Fear of cycling

About five years ago now I presented a paper called ‘Fear of Cycling’ to a workshop at Lancaster University. There are so many different influences and serendipitous convergences in the processes of thinking and writing that it’s impossible to recall the origins of a paper exactly, but I do recall a few of the factors behind its emergence. First, it was pretty obvious to me that many people seem scared of the prospect of cycling. Second, a common response among cycling’s promoters to this fear – which is to try to convince people that, in actual fact, cycling is quite safe – struck me as slightly unsatisfactory, if obviously well-meaning. Third, I wanted to start fleshing out a straightforward idea, which is that one reason why people are scared of cycling is because we’re constantly being told – in various ways – just how dangerous it is. Fourth, it also seemed likely that a fear of cycling might involve more than a fear of danger as it’s conventionally understood, potentially extending to much more existential fears about being and becoming – via cycling – particular kinds of person. Fifth and finally (for now; as we know, thinking is never final …), then, I was interested in foraging further into media representations of cycling and ‘the cyclist’, because it seemed plausible that people might also be scared of cycling if ‘to become a cyclist’ (whatever that means) is to become someone who you currently are not, and thus – just possibly – a stranger to yourself.

My first stab at the paper drew some appreciative murmurs, which gave me the confidence to present the ideas again, but to a more cycling-literate audience, at the 2nd Cycling and Society Research Group Symposium, organised by Ben Fincham at Cardiff University in 2005. At the time I was editing (with Paul Rosen and Peter Cox) Cycling and Society, a tremendous collection of papers which grew out of the first Cycling and Society Symposium which I’d organised at Lancaster in 2004. My intended contribution to that collection was a paper on cycling and social movements, detailing the significance of the object of the bicycle and the practice of cycling over time to – variously – feminism, socialism, anarchism and environmentalism. But I wanted the arguments I was developing in ‘Fear of Cyclng’ to reach people interested in cycling, and who were committed to promoting it. So rather than it becoming lost in an academic journal, I decided it should become my contribution to Cycling and Society, which was published in 2007.

Very few people read academic journals. A few more might read academic books, but not many more – the publisher of Cycling and Society, Ashgate, printed 500 copies. So you will realise how absolutely delighted I was when, last week, Mikael Colville-Andersen from the wonderful Copenhagenize.com got in touch, to say he’d read and liked ‘Fear of Cycling’ and would love to run it in revised form and in five separate instalments on his blog. Copenhagenize.com has a considerably larger readership than the vast majority of my writing has enjoyed thus far. And today, I see the first instalment up there, and already attracting comment.

I’ve enjoyed re-visiting the ideas in ‘Fear of Cycling’. I’ve re-written the introduction slightly, to make it more blog-friendly, and Mikael is very kindly and expertly editing the rest of the article. My ideas have probably changed a little since I first wrote it (I’d be disappointed if they hadn’t), but the main thing is to see them out there, reaching a wider audience, being read, and – wow, yes! – provoking comment and discussion. The work I put into developing those ideas and setting them down on paper feels suddenly more worthwhile. So I’m immensely grateful to Mikael for offering me this guest-spot on his blog.

And, as I’m gradually trying to build my own little blog over here, destination unknown, I thought it’d be nice to re-visit the origins and development of ‘Fear of Cycling’, in order to highlight some of the processes involved – although the outcome of thinking might sometimes seem ordered and polished, the processes underpinning it are usually much more chaotic, accidental and collective. Whether or not they know it, many other people are always involved in my thinking, and I’m now following comments being posted on Copenhagenize.com, and they’ll be digested and no doubt gradually incorporated into my future thinking …

When we write it’s also impossible to know precisely, if at all, what the consequences of our writing might be (and those consequences are never of course under the control of the author). I guess that we all write in order to produce some kind of consequence, even if the consequence is to better understand, reflect on and develop our own thoughts; completely inconsequential writing would be, well, a waste of time!

So again, I’m happy that a piece of writing which a few days ago was somewhere in the shadows of university library bookshelves is suddenly radiating out from Copenhagen, and hopefully provoking, perhaps inspiring, a few more people to think about cycling …

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8 Responses to “Fear of cycling”

  1. Beatrix Wupperman Says:

    Dear Dave, I have read your remarks about helmets and cycling. I agree totally with you, that all this helmet request, helmet pressed on peoples’ heads does only happen because politicians do not dare to tackle the reason for the danger that makes them ask people to wear helmets: cars and the behaviour of car drivers.

    Like Richard, who sent you a message about our project, I am very interested in changing transport policies in Britain. So we all have to keep at it!!

    • thinking about cycling Says:

      Thanks for your comments Beatrix, and as I said to Richard, you’re involved in a really fantastic project – keep up the good work, and I look forward to hearing more.

      Absolutely, we have to keep at it. I decided a long time ago now that I’m in this for the long haul. Cultural change is a strange and unpredictable business, but as sociologist John Urry notes, although it’s an historically very recent phenomenon, societies such as the UK and Germany have rapidly become locked-in to car-based automobilities, and although those automobilities can be un-done, they will not be very easily un-done!

      To talk in rather old-fashioned terms now, the call for cyclists to wear helmets is clearly part of the dominant ideology, and that dominant ideology is premised upon the continuation of motoring-as-usual. Helmet promotion and motoring-as-usual form part of the same system, one which is institutionally and culturally embedded. So if we challenge one, we challenge the other. Our task is to make both seem as antiquated as possible as quickly as possible!

      Let’s keep at it!



  2. Beatrix Wupperman Says:

    Yes, fist up, Dave! Or is it: Let’s ring our bells?

  3. Robert Anderson Says:


    Excellent exposition and ruminations in your “Fear of cycling” series which I’ve read on Copenhagenize. Let’s summarize, shall we?

    1. Increasing use of motor vehicles (I really love your expression “accelerating automobility”) over the course of the 20th century, combined with a willing-or-unwilling complicity on the part of governing authorities (and by “governing authorities” I mean everything from the legislator being lobbied by the motor vehicle industry to the local cop giving preference to the motorist), have created a pressure to move cyclists off the road, so as not to impede motor traffic.

    2. Nonetheless, bicycles are regarded as vehicles in most jurisdictions (in the US, at least, for those areas following the Uniform Vehicular Code, which is basically everywhere in the US. I can’t speak to the legal environment of the UK). Full rights and responsibilities, etc.

    3. Fear campaigns (both craven and unconscious) have promulgated the incorrect perception that cycling on the road is statistically dangerous (which it is not). The average non-urban cyclist has bought into this myth. (I say “non-urban cyclist” because I know many rec-cyclists who think I’m crazy for commuting.)

    4. Items 1 and 3, have led to some initiatives to separate cyclists from motor vehicle traffic. It is widely protested by cycle advocates that this is unfair, given the huge subsidies given to (motor) vehicle infrastructure. (This proposed disenfranchisement is the reason that the most radical “vehicular cyclists” have militantly worked against separations of any kind between cycling traffic and motor traffic. These extreme advocates, beginning with John Forester a generation ago, have feared that any separation whatever would lead quickly to “separate but unequal”.)

    5. What are the likely solutions to this issue?
    a. Better cyclist education (perhaps in public schools as in Denmark)
    emphasizing essential vehicular behavior and factual safety stats.
    b. Better motorist education regarding laws relating to cyclists.
    c. Better education of law enforcement personnel as to vehicular laws
    regarding bicycles.
    d. More consistent law enforcement on motor-vehicle/cyclist issues.

    • thinking about cycling Says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful summary, Robert, and I hope you check back on Copenhagenize in a few days, to read my ‘conclusions’, and to continue the process of thinking through this ‘complex of issues’.

      What is paramount, I think, is that we don’t fall into polarising cycling as either a) something that must be on roads, or b) something which must be away from roads (taking ‘roads’ to be as they are now, and as they are conventionally understood, by most people). The world (and cycling’s needs) is and will continue to be more complex than a simple solution – which reduces cycling’s place to only one particular kind of setting – allows. Personally, I want cycling pretty much everywhere.

      Cheers for now


  4. Beatrix Wupperman Says:

    I have a little problem with Robert’s argument about the separation of cyclists from car drivers. I think we have to look at that a bit more precisely:
    1. Roads should be laid out for 10 year old pupils, who want to cycle to school or where ever.
    2. I would not want to mix 10 year old cyclists with cars.
    3. Roads with just pavements and road space where cars drive at 50 km/h and/or there are more than 10.000 cars/day, should be restructured, I mean, space should be taken away from cars – which slows them down in the first place – and redistributed to cyclists as cycle lanes or cycle tracks.
    4. Cycle lanes on the road should in no case be narrower than 1.50 meters. Better more.
    5. Cycle tracks (beside the road, but not on the road) should have the same minimum width.
    6. In every case, space should be redistributed, less space for cars, whatever that means.
    7. Cycle lanes should be marked with strong colours.

    • thinking about cycling Says:

      I agree with all your points Beatrix. (I assume in point 2 you mean as-things-currently-are? I don’t think I would have a problem with 10 year old children sharing space with cars if (and only if) those cars are travelling no faster than 30 kph, if the people driving those cars drive as if that 10 year old child is their own child, and if the motorist is held responsible for any ‘accident’ that might occur – but I accept that’s quite a lot of ‘if’s!) Although most people with a stake in preserving the current social, political and/or environmental order act otherwise, I think it’s very painfully obvious that promoting cycling involves deterring driving, and it’s equally obvious that anyone who is not committed to taking space away from cars is not serious about getting many more people onto bikes.

      Great to get your comment – thanks!


  5. Beatrix Wupperman Says:

    Yes Dave,

    All the nonsense of PR around cycling is hot air, if the infrastructure does not change, and that means inevitably that cars have to give up a bit of their space.
    Our film “beauty and the bike”, that hits exactly all these points will be shown in Britain (premiere) on the 9th of December 2009 in Darlington, you are very welcome to come along!

    We shall send you an invite, if you wish as a pdf so you could put it up on your blog.

    The longer we do this work around young women and cycling the angrier we get about things around cycling that are not done though they are obvious. There is loads to say……

    Best wishes and keep going!


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