Why People in the UK Don’t Cycle No. 1; Class

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’ve put on a selection of home made cakes on those doilies and tea in the Harrods container over there. Now, let’s have a little chat about class.

The British 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 factory 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 and developed heart problems that could have been eased by riding a bicycle more often to a job building camshafts for cars.

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.

The adverts the customers saw promised quite a lot. They promised empty forests and fire roads or strangely desolate city centres with romantic street lighting. Beaches with empty car parks or country lanes without farm vehicles. 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. This, to many motorists, means that they have ‘bought in’ and own the roads. They are part of an exclusive club believing the roads are theirs when they aren’t, that think they can drive how they want when they can’t, and think 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. The media, largely reliant on motoring advertising revenues, are happy to maintain the status quo.

Another factor, particularly pertinent as we enter Autumn is the use of hi-viz. To the aspiring classes, an activity requiring a high-viz tabard is something that…well….poorer people do. You don’t need hi-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 debate is for another time.

In recent years, levels of cycling have started to rise in places such as Central London. Although in real terms cycling still has a pitifully low modal share, especially in outer London and the shires, Boris Bikes, Superhighways and even ‘going Dutch’ 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 sports/leisure 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).

It would appear that advocates for bicycles and safer streets are not immune to snobbery or weird prejudices either;

Mikael Colville-Andersen is behind the wonderful Copenhagenize blog and was one of the inspirations that led to the creation of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain. Last week, he came up with the following tweet..

I’m praying he’s using exaggeration for comedic effect here.

To be fair, when I look at the price tag of an e-bike or e-cargo bike, I’m soberly reminded of my working class roots in that they’re generally more expensive than any of the cars I’ve ever owned in the 29 years since passing my driving test. The only exception is the one that’s currently collecting dust and bird poop in my driveway.

However, I kind of have to doff my flat cap to individuals and families that are prepared to go through such commitment and financial outlay in the United Kingdom specifically where nearly everything is stacked against you from volume of traffic to infrastructure designed by Salvador Dali if he had a penchant for Tennents Super. This set against a backdrop of unfathomable anti-bicycle prejudice on public Facebook groups where people express views that Joseph Goebbels might have winced at.

Mikael prefaced that last tweet with the following one…

I felt a bit guilty, white and privileged as all the elements listed in his ‘postcard’ are also in the smartphone I read it on. And the smartphone Mikael used to generate the tweets in the first place.

Again, I pray it’s an attempt at humour, but even so, It’s kind of treating cycling as an inverted snobbish cult and those ‘able-bodied’ people that invest in an e-bike have somehow fallen from the pure faith. I would love to watch him debate with able-bodied but more vulnerable sections of society who have decided to invest in an e-bike as it offered a bit more freedom or maybe just an introduction to the broad church of cycling. E-bikes could offer more security, allowing users to get clear of a potentially dangerous confrontation for example. Or to get away from men taking photos of women for a blog simply because they are riding a bicycle in regular clothing.

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. It doesn’t require membership to a club or cult. It’s an egalitarian, libertarian mode of transport that effortlessly transcends class which is why this Sceptered Isle of ours has so much trouble dealing with it. We seemingly want to return Britain to when it was ‘Great’, yet develop a collective amnesia if it’s pointed out that rates of cycling for transport were far higher in those heady bygone times. We design networks to make the most complicated and expensive mode of transport simple and make the most simple and cheapest mode of transport complicated. We happily turn a blind eye to woodland being destroyed for road schemes regarded as essential, yet will set up pompous protest groups against putting a tarmac strip through woodland which would open it up for all ages and abilities.

The most wonderful thing about the bicycle, human powered or otherwise, is that it loves you just the way you are regardless of social status or credit rating. Just make sure you don’t mix with those pedestrians. Common as muck they are.


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