accede to the discourse based on an assumption that cyclists present a massive danger to pedestrians, we allow the danger posed by cars and lorries to all of us travelling actively to fade out of view.  

Which is a shame, because it delays the time when we can achieve what has been happening for years and years just across the Channel.  And that can only be good for all of us.

Or we can continue to have the same conversation, and just get more of this:

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Pick-up time, local primary school, Tuesday this week

and this:

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Traffic, roundabout by Bath city centre. Typical weekday afternoon, 2pm. Not somewhere I would choose to cycle.

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About deborah @ the magic jug

Now I've passed 60 I'm still doing all sorts of things I haven't done before, as well as carrying on with the things I already love. I live a happy life with my long term love Malcolm. In my blog I explore local and low tech ideas, food, growing, making, reading, thinking, walking, and lots of other words ending in 'ing'.
This entry was posted in Bath, Community, Local, Reflections on life (and death), Seeing differently, Travels, Uncategorized, Walking and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Seeing differently: active travel revisited – changing the conversation

  1. Sam says:

    I agree Deborah. A cyclist friend of ours was killed a few years back in London by a lorry at a well-known black-spot. Tragic. And several friends of ours have survived nasty accidents. There needs to be greater awareness, tolerance and consideration all round.

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  2. Marian says:

    Well said, Deborah. I completely agree that the language used needs to change; we need to be able to put ourselves in others’ shoes and to recognize that we have to have both empathy and respect for all people who want to use roadways, and to not stereotype and lump everyone together and use that to justify tit-for-tat bad behaviour. I also think impatience is a huge issue: people constantly in a hurry to get where they’re going (one or two minutes earlier than if they’d just followed the posted limit), which usually results in a failure to take the necessary precautions to keep everyone safe. Here in Ontario it’s just become law that vehicles must leave a minimum of 1 metre space when passing cyclists. I’m not sure how it’s going to be enforced (unless a police officer is right there observing the action) but it’s at least a step in the right direction.

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  3. plot34 says:

    There is a group of cyclists I refer to a lycra-clad speed junkies. They scare me; whether I’m in pedestrian or motorist mode. I’ve had too many bikes stolen to be a cyclist! Anyhow these individuals spew out hate-filled rants at the slightest provocation. Crossing at a pedestrian crossing when the lights are red or being a perturbed motorist when faced with a cyclist coming the wrong way up a narrow one-way street complete with blind bend. I respond with a question: would you behave like that if you were driving? I doubt they would – in a car that’s careless or dangerous driving and come attached with points and fines, which concentrate the mind. None of that makes the recent spate of deaths OK, of course not. Councils could help by removing street furniture that makes it impossible for cyclists to take evasive action and improve road layouts. I agree, we do seem to have forgotten how to treat each other as people rather than the means of our transport. But I’m not going to hurry to find a lycra-clad type to hug!

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    • Yes, it all boils down to context and attitude – it’s no more appropriate for a cyclist to speed along a shared path or pavement than it is for a car driver to drive on a local residential street as they would a dual carriageway. What I’m asking for is mutual respect and tolerance, and as you say, some infrastructure support from councils and highway engineers.

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  4. You’re absolutely right Deborah, to bring up the language aspect of this. Language is such a wonderful but dangerous tool as it’s so subtle and easy to misconstrue. Especially when it becomes cultural short cuts, e.g “speeding cyclists” = angry, aggressive, over-competitive middle aged man in lycra, “pushy mums = grabbing middle class mums bashing their prams through to the front of any kind of queue”… etc. Whilst being an efficient way to deliver meaning, they generally become shallow and divisive through overuse .

    This is exactly the point I’ve been trying to make on the heated discussions about the Bath canal tow path upgrade! We all the use the path in different forms at different times, as commuter cyclists during the week, as leisure cyclists in time off, as walkers with the family and some of use even as narrow boaters (remember them?!). It’s all the same people, just doing different things at different times – so “people cycling” and “people walking” is a more helpful grouping, rather than grouping people in a homogenous way purely by activity, as if that’s all they are.

    Rather if you ‘have to’ categorise people, you could do it by behaviour and try and tackle that in all it’s guises. E.g. Inconsiderate or ignorant or frustrated…. (people cycling, walking, canoeing etc).

    So thanks for the insight and another well written article!

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    • Thanks for this Andrew. I think it was the tow path canal ‘debate’ that sparked this conversation, it seems to have become a ‘them and us’ argument, rather than seeing the overlaps of what we all want to achieve, which is safe and pleasant access for all.
      Cycling out on the towpath yesterday afternoon was such a lovely reminder of why we should all be able to use the space safely. I’m really hoping that when my wheelchair-using friend next visits, I’ll be able to go out there with him as well – over the past 30 years of his visits it just hasn’t been a practical option.
      I’m working on a post about mutual respect and what it might mean for each of us.

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      • Most excellent! Could be a really interesting piece to all go out together, a walker, a wheelchair user and a cyclist and see what the reaction is! 🙂

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      • I did once (many years ago when we were young and foolish) have the experience of sitting on his lap in the wheelchair and both of us whizzing down the hill on the lane down into Priston, seeing the look of mixed astonishment and horror on the face of a car driver coming up! It was quite an (exhilarating) experience, and probably the car driver didn’t forget it in a hurry either.

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I love to read your comments. I don't expect everyone to agree with me, and I don't mind if you don't. However, I ask you to respect the 'circle time' rules made by my son's primary school teacher: make a comment, ask a question or say something nice. Thank you!

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