COMMENT AND ANALYSIS: In June last year the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain launched a campaign aimed at raising awareness of the sorry state of cycling infrastructure. They provide an app that lets you use a photo of a situation a cyclist may be thrust into as a result of poor road design and lack of segregated infrastructure, adding square brackets and the caption “insert loved one here”.
The idea is, of course, to try to get people to understand that what is being provided for cyclists is inadequate and dangerous. The message, it is hoped, will hit home when the person we imagine riding a bicycle in these conditions is someone we love.
Would we be okay to see a loved one in that situation? No? Well then why be okay with other people’s loved ones being in that situation?
Around the same time I was gathering data for a small research project. I had reviewed academic literature which time and again identified fear as probably the most prevalent barrier to cycling uptake.
My own research then involved getting people to rate modes of transport by safety. Watching more than eighty people do the card sorting exercise I used as method, listening to more thoughts they shared as the topic of cycling safety was broached, I was stunned at how widespread, but especially how powerful the conviction is that cycling is extremely dangerous.
The effect was so strong that I feared any variance in responses would be overpowered by the strength of people’s conviction (it wasn’t, thankfully, but that’s a story for another day).
This experience was fresh in my mind when I first saw photos from the campaign on social media. Understanding of what they were trying to accomplish, and the way it could backfire terribly, hit me at the same time.
People who drive exclusively will take one look at these photos and they will not think: “Goodness, we really need to support the provision of safe, segregated cycling infrastructure”. Instead, they will look at it, imagine their loved one in that situation, and think: “Over my dead body will anyone I love ever touch a bicycle.”
Cycling activists — myself included — often talk about people having a windscreen view of the world, that they are unwilling or unable to see things from any perspective other than that of a driver. In this case, I believe the foundational problem was a handlebars view of the world. I’d be surprised if the campaign had the desired effect.
Nadia Williams is a postgraduate researcher investigating the role of social dynamics in cycling uptake and safety. She lives car-free with her family in Dundalk.