Is there a TABOO against cycling?

When I first started Cycle Lifestyle magazine in 2009, I was fascinated by the question of why there is so much hostility among the general population towards cyclists.

You’d think that people everywhere would welcome with open arms an affordable vehicle that alleviates congestion on roads and public transport, reduces noise and air pollution, and hardly ever harms pedestrians. Alas not. Buy why not?

I’m still no closer to finding the definitive answer, but, occasionally, possibilities suggest themselves to me. There is one in particular I find very plausible, precisely because it doesn’t try to make sense of why noncyclists are so hostile. Rather, this particular explanation is based on the sheer arbitrariness of noncyclists’ hostility.

The arbitrariness has all the hallmarks of a taboo.

Taboos, found in all societies, are arbitrary moral prohibitions against certain behaviours or items. Taboos are reinforced by ostracizing people who break them, or sometimes even by violence. Taboos, once established, are very difficult to eradicate.

The idea that there is a taboo against cycling (in Britain, anyway) explains a lot. It explains why so many people are so quick to casually condemn cyclists. It explains why people are so confident in their condemnation despite this being based on scant evidence, or none whatsoever. It explains why people are generally not swayed by the tidal wave of evidence showing that cycling is a beneficial force for individuals, communities and economies. It explains why cyclists are often subjected to ostracisation or even violence.

The psychology of taboo also explains a lot about the cycling community. When certain groups are ostracized by society they can become more extreme in their views as a result. This can lead to confrontational behaviour which, although entirely understandable, is counterproductive.

It often takes heroic leaders like Gandhi or Martin Luther King to inspire minority groups to respond to persecution in a measured and constructive manner.

Some might think that mentioning these illustrious names is a little over the top. The struggles of cyclists hardly compare to the monumental struggles of blacks in America and the Indian Independence Movement, surely?

I’m not so sure. Every day, millions of Londoners experience dreadful stress getting to and from work. Reports have estimated, for instance, that rail and road commuters in London experience more stress than a riot policemen or a fighter pilot going into action. These stressful moments blight people’s days and lives. If this isn’t a humanitarian issue, I don’t know what is.

At Cycle Lifestyle we want to help lift the taboo that currently oppresses cyclists in the capital and beyond.

But we think that confrontational campaigning is not the right approach. For instance, the assumption of London’s most ardent cycle campaigners is that there is a territorial war taking place between motorists and cyclists, and that cyclists should ‘reclaim the streets’. This includes, without exception, London’s major roads, which allegedly should all be ripped up and redesigned with segregated cycling facilities incorporated – to hell with the motorists.

Although not always unhelpful, this approach is unrealistic – prohibitively expensive or impossible – when applied to all or even the majority of London’s main roads. Worse, it feeds into the hostility which noncyclists feel towards cyclists. The idea that motorists in London are cyclists’ enemies simply provokes noncyclists into reinforcing the taboo against cyclists.

Instead of pursuing counterproductive campaign strategies, Cycle Lifestyle is championing a better option. There are thousands of kilometers of cycle routes already in London. Many of these routes are on backstreets, or, where possible, on well-provisioned main roads. You can more or less get from anywhere to anywhere in London on its comprehensive network of cycle routes. In theory.

In practice, these cycle routes are impossible to follow because their signage and road markings are useless. The London Cycle Map Campaign is calling for the authorities to make the capital’s cycle routes more accessible, by painting easy-to-follow trails of colour on the streets, and erecting corresponding signage.

Simon Parker’s amazing London Cycle Map reveals an ingenious way of colour-coding these cycle routes, so that any two areas of the capital would be connected by a single, coloured route that could be followed safely and simply.

If that doesn’t lift the taboo against cycling in London, I don’t know what will.

Yet the taboo surrounding cycling makes it hard to convince the public what a wonderful idea Simon Parker’s London Cycle Map is. And, even more tragically, the same taboo also tends to make cyclists indifferent to the idea. Cycle advocacy groups are so busy campaigning confrontationally that they are overlooking a measured and constructive way to make cycling in the capital mainstream.


1. The majority of the

1. The majority of the society are a bunch of mentally lazy, ignorant and easily manipulated idiots.
2. It's great to lash out on an easy target when you have a bad day or you're late for work.
3. Angry and frustrated people often tend to look for an "enemies" responsible for their own failures and frustrations - cyclists, Jews (WW2 war), immigrants, ethnic minorities, big corporations etc...
4 People feel better about themselves when the find someone (in their eyes ) "inferior" to themselves.

I'm sure the vast majority of

I'm sure the vast majority of cyclists take their responsibilities seriously, but as a pedestrian I can give you one reason for antipathy toward cyclists: some are almost as aggressive and incompetent as car-drivers.

Not a week goes by when I'm not nearly knocked over on a crossing by a cyclist who has ignored the lights. And only the other day I was walking on the pavement when a cyclist came careering toward me, forcing me out of his way. What was particularly startling about his was that there was a cycle path running along this very pavement - which he forced me into (luckily no other cyclists were using the cycle path).

It would be an example of confirmation bias to assume all cyclists are like this, but it does often leave me feeling that some cyclists treat pedestrians in the way some motorists treat cyclists (and pedestrians) - as an inconvenient lower form of life.

I sympathise with your views,

I sympathise with your views, Clare. As a regular and experienced cyclist in Cambridge I see behaviour like that every day. However, I also see pedestrians wandering in marked cycle paths, stepping out unexpectedly from a footway without looking or strolling down city centre roads as though they were pedestrianised.

Unfortunately, decades of the absence of funding on anything other than asphalt sewers to spew motorists from one end of the country to the other, as fast as possible, has resulted in a "learned behaviour" of intolerance. Particularly visible if there is any slight delay to a regular journey, the perception is deliberate obstruction.

Regretfully, most people can't understand that it is possible to enjoy a journey for its own sake. They have become obsessed by time and forgotten that interaction with others enriches their own lives regardless of mode of transport.

I'm afraid the solution is beyond me. I'll just keep trying to do my little bit to be friendly on the road.

The problem with backstreet

The problem with backstreet routes is usually that where they are really useful they get jammed with rat-running motorists and all-too-often you have difficult crossings of main roads to link one back-road with another. An on-street map would be useful but permiable road-closures and crossings are needed so it isn't a cheap option.

Typical of me!! I forgot to

Typical of me!! I forgot to comment on the article. I thought it was very interesting and well written. Thanks.

Taboo? I wish it were so

Taboo? I wish it were so simple.

Ben has written on one explanation and there may be some truth in it. It might be a bit too anthropological in its approach.

Blunt is too tough on the majority of people because we are all manipulated and conditioned in various ways by the dominant culture we live with. And let's acknowledge it, we pay a heavy price if we do not conform, although not as severely as we would under a dictatorship or authoritarian regime.

Claire is right but the anti-social behaviour of some who are totally unconscious of the dynamic that underlies their selfishness is not enough to explain the distain with which everyday cycling is held.

I would like to suggest that we should look at the question of political economy that is all-pervasive in British society. Every British government has, since the 1950s, kow-towed to the motor industry regardless of the massive external costs - accidents, air pollution et cetera, et cetera. The British Roads Federation, oil and other industries were not idle by-standers.
The mantra was jobs, jobs, jobs even if the jobs were damaging.

Next this, the bicycle industry paled into insignificance.

I have a lot of experience cycling in British cities and this prompted me to write about the problem in more detail "Green Grundrisse - time, cycling and mechanical domination" on the site:

Re-cycle the article if you think it helps.

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