The problem with “insert loved one here” cycling infrastructure campaign

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.

5 Comments

  1. Good point.

  2. It’s always a problem with campaigning for cycling provision. If you say cycling is pretty safe (which overall it is in Ireland, both in my experience and in what I know of the statistics, even allowing for the low numbers of very young and very old travelling independently and actively), people say Why do you need infrastructure then? If you say cycling is horribly dangerous, then people wonder why you do it, and make a note not to let their children do it, except in the park, and even then wearing safety equipment.

    Tricky one to get right. We’re definitely in a phase of “Cycling is dangerous; aren’t you ashamed to let it be like this?”, while ten years ago there was more worry about dangerising cycling.

  3. Cycling is not dangerous. Driving your car is not dangerous. Walking is not dangerous. Your behaviour can be dangerous.

  4. Very good article.

    The big benefit of improving infrastructure is to make cycling a real option for the many people who do not currently cycle.

    As cyclists, we encounter dangerous situations on a regular basis, and we know how to avoid them. We are not put off cycling by these experiences, if we were we would stop cycling. The main barrier to people choosing to switch from a car to a bike is the perception of danger on our roads. Dublin City has an extremely good safety record, despite the poor infrastructure, and low enforcement by AGS. I am amazed (and delighted) that there have been no deaths recently on the Liffey route, given the increased numbers in the DCC survey count. It indicates some good awareness between bikes, buses and cars. It’s a route I would not like to travel without segregation.

    Dublin could be an ideal city for cycling. It’s relatively flat, small, with a temperate climate. We have seen in Waterford how a quality infrastructure changes perceptions. If Dublin managed to implement some of the plans currently in the pipeline, it would change how people view cycling. There is tremendous demand out there. People want to cycle, but are wary, and want to keep their family safe.

    We need to encourage more active living. The benefits to society are wide ranging and well established. Cycling is a big part of the solution, so it cannot be ignored. We need to move the conversation along from being mainly about safety, to why we all enjoy cycling so much.

  5. Specifically on Hugh’s point:

    “As cyclists, we encounter dangerous situations on a regular basis, and we know how to avoid them. We are not put off cycling by these experiences, if we were we would stop cycling.”

    The categories “people who still cycle” and “people who have already been put off cycling entirely” are useful up to a point, but they can hide the fact that most of the people who haven’t stopped cycling altogether have had traumatic experiences that put them off cycling some places some of the time or many places most of the time.

    When I’m choosing my mode or combination of modes for any particular trip (and deciding whether to make that trip at all or to stay at home) I can be put off cycling **at the trip level** by the prevailing conditions on the available routes. I know how to avoid certain dangerous or unpleasant situations, but there are some I am utterly defeated by.

    We talk a lot about the barriers to cycling that non-cyclists have to overcome to start cycling, but I think we also need to recognize that existing cyclists with decades of cycling experience also face huge barriers to cycling that make certain trips downright impossible for them. There may be a tiny handful of hardcore cyclists out there who can cycle wherever they want whenever they want, but for most of us cycling is more fragile than that.

    To improve the overall mode share of cycling, we need to address the issues that are off-putting to potential cyclists who are not yet cycling, but also to listen to the canaries in the mine, the cyclists who are already cycling, and to address their frustration at not being able to cycle to many places they want to cycle to.

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