Fear of Cycling: a summary

After presenting on ‘Fear of Cycling’ to the Velo-city Vienna conference recently, I was asked to summarise my talk for the post-conference magazine. It’s lost some nuance and complexity but I’ve got the argument down to 1,000 words, and post it below for anyone interested. I do so because Velo-city reminded me how ‘live’ is the issue of helmets, particularly – helmets look set to become mandatory in Spain, and already are in Australia – where next year’s Velo-city takes place, in Adelaide; so it seems not everyone yet knows how huge an impediment to mass cycling is helmet promotion, let alone compulsion.

Helmet promotion


Cycling is so good, yet many people still don’t cycle. Why? We must start by recognising how cycling conditions remain so generally poor; to do otherwise is naïve. Most people simply don’t want to, and won’t, cycle along roads dominated by fast, motorised traffic; the thought of riding amongst or close to big, heavy vehicles is one they find very scary. Nobody wants to get hurt and, rightly or wrongly, people feel getting hurt is more likely if they move by bike.

For anyone who wants to see more cycling, the instinct here is to try to persuade people that cycling is actually, really safe. We might explain how cycling is:

  • objectively safe – the chances of a crash when cycling are very slim;
  • relatively safe – for example, there is more chance of being injured when cooking than when cycling;
  • much safer than not cycling – the health benefits of cycling, it’s said, outweigh the risks by 20:1.

Better still, we might try not only to encourage people to ride despite their fears, but meanwhile also push for substantial – radical – improvements to current conditions for cycling. But the question remains: why is cycling – something which perhaps gives us pleasure and benefit – in the minds of other people so worrying? Yes, people might overstate cycling’s risks. Yes, more must be done to make cycling (feel) safer. But might there also be cultural and political processes at work which make cycling seem dangerous, more dangerous than it is, and which produce fear of cycling? And if this was the case, and we identified those processes, couldn’t, shouldn’t we intervene, to stop them?

Emotions can be, and are, constructed. Cycling is not inherently dangerous and a fear of cycling is not inevitable. We need only look to the Netherlands to see that – cycling there is so normal that people barely even think about it. But across most of the world cycling is more problematic, with many people reluctant to cycle because they think it’s dangerous.

How is fear of cycling produced?

So let’s examine how fear of cycling is produced. There are three clear ways in which cycling is made to seem more dangerous than it is. Ironically they all purport to be responding to cycling’s danger and to be making cycling safer, but instead they produce cycling as a dangerous practice, and thus contribute to fear of cycling; they do, in other words, the opposite of what they intend.

1. Road safety education

Road safety education teaches everyone, but particularly children, that moving around is risky, roads are dangerous, and they ought to be very careful, especially when walking and cycling. You know the kind of thing – leaflets telling children to keep out the way of cars. Such ‘information’ reinforces driving as the normal means of moving around, and makes cycling seem difficult, awkward and dangerous; it usually puts responsibility for safety squarely on the (child) cyclist’s shoulders – it’s up to you to devise a quiet route (however long), to wear hi-viz clothes and (of course!) a helmet. Road safety education doesn’t make places safer; it makes driving more normal and cycling more dangerous; and it seems often deliberately designed to instil fear of cycling.

2. Helmet promotion

In a context marked by widespread fear of cycling, promoting helmets – or even making them mandatory – can seem like an easy, obvious, quick and sensible thing to do. Which is why it’s done. But this is no way to promote cycling, because promoting helmets depends on associating cycling with danger, and will therefore inevitably increase fear of cycling. Like road safety education, helmet promotion puts responsibility onto the wrong people; and instead of making streets safer, makes cycling more dangerous. To promote helmets is to promote car use and to repress cycling.

3. New (safe) spaces for cycling

If fear stops most people riding, an obvious solution is to change cycling’s place. And in the short to medium term this might be a necessary step to overcoming fear of cycling, getting more people riding, and building a mass culture of cycling. But can you see how the logic here remains similar to the previous two examples? We try to make cycling safer without tackling the root problem, the danger imposed by fast motorised traffic. And with similar results – the impulse to take cycling off the road inevitably increases people’s fear of cycling on the road, and also makes those who remain cycling on the road a bit more ‘strange’.

So all three attempts to make cycling safer actually make cycling (seem) more dangerous, and produce a fear of cycling whilst failing to change how most people, most of the time, move around (which across most of the world, is increasingly by car). And so cycling remains in the minority, and the cyclist remains strange.


But we’re trying to promote cycling aren’t we? Yes, apparently, and we shouldn’t be surprised if there’s discomfort about (even resentment and resistance towards) the push for cycling – because by inviting people to cycle we’re asking them to become different. However, cycling would be more successfully promoted if we stopped making it seem dangerous and difficult, and worked instead to make it the simplest, easiest thing in the world. The sooner we make cycling normal, the sooner people will stop feeling cycling is a strange thing to do.

So finally then, how do we combat fear of cycling and make cycling normal?

  • From the bottom-up – by grassroots empowerment, communicating cycling’s benefits, and helping people insert cycling more effectively into their lives. The more people cycle, the safer cycling becomes;
  • From the top-down – by explaining to our governing institutions how cycling remains much too difficult and dangerous, and requires radical political re-prioritisation. The more cycling is prioritised, the safer cycling becomes;
  • From everywhere – by shifting away from the misguided attempts to make cycling safer discussed here (with the caveat that high-quality dedicated cycling infrastructure is often now a necessary step to mainstreaming cycling), and concentrating instead on making motorised traffic less dangerous – by for example increasing restraints on driving, slowing speeds, and enforcing careful driving. The more we recognise the real danger to be driving, the safer cycling becomes.

Fear of cycling can be otherwise, but we must work to make it so.

Tags: , , ,

47 Responses to “Fear of Cycling: a summary”

  1. Fear of Cycling | lancasterdynamo Says:

    […] cycling campaigner/blogger/academic/writer/thinker, has written about this on his own blog, Thinking About Cycling and this neatly dissects this debate for anybody interested in […]

    • psychobikeology Says:

      On the helmet point, I was mildly irritated by the email I’ve just recieved from TRL with some details about taking part in their junction design trials. It informs me that “bicycles and helmets will be provided”. The trials are going to take place on a mockup of a junction – not real roads and the equivalent, I would have thought, of trundling round a playground or car park.

      • Chris Whitehouse Says:

        I also am on their email list and noticed the same thing. It seems wrong that trials to genuinely improve infrastructure for cyclists start by victim blaming

        I asked them if helmets are required and they said yes. I asked them why and they said it’s because their insurers require it.

        So the the insurance industry is a key agency for promoting the fear of cycling that Dave is talking about.

        Having said that trundling around a playground probably much more closely replicates the conditions helmets are designed for than real roads.

  2. Mark Vanveenendaal (@Bikeforit) Says:

    Very succinct Dave. I would also add the influence of RCB’s(Recreational Competitive Bicyclists) on helmet use. Road racers and mountain bikers engage in a dangerous sport and should use head protection. Unfortunately as the recognized experts on cycling this idea has filtered down to how to perform biking for transportation safely. In addition I am interested in what message is being conveyed to non bicyclists by helmeted cyclists. A troubling message is that cyclists are prepared for conflict. Not unlike a soldier who wears a helmet in battle. The promotion of helmets seems a perpetuation of the fallacy of the car verses bicyclist conflict.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Mark, succint is rarely my middle name 😉 So good to know I can do it, sometimes.

      I guess I’m a RCB (not heard that acronym before), and it’s certainly true that non-helmeted RCBs are increasingly rare, and increasingly frowned upon (if mainly silently) by the helmeted majority. And of course you’re right, the image of us all in our helmets has an impact on broader understandings of cycling, including city cycling.

      In connection to your other (related) point, with city cyclists in many places in such a minority, they are already slightly ‘strange’. Because cycling feels risky, and because the dominant perception of city cycling is as risky, helmets will have obvious appeal to this group of people (and their loved ones). So then we have a minority of ‘strange people’ looking even stranger (and less human). It’s completely understandable (that people doing something which is so widely perceived to be scary want to protect themselves as best they can, by wearing a helmet), but we get into this continual erosion of cycling as an ordinary, everyday, simple practice, a downward spiral from which it’s hard to break. I completely understand people’s impulse to wear helmets; it’s helmet promotion which I find offensive, as it so completely misrepresents, and so perpetuates, the real problem, the dangers of motorised traffic. (I guess all I want to say to people who promote helmets for everyday cycling, really, is ‘please stop trying to persuade people that cycling is dangerous and they should protect themselves, and put your energies instead into persuading people how insane it is to have heavy metal objects tearing down our streets and through our cities, and how important it is to re-civilise the places where we live, work & play; otherwise you’re perpetuating the problem rather than tackling it.’)

      Sorry, a longer response than I intended! (Like most cycling advocates, in general I try to steer clear of discussions around helmets these days – they’re too tiring! – but I guess I’ve started this one, so had better see it through!)

      Thanks very much for contributing, and all the best

      • Gary O'Brien Says:

        You’re letting your politics get in the way of common sense. Do some research on Traumatic Brain Injury and its long-term effects on quality of life. It’s not something you want to experience, and it doesn’t take much of a rap on the noggin to cause serious injury.
        The lives of more than a few cyclists have been severely impacted by head injuries suffered in simple falls.
        Do the research. You might end up wearing your helmet most of the time.

        Gary O’Brien
        Tucson, AZ

      • Dave Horton Says:

        Thanks Gary for your response, but I’m not sure whether you’ve read the article, or perhaps just not carefully enough (or conversely – taking my responsibility as its author seriously – I didn’t convey my points clearly enough)?

        I do, actually, wear a helmet most of the time (the approximately 90% of my total annual mileage which is comprised of non-utility cycling). The argument is not about helmet wearing, but about helmet promotion, which tends inevitably to perpetuate cycling’s association with danger, death & injury.

        Also, you differentiate politics and common sense. But actually common sense is always political. ‘Common sense’ is created out of multiple forces, and these forces are at least partly ideological. It then can become ossified as ‘taken-for-granted’, ‘what we all know’ but my task as a sociologist is to question, open up (for potential revision) such ossified politically-derived knowledge. The article argues that the ‘common sense’ of helmets (and the similarly questionable but taken-for-granted claim, which you also make, that ‘helmets save lives’ (well, it depends on what perspective you take, actually)) is constructed out of such ideological (anti-cycling) forces.

        The points you make have very little to do with the points I’m making in the article (although the points you make are part of the ideologically-based ‘common sense’ which, in its way, the article is critiquing).

        Best wishes

      • garyobrien Says:

        I heard you loud and clear. You’re of course welcome to your opinion – I just hope no one decides against wearing a helmet after listening to you.
        Enjoy your political conversation.
        Best regards,

      • Dave Horton Says:

        Thanks Gary

        Sorry to be pedantic, but actually it’s not an opinion but an analytically derived point 😉

        I think we should worry much less about putting people off wearing helmets than about putting them off cycling.

        You enjoy your political conversation too.



    • Geoff Says:

      I am a non helmeted RCB, and I do sense antipathy from the helmeted RCB’s. And more so from some of the PCB’s. For example the first British Tour de France winner who has publicly stated that I am an idiot.

      At least I now know I am an increasingly rare idiot.

      Perhaps Dave should be worried that his blog is enjoyed by an increasingly rare idiot. A challenge to the dominance of the motor vehicle will be unlikely to succeed if backed by increasingly rare idiots.



      • Dave Horton Says:

        Thanks Geoff!

        I’m tempted blithely to say, “rare idiots of the world unite, and take over!”; but, more seriously, you hit upon a raw nerve because it’s a key tension which I feel, and which pervades so much cycling advocacy – that it tends to be ‘the most political’ of cyclists who are most passionate to change the world in bike-friendly ways yet who also realise that much which is supposedly done to benefit cycling tends instead so often to deter it.

        It’s almost sometimes as though the (already monumental) task of moving cycling from the margins to the mainstream is hindered by many people who (allegedly) work for cycling! (When I think this I’m often reminded of the fantastic analyses of Franz Fanon, who wrote of African struggles for independence from colonialism. Someone should really take Fanon’s insights and apply them to the worlds of ‘cycling promotion’; I’m sure the results would be incendiary!)

        Still, back to the helmet debate – it presents a terrible dilemma, doesn’t it?

        *Either* say nothing, and thereby submit to the moralistic and growing orthodoxy that you’re irresponsible for not wearing a helmet – so that ‘consensus’ effectively emerges out of the opponents’ silence;

        *Or* enter the debate, which stokes the fires of that moralistic pro-helmet sentiment which is already in the ascendant, and which is hard to win because in the context of today’s prevailing ‘common sense’, arguing against helmets seems counter-intuitive. (Explain it to people and they tend to understand, but they have to be patient and willing to learn, and most people prefer to reinforce their existing prejudices.)

        It’s almost like it’d take a more fundamental revisioning (or enlightenment?) of society, what’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’, for opponents of helmet promotion to make sense.

        Sorry for long response!
        Thanks for reading, and keep riding how you want to ride!

  3. Ben Holroyd Says:

    I normally agree whole heartedly with your posts but on this occasion I have to disagree. Cycling is dangerous due to motorists and a road network completely constructed around them. Road safety ‘education’ and helmet promotion are just symptoms of that and the gov’t not wanting to spend money on cycling infrastructure or do anything meaningful to make the roads safer for cyclists. Can’t comment on new safe places for cycling as I havent come across any.
    Perhaps I’m misunderstanding and you mean these are just further contributing factors to ‘dangerising’ cycling but I would still say that motorists and the network are by far the 2 biggest factors. we wouldn’t even be talking about helmets if cyclists were (and felt) safe, look at The Netherlands.

    PS. All your points are numbered 1, typo?

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks for your comments Ben, and for pointing out that typo (now corrected).

      I think we agree, actually, but I’d say that helmet promotion and road safety ‘education’ aren’t ‘merely’ symptoms of the problem, but causes of it too. They keep the car-centric status quo intact, by identifying as the problem, and so seeking to govern, cycling. As you say, it’s not cycling that is the problem; it’s the car-centric system. I try to avoid talking directly about ideology (it tends to make many people switch off), but helmet promotion, road safety ‘education’, and (more arguably) the impulse to shunt cycling off the roads onto fresh, ‘safe’, spaces are all part of the same ideological system which keeps the car (and the wider systems in which car use is embedded) taken-for-granted, accepted, normal.

      But I absolutely agree that the domination of mobility space by dangerous (and uncivil, unsustainable, polluting etc) objects is clearly the fundamental problem. We just have to identify and challenge the ways in which this fundamental problem is produced and reproduced, and I’d argue that helmet promotion campaigns and road safety education are two ways (if remarkably mundane; but then power is generally exercised in mundane – and almost invisible, silent – ways).

      I’m curious (but not disagreeing) that you say there are no ‘new safe spaces’ for cycling around you. Would you consider an off-road Sustrans route (on which people on bikes nevertheless must usually share space with people on foot, dogs etc) to be ‘safe’?

      Thanks loads for reading/responding.
      Best wishes

      • Ben Holroyd Says:

        I was being ‘partially’ sarcastic with my no new safe spaces comment, but only partially. There’s a 1 mile stretch of ex railway line that doesn’t go anywhere and has 6 gates and anti cycling barrier things on it, is fairly narrow for its intended purpose, that’s the only sustrans route nearby.
        But to answer your question I would treat an offroad sustrans route as safe, providing it was of the correct quality etc. unfortunately it then moves onto the problem of whether it is actually useful to me, a narrow, unmade route with a gate every 200m that doesn’t go anywhere isn’t much of a help in getting to work, and probably wouldn’t entice me as a leisure route (to be clear I don’t cycle for ‘pleasure’ at all currently).
        I have dim memories of riding the camel trail in Cornwall some years ago that felt safe and even perhaps relaxing, not a word I would associate with road cycling.

      • Dave Horton Says:

        You’ve hit upon the crux of the matter, haven’t you really Ben? In that the alternative to riding on the roads is so often, almost always in Britain, to ride along convoluted, indirect, short stretches of route that connect nowhere to nowhere (well, often car park to car park). So we get a minority of people willing and able to ride on roads which to the vast majority of people feel dangerous, and then a much larger group of people who ride for recreation because that’s the only riding they feel willing and able to do. And as you said I think in your previous comment, it’s only really the Netherlands that has cracked this – and provides routes from everywhere to everywhere which feel both safe and convenient.

        I think one problem with much thinking about cycling (and hence an important reason for cycling research) is that we tend (as with so much else in life also) to generalise out of our own (necessarily limited) experience. So because the Lancaster district has some quite good off-road cycling routes (along disused railways parallel to the River Lune, and also along the canal), I tend to assume (although I know otherwise, if I stop to think) that other places have similar facilities. Likewise, I think that many people who find cycling on roads to be quite straightforward assume that cycling on roads is quite straightforward (when research shows clearly that it’s not). And people in London tend to think that the cycling situation is improving across Britain, when it’s not – in many places it’s getting gradually worse (and it was dreadful to start with!). It’s important and good to hear of other people’s experiences, and to try to learn from them (and my main point here, perhaps, is that I think there’s insufficient understanding of and empathy towards the ‘non-cyclist’ amongst ‘serious cyclists’ in Britain today).

        Thanks for coming back on this – dialogues are better than monologues!
        All the best

    • Geoff Says:

      Road safety education is not simply a reflection of the danger presented by motorists and our road network. It was started by the motor industry early in the 20th century, with the aim of shifting the blame for road deaths of cyclists and pedestrians onto the victims. And it has been an excellent success for the motor industry.

      I live in what locals refer to as a village. This morning I saw about 30 children from the Primary School going for a walk. All children decked out in hi viz. Unfortunately it seems that this is now considered normal and responsible behaviour.



      • Dave Horton Says:

        Indeed, Geoff.

        But it’s worse than that, too, isn’t it – road safety education – because it has tended over the last century ever more to reduce complexity in the outdoors environment in favour of motorists (speeding them up, making them safer, helping them to feel more invincible & more entitled) at the expense of more vulnerable others (slowing them down, making them less safe, ‘helping’ them to feel more scared and less entitled)?

        One day we’ll look back and wonder how on earth it happened … so long as enough of us keep at it 😉

        Thanks for reading, and for chipping in on this – much appreciated.

        Best wishes

  4. M. Vitor Says:

    What should we do to disconnect the feeling of safety of the wearing helmet policy? Lately in some places I feel also like a monster if I am not wearing a helmet and just like you I also promote that bike is safety just like it is.
    Talking to a friend about being an example for kids (on the wearing helmet subject) I used the very same arguments as you but he was not convinced. People should be more worried about giving good examples while using any mean of transportation, even walking, and for me the main word here is sharing.
    The matter is the size and the power of the vehicles that we “wear”, I mean, the pedestrian is afraid of the biker that is afraid of the car that is afraid of the truck…
    The sidewalk induces a little bit of safety to the pedestrians as much as the helmets do for some cyclists but we are all aware that the sidewalk protection factor is proportional to the driver’s conscience that understands that the sidewalk is a space for the pedestrians all this process took years to be absorbed by the society and now it seems that its time to bycicles to find its space again among people and cars. I live in an island where cars are the lords, even on the sidewalks.
    Segregation and fear seem not to be the right path, I believe on sharing and respect tools as a way to reach this space that the bycicles deserves in a more cohesive world.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks M, that’s the ultimate goal, isn’t it – to re-civilise space which has been destroyed (and in many places is still being destroyed) by motorised vehicles? That’s a long-term and global goal which is dependent upon some fundamental shifts in values, and some fundamental re-framing of what is more and less important. Although I’d agree that many trends continue in the wrong direction, I’m overall quite optimistic that sanity will ultimately prevail and we’ll come to recognise that cars are good for a few things but bad for most others; whilst bicycles are good for many things if bad for a few. And so gradually we can re-work the world (including our own lives) towards an embrace of the bicycle (and health, fitness, conviviality, sustainability, justice), and a refusal of the car (and so also a refusal of severance, alienation, pollution, death & injury, oil dependence, speed and distance for their own sake etc).

      But I think this wider vision is key, when it comes to talking to people about whether we should promote helmets for cycling, or do something else instead. Because fundamentally, when we’ve having such conversations, we’re discussing (and in a small way also deciding) what kind of world we want, what kind of values we consider important. So sometimes we have to go to that bigger scale, in order to convince people that helmets are not the answer but actually the problem! At one level we might be talking about helmets (or sidewalks), but at another we’re talking about what we mean by human flourishing, about politics, philosophy, ethics and ‘the good life’. The kind of changes we want don’t come about quickly, *but they do come about, so long as people want them and work for them*. So, for what it’s worth, my advice is keep up the great work, and try to enjoy yourself whilst you’re at it! I’m not sure if that’s trite or profound, or maybe both?!!

      Thanks for reading and responding
      Very best wishes

  5. Paul M Says:

    Actually, psychobikeology, ironically the TRL test site is one place where a helmet might actually provide a statistically valid benefit.

    Helmets are designed to provide protection in falls off a bike from a low height and at low speed (about 12mph). I wear one for precisely those situations – slippery roads in winter, and stony or root-bound off-road tracks for cross-country riding, where I might trip or slip and bang my head on the ground or a tree branch.

    In among road traffic, a helmet is as much use as a chocolate teapot. Quite apart from the limitations on the impacts it can absorb – connecting with the momentum of a 1 tonne vehicle moving at 30mph, anyone? – most urban cycle accidents involve limb or torso crush injuries. When we get Star-Trek style personal force fields for whole body protection, I might get one. Meanwhile, I won’t bother.

    • psychobikeology Says:

      Yes quite – and I’m aware of my own inconsistency in this with the 12mph thing!

      But I’d hardly have chosen such a strange blog name if I wasn’t tickled by the fact that we know one thing and yet still do the opposite. I’m basically a rather timid sort and I’ve noticed that I tend to wear a helmet-thingy in order to manipulate my own psychology into feeling safer – and hence to take the bike when it just feels so much easier to walk. What this means is that I sometimes wear one in the situations where I know perfectly well it’s least likely to do any good and not in those low-speed situation where it really might be of some use.

      Uh oh. I seem to have ended up talking about the H-word. I’ve been meaning to write a few things about this for ages … I have some comments that wll be considered … well I suppose I can always turn off the ‘comments’ function …

      • Dave Horton Says:

        Ha! I know what you mean pyschobikeology, about fearing uttering the ‘h’ word! (Though, as usual I am absolutely delighted to see, from responses so far, how thoughtful, sensible, intelligent and non-histrionic most people (who read this blog, anyway) are 😉

        Personally, I think robust rationalities (and perhaps especially at the individual level) are hard to find when it comes to the helmet debate, wherever you sit. I tend not to wear a helmet when cycling around town (at lower speed), but I tend to wear a helmet when training fast in the countryside. Like you, I think this is due to the difference in my perceived vulnerability between the two scenarios, rather than any understanding of the potential benefits of a helmet; I simply feel more vulnerable barrelling down a hill at 40 mph than I do pottering around town at 10 mph. (It might also have something to do with role-models; I’m happier to associate myself with Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish than I am with people who think going shopping requires a helmet?!)

        But for my argument in ‘Fear of Cycling’, all this is besides the point, the point being that you don’t make a practice (well, maybe there are some weird exceptions somewhere?) more popular by making it seem more scary, and encouraging people to protect themselves from it; you make a practice more popular by making it less scary, and by discouraging people to protect themselves from it by making the overall context for that practice less dangerous.

        Cheers for now

  6. The Ranty Highwayman Says:

    On my BMX, in the 80’s without a helmet, were the roads safer then?

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Ahoy the Ranty Highwayman, stand and deliver! Because you’re being rather cryptic, and so I’m unsure of you’re point? If you want a response, you need to elaborate, and then I’ll do my best. In the meantime, my hunch is the roads were a bit less dangerous overall in the 1980s, mainly because there were fewer cars, fewer journeys in those cars, and overall a lower degree of entitlement (and aggressiveness) displayed by those cars’ drivers. But also, helmets hadn’t really been invented, had they? (I wore what we called a crash-hat when I road-raced in the mid 1980s; but didn’t get my first helmet until about 1990 when I left my job at Lloyds Bank in Birmingham to work as a bike messenger in London – my colleagues clubbed together to buy me a helmet as my leaving present! Before that, on my first cycle tours as a twelve or thirteen year old, I’m sure my Mum would have encouraged me to wear a helmet, if they’d been around!)

  7. khal spencer Says:

    Fear sells and restricts. Its not just bicycling. Its the whole culture of fear. Here in the States, we are taught to be fearful of traffic, terrorists, hunters, guns, boogie-men behind bushes, people from the other political party, foreigners, Those Who Don’t Look Like Us, and just about everything else. Once that is established, its easy to sell Urban Assault Vehicles, violations of the Constitution, expensive government security and safety programs, home alarm systems, and fences.

    On the other hand, a bicyclist looks vulnerable. Here you are sailing along on a gossamer steel machine that weights 20-40 lbs on a roadway full of….gasp….cars and trucks….full of drivers you don’t even know (OHMYGODIAMSCAREDSHITLESS). If one grows up in a culture of fear, that is simply an unacceptable, if not unquantifiable, risk.

    Maybe its because I’ve been bicycling as transportation since 1979, I don’t buy into that culture.

    Ironically, I took a trip from Amsterdam to Cambridge and back a few decades ago. No one told me to fear for my life on those A roads in Southeastern UK, and frankly, I didn’t have any fear. I was just naively following the maps. That trip included the first morning after the ferry ride when I managed to ride into a roundabout on the wrong side of the street (i.e., the U.S. “normal”) and was promptly told by one of your countrymen “I’ll get you next time, Yank” with a cheerful wave. Even riding into an A roundabout in the wrong direction seemed more buffoonery than “dangerous”. You had good drivers out that day, Dave.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Khal, I agree with you. To be less fearful is probably (all else being equal) to be less dependent, more self-sufficient, and to lead a less commodified & more interesting, more rewarding, more free life. That’s a bit Nietzschean, maybe, and I’m a bit uncomfortable with saying it, but I don’t think either of those things makes us wrong.

      I think the 2% of people who are currently prepared to ride in the fearful road conditions which prevail across countries such as the US and Britain are probably approximately the same as the least fearful, more adventurous, 2% of the population in general. (That’s of course wrongly to reduce the multiple potential barriers to cycling simply to fear, but I’ll leave it like that for the sake of the argument.)

      So what’s our task? To make the other 98% of the population less fearful, so they’ll ride like us? If so, how do we do that? Although I’m sure it could be comprised of countless little project, it seems like a massive project!

      Or is our task to make cycling conditions less fearful, so that the 98% might ride even in the context of a generally fearful culture?

      I guess it depends on your own personal political project, doesn’t it, as to how you answer. Personally I like the idea of more cycling, but that’s mainly because I think cycling has a chance of making societies, and the individuals comprising them, better. That’s where I depart from many of the more technocratic/bureaucratic advocates of cycling: I don’t want more cycling simply for it’s own (or worse, for the economy’s) sake; cycling has an emancipatory potential which we should fight to keep, because it’s the emancipatory potential of cycling which has a chance of making the world a better place. So cycling for me is fundamentally about the (modernist?) project of human improvement.

      But then, are the Dutch generally less fearful than Americans, or British people? I’m sure there are surveys which say ‘yes’; and is that partly because they get out there and ride? Face the world up close? Again, I think the answer is ‘yes’. So more cycling might be an important contribution to less fearful societies. Mmmm

      Nice to know you’re still along for the ride; I’d thought I’d lost you somewhere along the way!

      • khal spencer Says:

        I’m still kicking around, Dave, just way more overextended these days.

        I think there are real impediments to cycling out there that need remediation and frankly, I’m far from fearless. I do worry about the next guy coming up behind me while texting on his smart phone. Its how one deals with it. Cycling is just too important to me to give up because of the way the world is changing.Sure, there are more texting drivers. But on balance, cycling is still more fun and healthier than not cycling.

        As far as those aspects of fear which are not directly tied into tangible, fixable infrastructure and behavior? Seems others have dealt with it. Those “take back the night”, “take back the streets”, etc., etc. movements count on building confidence and thereby changing the world for the better rather than fencing one’s self into a box. If instead of 2% riding it was 20%, the rest of the world would have to take note and change with us.

      • Dave Horton Says:

        Absolutely Khal, absolutely, thanks. When it comes to making the world more cycle-friendly, the strategy has to be the same as the strategy for progressive social change to make the world a better place in general – both from the bottom-up, and from the top-down, and the two are intimately and complexly interconnected. On the one hand we support, encourage & inspire our children, friends, neighbours, colleagues and the many ‘strangers’ who we have the privilege of continuously rubbing up against; and on the other we rally, hector, protest, lobby and agitate for government action and institutional change.

        Perhaps all it comes down to, ultimately, is 1) to love riding, and 2) to want other people to experience that same joy of riding. And you can’t have one without the other (1 without 2 is a bit selfish; 2 without 1 is a bit hypocritical). ??

  8. dottigirl Says:

    Your title (and some of the recent photos showing cyclists outnumbering vehicles) made me think of the ‘fear of cycling’ that some drivers/pedestrians may have.
    I.e., is some anti-cyclist hostility caused by fear that drivers are the majority & powerful, but soon will be in the minority/have less power? Drivers are therefore ‘defending their turf’ a la Daily Mail readers/UKIP voters when they rail against ‘immigrants coming in & taking over’. Is the thought of losing the privileges/superiority (by numbers) of driving what is spurring some on?
    Also, has there been any research into the connections between anti-cyclist aggression and:
    – perceived/actual social status
    – education
    – sex
    – ethnicity/ethnic background (touchy, I know), etc?
    As a regular club cyclist, I find it interesting how much aggression we experience from some facets of the population, whether completely unexpected or ‘business as usual’.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Dottigirl, very interesting points.

      First, yes, in the longer article I talk explicitly about how a big part of the fear of cycling is based in the threat which cycling presents to driving-as-usual, and a fear of needing in the future to ‘become a cyclist’. A lot of advocates don’t like seeing ‘a battle for the road’, but it seems clear to me that, for some people at least, there is indeed a battle for the road going on. (A battle which doesn’t disappear simply if you close your eyes!) (I’d also suggest that people who think they’re most entitled to the roads will tend to behave most aggressively, which might partly explain the widespread anecdotal evidence that professional drivers tend to behave particularly badly towards cyclists.)

      Second, that’s a great question, as to whether there’s been any research on the social determinants of aggression towards cyclists. My colleague on the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, Tim Jones of Oxford Brookes University, did a great analysis (using Q methodology) which might shed some more rigorous light on your question (I’ll ask him whether he might respond), but my general sense is that the further you go, in a demographic sense, from the idea that cycling is a good thing and the idea that the cyclist is a good citizen, then the more likely you are to encounter anti-cycling sentiment. So certainly, in the qualitative work which I have done, the educated, white, middle-classes tend to see cycling positively, and will tend to behave accordingly; whilst groups for whom cycling tends still to be seen as a silly thing to do are perhaps less likely to behave quite so respectfully towards people on bicycles, all else being equal.

      But I think there are other important variables which might help explain who is more/less likely to behave negatively towards cycling/cyclists: age, politics, familiarity with people who cycle, type of car, location, time of day, type of road, personality, etc.

      My general sense is that I’m encountering a bit less aggression out on the roads than I used to (and on the flip-side, more incidents of obviously good and respectful behaviour from motorists); not sure whether you’d agree?

      Thanks for reading, reflecting, responding
      Best wishes

  9. Christine Jones Says:

    Very good points, interesting with regard to kids. I spend much of my time with my kids making it very clear that cars kill and you don’t mess about with roads. My 6 year old likes to cycle on the roads, even with the amount of paranoia and fear I’ve projected about roads. Then again, he sees me on them with a bike every day, that I’m pretty feisty and take the lane, so I guess he gets what I’m trying to get across.
    The point about segregating making it strange to see and be a cyclist on a road, I’m not sure you really gets the point of segregation. Just by simply having segregation above 30kph, between towns is the point and under 30kph is people space and everyone shares, cars should be seen as the intruder, this is simply down to the difference in speed, no different to not having pedestrians walking on a busy road.

    the thing I don’t see and I think really is where road safety and cycle provision/promotion should go is concentrating on drivers – the fact that they are on the road under licence – the licence stipulates they abide by the highway code and respect all users, especially vulnerable ones. This is what is missing and has been since I was a kid in the 70’s, nobody is out there reminding drivers the roads don’t belong to them. I think this should be the no.1 priority if you want to encourage cycling.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks very much Christine, and it’s good to learn about your blog too – please keep up (don’t give up on) your great work! If there’s enough of us pushing, we’ll get there (‘there’ being somewhere better than here; perhaps more like the Netherlands, perhaps not?!) in the end.

      I agree that many drivers of motorised vehicles tend in Britain to have a vastly over-inflated sense of entitlement to the roads, but (although I’m not saying that you say this, what I want to say is) to challenge this I think takes more than telling them, teaching them, or enforcing them to behave differently.

      I think driver behaviour is a (gradually emerging) outcome of a whole set of processes which have for a century now privileged the car above people (talk about technological fetishism – that an inert object made of metal and powered by oil can have assumed greater power and importance than the human beings who have either co-operated in, or else been co-opted by, or else become incarcerated through, or else suffer the terrible consequences of its emergence!). So yes, we must change ‘the rules of the game’ – make drivers more responsible, more civil, more literate about cycling etc. But we must also change the shape, size & composition of ‘the playing field’ on which the game takes place – make it smaller (through planning which brings the different components of daily life back closer together – to within cycling distance), more connected for cycling and less connected for driving, and comprised of much more space for cycling and much less space for parked and moving motorised vehicles.

      But we can’t each of us do all of this; so, so long as we’re all doing something (however little), then at the aggregate level we’ll achieve something significant, and our kids, and their kids, will have reasons to be grateful. Imagine if each of us managed to get one more person cycling this summer, and imagine some more politicians & business people & policy-makers noticing how there’s suddenly quite a lot more people cycling, and deciding to move a little bit further in a cycle-friendly direction, and … you get the point! Keep angry, keep positive, keep going!!

      Thanks so much for reading, and please drop by again.

  10. Rosalind Says:

    Hi Dave

    I wear a helmet due to potholes, road edges, and at present the leafy overhang of Summer (sometimes wild rose with big thorns). I sometimes ride with just a cap on but if I know I’m cycling home in the dark the potholes could get me.

    I do feel that if I wear a helmet, car drivers “label” me as a cyclist, not just a “woman on a bike”, and I think this is worse if I’m wearing my black kneelength lycra (not actually cycle gear) or my short outdoor waterproof which looks “sporty” even though again it’s actually walking gear not cycling gear. I find refuge in several things: having long blonde hair which screams “young woman” (from behind; I’m actually not that young!); wearing a red (actually dark pink) Water Off A Duck’s Back coat, which has a proper skirt and everything; wearing a percentage of normal clothes such as trousers or a cardi or sandals or non-sporty boots. My commute is only 3 1/2 miles, country lanes and a large village, but I’m convinced I’m treated better when I look less sporty and more like a “girl”. I am no threat or reproach to anybody…

    One other thing – a lot of women don’t like wearing helmets because of the hair thing. I have flat hair so don’t care, but given that we are constantly judged on our looks and grooming, I don’t blame them, and I think the trivialisation of this concern (not from you) is a shame when those who don’t have to worry about it do not understand it. Enforced helmet-wearing = fewer women on the road.

    Thanks again for this very interesting blog.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks very much Rosalind, for those thoughts and observations. You might already know this, but your sense of how drivers treat you according to your appearance fits closely with the results (I hope I’m not distorting them) of research which Dr Ian Walker from the University of Bath did a few years ago – where he found, basically, that the more like ‘a cyclist’ (including wearing a helmet) someone on a bicycle looked, the less room for manoeuvre they tended to be given by motorists; and conversely, then, the more human/vulnerable (not sure on the right terminology here) a person cycling looked, the more they altered drivers’ behaviour. (It’s a bit similar cycling with children – I’d say that cycling with my kids on the one hand feels more dangerous because we’re sometimes a bit unwieldy and tend to be cycling relatively slowly, but on the other hand feels safer because drivers tend to be more willing to alter their own behaviour in our presence.)

      The Dutch tend to wear normal clothes when cycling through ‘normal’ (i.e. lovely) cycling conditions. The British tend to wear abnormal clothes (hi-viz, helmets, lycra) when cycling through ‘abnormal’ (i.e. atrocious) cycling conditions. Many cycle campaigners think we should send the message that cycling is normal by wearing normal clothes despite abnormal conditions – does this convince anyone that cycling is indeed ‘normal’? I don’t know. We (via our observations) seem to be suggesting that it makes some drivers, at least, treat us more like human beings, which is surely on the road to increased normality. Mmm ..

      Yep/yip to your final point. And it’s not just enforced helmet wearing which is particularly discriminatory (in the context of a society obsessed with appearance) towards women, is it? ‘Just’ a culture in which wearing a helmet whilst cycling is seen as sensible, is encouraged (and not wearing a helmet is seen as irresponsible) will tend to put women off cycling more than men (above the fact that the dangers it suggests, and the fears it encourages, will already tend to put people off), given this differential concern with helmets on hair.

      (How about we invent some ways in which we can denormalise driving, instead of keep inventing ways of (further) denormalising cycling? I’ll start by suggesting drivers must have a stripe painted in a gaudy colour on their car every time they commit a driving infraction.)

      Thanks loads for reading and sharing your experiences – much appreciated.
      All the best

      • Rosalind Says:

        Hi Dave – I did hear of Dr Walker’s research some time ago but didn’t know his name so couldn’t find it on the web. Can now! Thanks. I guess a memory of this work was what made me buy the pink coat even though I mostly wouldn’t wear pink!

        I would like to say that I am mostly not afraid of cycling round where I live, where lots of drivers are considerate, and I have never received any abuse. I do grit my teeth coming up to the blindest bend on the busiest road that I use but even then most drivers are good. (It’s the younger ones – girls AND boys – who are worst; someone on the radio the other night suggested that a more parents are teaching their children to drive now due to the cost of driving lessons in the recession, so they are worse at it. No data on that though.)

        Best wishes


      • Dave Horton Says:

        Hi Rosalind

        Yep, as regular cyclists we know through experience that it’s only a tiny minority of drivers who can make us feel unsafe. But it’s sometimes hard for those occasional negative encounters not to assume a disproportionate significance (because their consequences could be so significant), eh? (Whether the effect is bolstering our defiance (“you’re not going to drive me off the road!”) or giving up on cycling (“I’m not putting up with this any more”)) And meanwhile to many non-cyclists (especially those in cars) we look pretty vulnerable, and cycling as a whole *appears* rather unsafe.

        Interesting about the parents teaching kids to drive thing. You’d hope, wouldn’t you, that if this was resulting in a lowering of driving standards of learner drivers, there’d be a drop in the pass rate for the driving test?! Yes, it’d be interesting to know more about this (and changing driving instructor/learner driver attitudes towards cycling too).

        All the best

  11. Chris Whitehouse Says:

    I hope this is not too tangential. I wanted to mention fear _of_ cyclists. Cycling along a short section of greenway on route 12 today I came up behind two people walking their dogs. As soon as I approached they moved to one side and apologised. There are several greenways around here, offroad routes shared (not segregated) between walkers and cyclists. Invariably the walkers move out of the way (well, almost invariably). I am very concious of how it must feel to have to effectively interrupt your conversation, feel a bit anxious, move into the grass or weeds at the edge of the path etc.

    I’m not sure what to do about it. I realised today that I never think about stopping and pulling off to one side. In fact that is not really practical. If you stop far enough away that the walkers have not entered your “intimidation zone” then they will have to embarrassingly walk some distance to pass you – more anxiety.

    I wonder if these routes should be walking only every other Sunday.

    I am a utility cyclist, rarely drive or walk, also local cycle campaigner, instructor and mechanic, so pretty committed to bikes.

    Dave have you ever researched this? I wanted to ask you if you would cast the Dave Horton spotlight on this area. I think it parallels the relationship between cyclists and drivers but the other way round.



    PS is the full presentation available anywhere?

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Hi Chris

      I’ve not done empirically-based research on the important issues you raise, although I have thought and written a bit about them from a more abstract political and philosophical perspective. (I suppose because I’m a bit less interested in what people think about the co-mingling of walking (including dogs!) and cycling and in how they deal with it, than I am in why this co-mingling has come about and what it suggests about political priorities and how cycling and walking tend to be seen, what might be the potential consequences of such co-mingling etc.)

      However, there has been some research done on it. The work I cite in the full paper, ‘Fear of Cycling’ (see top right of my home page, under ‘Longer articles”) includes that done by Professor Neil Ravenscroft (Of the University of Brighton) and colleagues. You can find and read his stuff on-line. (I’d recommend the 2001 report for The Countryside Agency, ‘How people interact on off-road routes’ as a good place to start. If I remember rightly they find the kind of concerns you raise to be generally a bit less significant than you might think.)

      That’s not to say they’re issues which should not concern us. Clearly they are. And I share your discomfort at riding through (sometimes euphemistically termed ‘sharing’) space in which people and dogs are walking. But I don’t think as an already maligned and marginalised mode of mobility we should voluntarily give up our right to these spaces, even if only occasionally; at least not until the road alternatives are made cycle-friendly (including for the four-year-old children who often use such spaces to learn to ride).

      I think there are two key issues here:

      1) Cycling contributes to a more civilised society, so individual instances of cycling should individually contribute to a more civilised society. Some responsibility thus falls on all of us who ride;

      2) But (and it is quite a big but) we live and ride in a society which is over-run by cars and in which cycling is systematically trashed. So although as advocates of cycling we must of course be respectful towards and accommodating of others, we must also believe in and defend the view that cycling has a capacity to transform car-based societies in a way which walking does not.

      A lot more could be said, and I’m happy to come back to you on any of his, but I guess overall, then, I’d say ‘ride respectfully but don’t give up your right to ride, and in the meantime keep asking why it is that walking and cycling are so often thrown together whilst people in cars continue to speed past oblivious to both’. Or something!

      If you want me to send you the Powerpoint presentation I made in Vienna, let me know and I’ll happily do so. I based the summary blog post on it.

      I hope this helps Chris, but I’m also afraid that there’s no easy or obvious answer to the predicament you feel, which is a noble one.


      • Chris Whitehouse Says:

        Hi Dave,

        thanks for the reply and the pointers to a lot of reading. I’ve started but not finished yet.

        I agree the issue of why we are co-mingling is pretty important. With exceptions, our road spaces simply don’t have proper place for people to ride bikes – I suppose because with exceptions there is no political space for cycling. So we are pushed into sharing in inappropriate ways. Pedestrians have footways, motorists have carriageways but riding a bike is often uncomfortable because of perceived danger (trying not to say it’s dangerous), or illegal. Even on adjacent use paths (shared with pedestrians but segregated) pedestrians have right of way over the whole width whereas riding a bike is only allowed on the cycling side (and it’s impossible to pass another cyclist without going over the line in such paths around here).

        Still in terms of what we should be asking for I am ok with greenways as shared spaces. Usage there is mostly leisure so cycling speed is not so important. Perhaps I’m settling for less than I should but I would rather have 50 miles of shared greenway than 10 miles of dedicated cycle route of the same type. Commuter or utility routes are different.

        So on my greenways I take assurance from your comments and from “How people interact on off-road routes” and keep going as I am, remembering that many of the walkers I pass are motorists who may also have difficulty sharing their driving space with bikes. Ie. be nice.



        PS yes please I would like to see the presentation. As blog owner I think you should have my email address

      • Dave Horton Says:

        Thanks Chris. It strikes me that aside from the basic point that we need much better, often dedicated infrastructure for cycling, there’s an educational issue here too, isn’t there? In that some people are hostile to bikes in a way that they’re not to cars. I think we have to make the argument that if we’re to replace car journeys with bicycle journeys, then people need to become tolerant of bicycles in the same way that – in my opinion – most people have become (far too) tolerant of cars. (A car-centric society has produced an ideological blind-spot in people’s acceptance of cars alongside an exaggerated sensitivity to much less harmful bicycles). I think that’s part of ‘our’ work, but it needs to be done thoughtfully and sensitively because people get so prickly about ‘inappropriate cycling’ in what they perceive to be predominantly ‘their’ (whether pedestrians’ or drivers’) space.

  12. Lori Bell Says:

    I think your logic is very sound here. I also think some people are simply inclined to be fearful and avoiding riding a bicycle on the road is just another way they express their more generalized fear and paranoia. Although seen as something even less “normal”, there are people out there who are also afraid to drive cars!

    Another way to frame the helmet issue would be to equate it to getting into a car; i.e. a helmet on a cyclist is like the surrounding metal/fiberglass structure of someone’s vehicle. In effect, people who drive cars are driving a helmet! Consequently, cycling should not be seen as “more dangerous” than driving a car, but instead “as dangerous” – or as “safe” as driving a car, where the helmet on a cyclist provides a similar kind of protection as a vehicle surrounding a driver.

    Granted, other body parts on a cyclist are more vulnerable, but cycling also has its own safety advantages: 1) MUCH better ability to SEE and HEAR traffic from multiple directions, 2) Speed control (and inherent limitations), 3) A much greater ability to stop, maneuver and/or dodge as necessary, and 4) The actual physical involvement of riding a bicycle keeps the rider focused on what they are doing, whereas drivers have the option to shift to “automatic pilot” where they may not be as capable of Avoiding an incident as quickly or easily a cyclist can be.

    As a matter of “reference/authority”: I commuted for over 14 years coming out of high school and I have now spent the last two summers riding cross-country in the U.S. (over 1400 miles now and counting) and I have been on all kinds of roads, high-speed and low-speed, straight, curvy, flat, hilly, empty, congested, with and without shoulders, etc., etc. With enough experience, a cyclist really does develop other ways of sensing what is going on around them, far more than drivers do.

    So, again, in that respect, cycling can actually make someone More Safe on the road rather than less, (and, of course, there are those inherent environmental and overall Health Benefits as well).

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Lori. I agree with you that with enough experience of cycling you tend to develop an acute awareness of what’s going on around you; though of course it’s also getting people to that point which is the difficulty – given it takes quite a lot of riding! Novice cyclists often worry about much more elementary things such as feeling/being wobbly, wanting to be able to touch the ground with their feet, stopping at traffic lights, how close the cars are coming, etc.

      Thanks for reading, reflecting, commenting ..
      Best wishes

  13. Jonathan Abra Says:

    Dave, just received this in an e-mail today and thought you might be interested.


    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Jonathan. That link doesn’t work, but by typing ‘bicycle helmet’ into the website’s search function you come up with quite a lot of articles which, combined, demonstrate how hugely controversial is this whole issue.

      There’s an excellent recent editorial in the BMJ by Ben Goldacre and David Spiegelhalter which I think suggests that the helmet debate is (inevitably) based on politicised understandings of risk more than it is on science, and works as an enormous ‘red herring’ which distracts us from the really important work of making our streets safe. See here:


      All the best

  14. henry Says:

    It is a no-brainer to me, and all the scientific and logical evidence boils down to this,
    People will ride, if they really want to, regardless of helmet laws. Helmets are just a convenient excuse.
    The difference between a bare skull hitting the ground with and without a helmet is obvious.

    Wear helmets, don’t wear helmets. Doesn’t matter.
    Just get on you bloody bike!!!

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Henry. But the point is that people *don’t* ride *because of* helmet laws, *because of* helmet promotion, and *because* they’re continuously made to feel that cycling is (more) unsafe (than it really is).

      As a sociologist I am interested in why people do the things they do, and why they don’t do the things that they don’t; there are always reasons, and unpacking those reasons is important not only to understanding but also to change. (Whereas getting frustrated with people who don’t ride, shouting at them, calling them lazy etc – none of those things effect change, or certainly not positive change.)

      Best wishes

    • Jan Says:

      From a dutch perspective, that’s a really odd statement. Most people do not ‘really want to’ cycle. Most dutchies are completely indifferent about cycling. It’s like walking, some people might do it for fun, most will only use it to cover a certain distance. What would happen to walking if we removed the pavements and forced people to wear a helmet?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: