A ‘cycling revolution’? On your bike, Boris

When cyclists are continually told that their mode of transport is saving humanity from doom, it’s no wonder so many of them are annoying pricks.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Science & Tech

Anything that makes London a bit more like Paris is a good idea in my books. So I’m quite excited about mayor Boris Johnson’s cycle-hire scheme. Having tried out Paris’s bikes-for-hire during recent trips there, I can confirm that they’re perfect for people who enjoy cycling but not so much that we would ever fork out £1,000 for two wheels or transmogrify into a Jon Snow Cyclist (people who imagine that riding a bike makes them morally superior beings and who bull-twitter all day long about their cycling escapades).

However, I’m not so keen on Boris’s use of the term ‘cycling revolution’. Not because I’m an R-word purist (that word lost its clout years ago, as summed up by the Channel 4 food show Willie’s Chocolate Revolution), but because, while cycling is fun, the politics of cycling is not. The reason why the cyclist is now celebrated by the powers-that-be as a Decent, Responsible and Caring human being – when, let’s face it, a lot of them are annoying pricks – is because our rulers have lost any sense of how they might improve or overhaul the transport system and the cityscape. They promote the cult of the cyclist in place of a serious debate about the future of our cities.

It’s clear that Boris’s cycling initiatives are about more than practically providing bikes and spaces to ride them in. They are loaded with moralism. As part of his ‘revolution’, he’s not only launching the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme, through which 10,000 bikes at 400 docking stations will be available to Londoners for a fairly small fee – he’s also organising the painting of two bright-blue ‘Cycle Super Highways’ across the city and plans to launch a new cycling police unit and to ‘embed cycling in transport policy’.

For Boris, bike-riding is not merely a transport choice – it’s a moral choice. It can help to ‘improve air quality, cut carbon emissions and reduce congestion on the transport network’, he trills. And that is why he plans to take ‘radical’ measures (‘revolutionary’, ‘radical’ – now I am starting to get annoyed) to make ‘cycling the first choice for many thousands of Londoners’. Because when you foreswear the filthy motor-car or packed buses, and instead get in the saddle, you are not only going from A to B – you are helping to make London a cleaner, greener, happier, healthier place. Your pedalling is political.

In investing cyclists with super moral purpose, Boris is following in the footsteps of other recent initiatives. In 2007, the New Labour government gave a £295,000 grant to the Cyclists’ Touring Club, Britain’s largest cyclists’ organisation, for something called CycleHero Week. In a blockbuster-style cinema ad, we were told that ‘a menace is spreading… silently, invisibly, moving across the planet. A new breed of hero is needed.’ The menace was climate change (isn’t it always?) and the hero was the cyclist. CycleHero Week managed massively to overblow the problem of climate change and the egos of cyclists in a single piece of cinematic jibber-jabber.

Before Boris, the previous London mayor, Ken Livingstone, invested £400million into improving the cycling infrastructure in London, in order to demonstrate that ‘cycling is now associated with a modern cosmopolitan city that is in control and at ease with itself’, whatever that means. This might be bona fide bollocks, but you get the gist: cycling is modern, cosmo, good, pure, etc. Two years ago, the New Labour government announced a £47million funding pool for any city that willingly turned itself into a ‘cycling city’, where walking and cycling take precedence over driving and destroying the environment. Getting people into the saddle can make a ‘real difference to congestion and pollution in local communities’, said a minister.

The first notable thing about the beatification of the bicyclist is that it explains why some of them – not all, I know! – are insufferably arrogant. I can’t be the only walker who has encountered sneering cyclists who, when you try to cross the road, look at you as if you are a grubby-haired chimney sweep who has just stepped on to the manicured lawns at Balmoral. As a contributor to Time Out argues, the cyclist ‘ascribes to himself the most unassailable moral superiority’. He looks at cars not as ‘vehicles conveying humans about their business but as robot killing-machines without a conscience’. Well, when they’re constantly told that they are heroes – superheroes – whose preferred mode of transport is saving humankind from doom, is it any surprise that some of them think they’re better than you and me? The authorities’ cynical promotion of cycling as a morally pure form of getting about town has energised an army of what I call ‘wankers’, creating unnecessary, morally loaded conflict between cyclists and motorists and between cyclists and pedestrians.

And the second notable thing about the promotion of the cult of cycling is how much it is about avoiding having a big debate about how our cities might be reshaped and remade to accommodate growing numbers of motorists and people in general. There’s a serious roads crisis in Britain. In 1964, there were seven million licensed private cars that covered 95 billion miles per year; by the late 2000s, that had risen to 26million cars travelling a total of 306 billion miles per year. And yet over that 40-year period, total road length in Britain increased by a mere 20 per cent – from 200,000 miles in 1964 to 245,000 miles in 2004/2005.

And how do the authorities deal with this practical problem of more cars and same-ish amount of road? Not by building more infrastructure or rethinking the transport system, but by unleashing a combination of punitive and moralistic measures designed to price or embarrass motorists off the roads and on to bikes/Shanks’s Pony instead. London has introduced the congestion charge as a quickfix solution to the problem of ‘too many cars’ (which is in fact a problem of ‘not enough road space’) and other cities want to follow suit, and the powers-that-be cynically elevate the cyclist as a sainted saddler whom we should all aspire to be like. The sanctification of the cyclist is built on the political, moral and technological failure of our rulers to rethink city life, city habits and city travel.

Look, we’re never going to have ‘cycling cities’. Why not? Because people have children whom they don’t want to transport to school on a tandem thanks very much; because we do weekly shops which won’t fit into a wicker basket; because workmen need to deliver big things to businesses and building sites and that can’t be done on a BMX; and because some people like the speed and wind-through-the-hair feeling that comes with driving a Ferrari but not a Chopper. More cars and fewer bikes is a sign of progress, which is why 80 per cent of Beijingers used to slog through that vast city on bikes and now only 19.7 per cent do. Our rulers need to deal with this fact, and find ways to accommodate it, rather than pushing forward the cyclist to do their dirty work of making drivers feel so guilt-ridden that they sell their hatchbacks and pedal like it was 1939.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

Previously on spiked

Angus Kennedy and Rob Lyons argued that infrastructure should be a political issue. Tim Black described how some people would be happy to slow London down. Rob Lyons was delighted that Manchester rejected road pricing. Mick Hume wrote that Britain needs more roads. Or read more at spiked issue Transport.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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