Why People Don’t Cycle In The UK No 1 – Class

‘…………I know my place’

Oh, it’s you. Well, come in, come in. Wipe your feet. I’ll just put some plastic down over the seats. We don’t want to get oil or grease marks on them do we? You know what some cyclists are like. I bet the only time some of them wash is when we get a rain shower. I’ve put on a selection of home made cakes on those doilies and tea in the Harrods container over there on my wife’s executive hostess trolley. Now, let’s have a little chat about class.

The British have developed a strange attitude toward class and status through recent decades. In the past everyone knew their place and only spent what they could afford. The bicycle was the mode of transport for getting about as your place of work and shops were nearby anyway.

With relentless marketing from the motoring lobby (Ford made no secret of their product placement in programmes such as The Professionals) and construction of infrastructure hostile to anything without an engine, the car became the affordable, progressive item of desire for the working classes to have. In the village where I was brought up in the 1970’s, the main place of work was an engineering works about a mile away. Everyone walked or cycled as it was the logical thing to do. By the end of the decade, all but a hardcore minority had moved from bicycle to car. My father worked there, made the same transition, developed heart problems and still didn’t get the connection.

I often look at the price tag of a new car and think ‘how many can really afford that’. Of course in our recent times of easy credit, it was easier to burden oneself with the payments over a period of months with the choice of upgrading their car or paying a lump sum to make the car officially theirs. People were always going to go for the upgrade, burdening themselves with more debt and ensuring brand loyalty.

However, the adverts the customers saw promised quite a lot beyond the mpg statistics (which they ignored). They promised empty forests and fire roads or desolate city centres with strangely romantic street lighting. Above all they promised aspiration and freedom. Buy this product and suddenly you can become [even more] attractive to the opposite sex. You could free yourself from your supposedly lowly bonds and BE somebody.

If motorists are a bit aggressive, it’s partly because behind those angry, stressful eyes they’re wondering why the Ring Road is full to the brim of other aspiring sexy types looking for that open tundra. Near Ipswich. They will carry on motoring to the death, as they feel that they have paid their way to sit in such misery. They have had to insure it, ensure that it’s roadworthy, fill it with fuel and pay for the amount of emissions its engine size will generate (which is when they finally read those mpg statistics). This, to many motorists, means that they have ‘bought in’ and own the roads. They are part of an exclusive club that thinks the roads are theirs when they aren’t, that thinks they can drive how they want when they can’t, and individually thinks their journey is more important when it isn’t.

In these supposedly enlightened times, the humble bicycle is still generally regarded in the UK as the poor mans transport, for people that don’t quite fit in or the great unwashed who don’t pay their way. That’s one perception and the media, largely reliant on motoring advertising revenues, are happy to keep it that way.

Another factor, particularly in these Autumnal times is the use of high-viz. To the aspiring classes, an activity requiring a high-viz tabard is something that…well….poorer people do. You don’t need high-viz in a gym (unless you are particularly clumsy, or you’re there to work on the air conditioning). You shouldn’t need it when cycling either, but that’s another debate. A tentative list of lower class high-viz activities might be;

  • Refuse collectors and street cleaners
  • Delivery drivers
  • Working ‘behind the scenes’ of a supermarket
  • Car park assistants at large car boot sales.
  • Taking your dog for a walk along the pavement if you live on a busy trunk road.

It doesn’t matter that any these people are very nice or would go out of their way to help. The British class system has spoken.

Recently, levels of cycling have started to rise in places such as style conscious London. Although in real terms cycling still has a pitifully low modal share, Boris Bikes, Superhighways and even Cycle Chic seemed to be floating around the media in a positive way. Cycling was starting to be discussed, which could only be a good thing. To counter this, a new battle front opened up. This time it was aspiring cyclists that spent too much money. Enter the MAMIL (Middle Aged Man In Lycra). The papers clearly wanted middle aged men back in golf club bars moaning about immigration and buying sports cars (preferably ones they’ve reviewed). The storm subsided when it was realised that cycling in this instance was an exclusive sporting activity as opposed to everyday transport so the road tax myth could be kept intact.

The simple fact is that cycling can be as expensive or as cheap as you want it to be without compromising your safety and wellbeing. Its an egalitarian, libertarian mode of transport that effortlessly transcends class which is why this land of ours has so much trouble dealing with it. The most wonderful thing about a bicycle is that it loves you just the way you are. Which is just as well really, you scruffy peasant.

2/11/11 Postscript:

A Lo Fidelity Reader (David Gander) tried to submit a cartoon through the comments section that he thought pertinent to the above piece but couldn’t. I invited him to email it to me for inclusion and this is what he sent…

‘It’s actually a rough of the real thing (don’t know where that is now) but you get the idea. This is from about 1991 when I worked for the London Cycling Campaign when they produced a monthly (I think) magazine called ‘The Daily Cyclist’ and I submitted cartoons and stuff for them as a freelance illustrator (I still am). I did loads of stuff for them and ‘Transport 2000′ as they were then called. I was, and still am a very keen cyclist although I don’t commute through London anymore.’

So there you go. A reader kindly submits a cartoon that’s around 20 years old and its still as relevant today as it was then. To me, it also demonstrates how we’re not very good at dealing with serious problems as a nation but very good at creating new and inventive ways of viewing them. But that’s a far greater debate. Thank you David.

21 thoughts on “Why People Don’t Cycle In The UK No 1 – Class

  1. It is sad that so many have fallen for the illusion of freedom sold by motor industry advertising. The curious thing is that there is also this belief in the UK that the poor man’s transport, when the most active cycle commuters are actually from socio-economic groups ABC1. I like to point out to driver that only poor people like Alan Sugar cycle, it is not that he can’t afford a car. After all he has three Bentley, but he doesn’t drive them, he pays someone else to do that, but he is on record as saying cycling is more fun.

  2. “One of the greatest things about cycling is you can do it with 10,000 people or you can do it alone. And you don’t need to engage in the `secret handshake’ of name-dropping, proper equipment usage, and wardrobe in order to do it. Choose a group, choose a fashion, or don’t, it doesn’t matter.”
    — Bike Snob NYC

  3. We in Bristol Traffic think that hi-viz clothing on top of a scraggly wooly jumper is undervalued. Look at the masses of people to criticise: what do they wear for “leisure”. Overprice Man U and other footy team shirts with the names of AIG and other financial institutions that we, the people, had to take over to keep the staff with their xmas bonuses. Is a ManU/AIG or a Newcastle U/Northern Rock shirt either useful or something to be proud of? No.

    Whereas Hi-viz
    -its visible
    -low cost
    -gives you authority.
    -gives you the right to park your white van where you like

    It is the one piece of clothing that brings together us van drivers and you, the underclasses, who we do not technically consider working class as that would imply you are our equals. By wearing hi-viz, you can pedal around hoping that one day you could move up to a ford transit van and not get quite so wet.

    I have a friend who does building photography, and he is critical of all those people who get nicked for trying to photo buildings in the city of london. How does he avoid it? Hi viz. Get out there, be blatant, act like you belong.

    Here in Bristol, we even had one of the councillors putting on an official council hi-viz top -with his name on the back- so that he could blend in with the cyclists on the entirely traffic free bristol-bath railway path. When elected officials feel that they need to go to hi-viz so they feel they can blend in with the cyclists, then yes, it is Bristol Cycle Chic..

    1. In that respect, the high-viz tabard is certainly an egalitarian piece of clothing offering instant notoriety and respectability for all. The wearer elevates themselves from lumpenproletariat to an ‘Operative’ be it conveying goods and services, operating a velocipede, or [as in the case of an elderly gentleman I saw in Worthing last night] operating a Jack Russell – He had decided to take his dog for a stroll along the A24 which is one of those curious ‘30mph’ dual carriageways that tries to cram as many cars as possible into a town centre (probably inspired by BBC TV’s ‘Record Breakers’). As a result he felt duty bound to wear a high-viz tabard.

      I would have saluted him as I cycled past, but I might have been clobbered by a motorist that was paying more attention to him. I wasn’t wearing a high-viz tabard you see so if I got hit, well, I was asking for it really wasn’t I?

      On a slightly different note as Yuletide is approaching, I wonder if any childrens books have been published recently that show Father Christmas wearing a high-viz tabard as he works night shifts as well as lifting/carrying objects? Mind you, he works quite often at height too so that would surely require a helmet, safety harness and a maybe a scaffold tower from HSS Hire Shops. That would kind of kill the dream really wouldn’t it? Particularly for middle/upper class families.

  4. Bravo Jim! Very humourously and eloquently put. The ‘driving on the open road of freedom’ dross that makes up the majority of car commercials is so plainly and painfully dross that it always astounds me how many people fall for it unquestioningly… Never over estimate the great GB public I suppose!

    And you are bang on the nail with the image thing too – most people just can’t see themselves as ‘cyclists’ and certainly don’t want to have to dress up in order to mitigate the conditions of their chosen transport option. Can you imagine if you had to wear tin foil hats and polka dots in order to get the Tube? People would never do it. I truly believe cycling *does* have an image problem, and that’s where the likes of CPH Cycle Chic have been electrifying in their reach around the world. A lot of people seem to think it’s about pretty girls in cool clothes on nice bikes (which to an extent of course it is) but the message below is that anyone, anyhow can ride a bike. But I’m not sure it’s something you can force. Certainly peer pressure helps which is why my corner of East London is full of finely attired hipsters but for Mums and Dads out in the boon sticks of the suburbs? It’s the perceived safety argument again. Indeed, it’s astonishing that anyone cycles at all, dustman’s jacket or not, when in order to do so you have to ride in spite of the prevalent conditions as oppose to them.

    Keep up the great work, LFBC is going from strength to strength!

  5. Pfffttt… Can’t write properly today… Meant to say “Indeed, it’s astonishing that anyone cycles at all, dustman’s jacket or not, when in order to do so you have to ride in spite of the prevalent conditions as oppose to because of them.”

    To the back of the class for me…

  6. @markbikeslondon You’ve just reminded me of the Vauxhall advert for the “flexible” family cars that shows narrow streets literally widening to allow cars to pass. In reality you would have to pull into a junction entrance or gap in a line of parked cars to allow oncoming traffic to pass, whereas you would probably be able to squeeze past on a bike. The advert would, however, be a good theme to copy for a folding bike.

    If you look closely you will see a bike fall over as the buildings move…

  7. The class history of cycling is interesting. Initially, when the CTC and many other cycling clubs (e.g. Worthing Excelsior) were founded in the late 1880s, it was a rich man’s sport. Then it became a left-wing activity, and then as the motor car became affordable to the masses cycling was relegated to something that only the very poor or young did. The CTC survived (only just!) with middle classes continuing to go cycle touring at the weekend – for pleasure and as a bit of a challenge, as well as for meeting socially.

    I must read up on the history again: I think we have more historical baggage about cycling than the continental Europeans have. Class is a large part of that.

  8. Reading your posting again, it occurs to me that there are city’s in England where people from all classes cycle, most notably Cambridge and Oxford. The reason for this is that both university’s have severe restrictions on parking, now if we could get that level of restriction in all our towns and city’s we would have far more cycling everywhere (and far less congestion).

    It is also notable that socio-economic groups that are most wedded to the car and most resistant to using any form of active travel, are the DEs. They see cars as highly aspirational, often not realising that MAMIL they are sneering at for being too poor to drive, is riding a bike which cost more than their second hand car.

    Ho hum…

    1. Last time I was in oxford I turned up with my bike via the trains -very hard to get bikes on the local trains there as there are no luggage wagons, you just block the entrance- then I pootled over Keeble College. Where they wouldn’t let me park as I wasn’t a fellow of an oxford college. That’s elitism: bike racks in the quadrangles are for the important people, the little people have to park their bicycles outside.

      Still, if you are going to have elitism, it’s better than the staff having free parking for their range rovers, as at least the staff on their bikes don’t endanger you as much

  9. Pingback: This Big City
  10. Nice one. The history of class in cycling is fascinating. In theory there should be nothing more egalitarian than the bicycle, since whatever your background you still have to pedal. Perhaps we ought to concentrate on getting the Royal Family to be cycling role models – the Daily Mail would implode as it sought to assimilate the idea…

  11. Great article, as are all of the others. And very funny. The last bit of this particular piece reminded me of a cartoon I did a few years ago…(hope I can attach an image somehow…)

  12. It’s amazing, cyclophobic comments so often mention the ‘fact’ that cyclists slow down drivers. Why can’t such people distinguish advertising hyperbole from reality? They seem entirely incapable of recognising the daily reality, that the vast proportion of vehicles in a traffic jam around them are cars. What slows down people in cars isn’t bicycles, it’s people like them – in cars.

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