Monday 9 September 2013

Is why we cycle also why we don't drive?

I've been asking folk lately why they cycle, and the answers are exactly what you're expecting them to be - if YOU are a cyclist. If you only drive you're probably wrong.

People invariably say that they ride their bikes because they like getting about that way. It's nice. It's easy. It's fast and economical. It's not stressful. It's not hard to find somewhere to lock your bike up, at least its normally not hard. Further down their list of reasons is that its a good way to stay fit - not a lot of people give that as a main reason for riding.

No one says that they ride a bike because it's 'green'. They tell you thats a good thing if you ask them, but I've yet to hear anyone answer 'because of the environment'.

I've also asked colleagues who drive why they think people ride - and this is way more telling. Right up near the top is 'environment', alongside 'health'. No one says 'because its quick', but 'cheap' is quite a common statement - they're listing reasons why cycling is generically a good thing, without really getting under our helmets and thinking like a cyclist.

Now if you ask cyclists why they don't drive where they're going the simple answer is usually because cycling is easier, faster or cheaper. Or all three. If you ask why a motorist doesn't cycle it will be because 'I NEED MY CAR' or 'cycling isn't a choice'. Or, sometimes , 'because I have a car'. One chap I asked who drives from Kingsway Flats in Kings Hedges and parks in the closest spot he can get to work, which is in Newnham, and then walks to the City Centre. So his commute takes him 45 to 60 minutes - or longer than it would take him to walk to work. The same bike journey would be 15 minutes if he took it incredibly slowly, but you'd be hoping to do it inside of 12 minutes. His reason? 'Because I've got a car'.

And if you ask cyclists why motorists drive, you don't really get a consensus. 'Because they've got a lot to carry', 'because they're travelling a long way', 'because they're lazy', 'because they're not well enough to travel any other way'... All sorts. No strong opinions, no particular slant to it. But often a great deal of pitying going on.

I tend to think how people answer why OTHER folk do something tells you more about themselves than the others.

I think for the most part motorists think cyclists are riding for reasons that would appease their own guilt, the guilt they're feeling because they know that maybe their decision to drive isn't the best one they could make. They know driving is unhealthy, they know its dirty, and deep down they resent that cyclists are showing them up - they don't analyze the situation further than that. Cyclists ride, in their view, for those reasons. And if they were cycling, they'd be smug for those reasons.

Cyclists, on the other hand, don't really analyze the decision of people to drive unless you ask them to. They don't see people driving as a challenge to riding bikes. They don't see motoring as a comment on the morality (or otherwise) of cycling. In short, cyclists mostly don't think about why motorists drive, and they give all sorts of answers that more or less summarise why they would, in other circumstances, choose to drive. Like they've got a heck of a lot to carry.

Simply put, why we cycle isn't why we don't drive. The two are not the same things. And why we cycle is not why they think we cycle. We're not crusaders for the planet, we're not health nuts. We're just folk choosing to travel a way that makes sense. And they (the motorists) know it also makes sense, or they would if they were to calmly analyze the facts. But they're not going to do that; they'll continue to view us as yoghurt knitting fitness freaks who are judging them for the things they're already feeling guilty about. They view our presence on the road as a moral judgement on the mistakes they're making. Even our presence on the road is enough to anger them - this is a sign of their own guilty consciences. 

Bottom line? That red faced shouty-man who is leaning out of his Skoda Octavia, yelling at you... Maybe we should pity him. He doesn't know why you're cycling, but its not for any of the reasons he's thinking. And to him the moral dimension is quite clear - you're doing good, he isn't. And he can't get over the fact that you must be loving yourself for it. 

We're doing good, but despite the fact that this isn't our intention, we're punished for it anyway. Go figure.


  1. I do both. I do actually consider exercise, and green issues, as part of the reason why I cycle, but aside from when I cycle purely for exercise or pleasure, the reasons are convenience, speed and cost. So, for example, I cycle at either end of my rail journey to work partly because the walk to my local station would take too long (30 mins) and car parking there is an expensive nightmare, and I also save a few minutes at the work end (Waterloo to Blackfriars) by cycling. I occasionally cycle to meetings, although this is more difficult if I am travelling with a colleague, or am wearing a suit and need to stay fresh. I cycle to the supermarket on a Saturday partly for exercise but also partly because I then don’t need to find a space in the car park, and the exact change for the parking machine.

    However, I also drive. For example without reference to the exercise thing I probably wouldn’t cycle more than about 3 miles, or where gradients are too steep – as they are if I am going north and west from home rather than south and east. I don’t attempt to carry too much load on a bike – filling two rear pannier baskets on my bike at Waitrose would in any case require a visit to a mortgage broker first. I have given up trying to persuade my wife or children to cycle instead of driving – my wife considers it unsafe, and my teenage daughter uncool.

    We have two cars, and we use them quite a lot – together they probably cover at least 20,000 miles a year. What I aim for, and what I try to advocate for my friends and neighbours, is simply to put the car back in its box, turn the tables so that the car is our servant and not, as now, our master, and use whatever means is the more appropriate for the circumstances – for the vast majority of people that should mean more walking and cycling, and less driving, even if they are at the conservative end of the spectrum, and consider their break point to be, say , one mile instead of 3 or 5. Even such a small shift would make a huge difference, and would almost certainly in time lead them to move their decision break point out to 2, then 3, etc miles.

  2. Agreed. For me it's not about the environment and not even about fitness. Cycling is immense fun - I find it less stressful than driving. Filtering through heavy queues of cars is an amazing experience.

    I love being able to 'park' up right outside my destinsation. For free.


  3. Reliable timing, free "parking", never caught in traffic, close to zero running costs... hard to beat compared to using the car (I do have one).

    And, being honest & controversial, I like my beer. This is a big motivation for bike use for me. Some nights I want to pop into town and have a pint, sometimes a few pints - and I feel perfectly happy & safe cycling home to Willingham after a "sensible" (to me) amount of beer.

    1. And forgot to note specifically: why I cycle IS mostly why I don't drive. Driving is unreliable, parking in town is difficult and not free, get caught in backed up traffic on the A10 roundabout about 50% of the times I need to use the car (today it was bringing cakes to the office - slow queue all the way to the other way into Milton), and on the beer front drinking and driving is illegal and dangerous even when in the legal limit. (I do also enjoy cycling of course - that is a happy bonus, I was a recreational off-road cyclist before I became a commuter-cyclist.)

  4. People who cycle do so to make almost exactly the same journeys as people who drive. This has been demonstrated recently by London publishing statistics about the motives of Londoners when they drive.

  5. Similar to the conclusion I came to on my own blog:

    "People are short-term self-interested. I didn’t think ‘I would drive / take the bus but it’s not environmentally friendly and will reduce my fitness’. I thought: ‘It’s too expensive and too impractical’."

    1. Good summary.

      Seems to me that for as long as we keep designing cities to make any means of transport that isn't driving hard, people will pick the easier otpion :(

    2. AKA The Stevenage Problem.
      I think it explains why a city such as Bristol, with its very cycle-unfriendly geography still has decent above-UK-average levels of cycling: because the congestion is so bad that cycling still offers advantages over driving.

  6. At first I did it for fitness, now because it is cheap, fun and the fastest way to work (Neasden to Kings Cross) and to drop off the kid at school on the way. My wife steadfastly refuses to cycle in London because she sees it as too dangerous (not unreasonably).

    Unless they have to carry huge weights or do pick ups/drop offs or have some sort of disability your "Because I've got a car" colleague is, IMO, an incredibly thick person.

  7. I drive and cycle. I much prefer to cycle. Cycling is a pleasure where driving is a pain. It also saves me money & fuel, and yes I do like the thought that it is a "green" form of transport. It is something I can do to benefit the environment without too much effort. A bit like people now recycle a lot more as LAs have been made to put a lot of effort into making it very convenient with kerbside collections. The country needs to wake up and view cycling as it has done with re-cycling.

    I use the bike for local transport where I can as it tends to be more convenient than driving, especially when you consider trying to park when it's busy. It's sometimes quicker, sometimes not. I sometimes take a longer more pleasureable route if the weather is pleasant, which is something I'd never do in a car. also for me there is a almost perverse pleasure in lugging food for the family back under my own steam, like a prehistoric man dragging his kill back to the cave. That may be just me though:-)

    I've started cycling the last third of my commute thanks to a handy secure car park at one of work's hospitals. Again, if direct doesn't take much longer (if any most of the time) but makes me more alert, is more consistent in terms of time, and is making me healthier, fitter and leaner as well as saving over £50/month in fuel.

    Sometimes I will take the car, if I need to nip to the shops late on when it's dark and raining for example. It's frankly a pain to get the bike (after unlocking it) from the locked shed across a dark garden and though the house. Keep trying to move a bike inside the house, but not having much luck

  8. "because I have a car" - I can sympathise with that a bit. We're one of those families who have a car that sits on the drive most of the time. We cycle for most local journeys, going to work, shopping and socialising etc by bike.

    The problems starts when we need to make longer journeys and use buses/trains. If you have a car sitting on the drive (therefore having already made some financial outlay) it is invariably more expensive to use public transport than to go by car, even taking into account That we have a family railcard.
    We recently went camping as a family using train/bus. Public transport (bus to and from home station, plus daily bus fare at our destination, plus train fare)for the five day break was £155, as opposed to an estimated £65 we would have spent on diesel. We were unable to take bikes, as they're aren't enough spaces on the train to accomodate a family of cyclists. We could have have taken seperate trains, but then wouldn't have been able to use family rail card so it would have cost even more (and who wants to travel seperately from family when they're going on holiday?
    Essentially, there isn't an incentives to motorists to leave the car behind and use public transport.

  9. It is an interesting question and the "because I've got a car" justification rings true.

    I used to drive and occasionally cycle but the driving was primarily because I worked outside of London and driving was really the only viable option of getting to work. However within London, there is no doubt that I used to drive "because I've got a car" and take lots of short trips by car... while the bike was for trips to the pub.

    I then changed jobs to one within central London, and driving wasn't an option - it had to be public transport or cycling. However at the same time I also broke my leg badly (in a cycling accident, it was my own fault, and it wasn't coming back from the pub!) and couldn't drive or cycle for months. The car MOT was coming up, I knew there would be a big bill, it was sitting outside the house unused... I sold it. That was 10 years ago and I haven't missed having a car once since then.

    Now, I wouldn't want a job that required me to drive unless I was desperate and would view money spent on a car as wasted... I can spend it on bikes and other things as well!

    One thing I have found useful is having a Streetcar/Zipcar about 5 mins where I live, so I use that for occasional trips when I do need to transport something big, or longer journeys where a bike or public transport isn't viable.

    The Zipcar does need a bit of pre-planning to reserve a slot, so you need to make a conscious effort to use it, rather than "because I've got a car" when it is parked outside the house.

  10. As we are bearing all, I cycle to work unless I have a late meeting in the depths of winter (so this is a total of about 4 times a year) or if I need to get to a site which is *really* dangerous to cycle to, otherwise I get around by bike and went to two sites today as it happened!

    Driving will be a couple of times a week, reasonably short journeys, but time and number of passengers make the bike a pain - I do try and double up and pick up heavy shopping if I need to get the car out. Also driving to relatives out of London where trains are never cheaper than the car. Plus holidays tend to be by car, again cost and convenience.

    Bus used to get to town if going with the family as it is less stressful than finding parking (although eldest child now OK to cycle with me on longer trips). Bus good when beer level will be too much for cycling.

    Train is lowest on my list as it is do damn expensive, even going into London for an evening. I do cycle into London for longer runs for fitness (and Borough market!) and sometimes cycle in for an event, but take bike home on train.

    A spot on post and for me. I switched to the bike commute after getting sick of being stuck in traffic. My journey time to work is certain (Marathon+ tyres on a hybrid deals with puncture and breakdown risk)and I am good at working out journey times and can beat the bus and car for most of my highway authority area.

    Stress comes next as in no driving and the cycle home helps me wind down before I get in. Cost then became apparent as I do not fill up the car very often, then exercise and then the green issues.

  11. Pro Bike is for me (in that order):
    -No parking problems
    -the occasional pop to the pup
    -I like the thought that it does support my personal health
    -I like the thought that it doesn't harm the environment more than necessary

    The car is for:
    -carrying big stuff
    -long distances
    -moving a glider/sailplane in a trailer

    A big point to go by bike more often, instead of walking and taking a bus (as uni student I have a semester ticket) was getting the right bike. Since then I always joyfully anticipate the next ride.

    I still appreciate the car, but it gets only used, when other options are not sensible. That is about once every few weeks.

  12. Don't forget the elephant in the room though. Many people seem not to cycle because it can be truly awful. Compare a journey that involves the Hovenring to one that involves Elephant and Castle. A small but important difference.

    Where I live, because of the built environment, it is often easier to drive, relatively speaking. It is not great but the routes are short and direct. By comparison riding feels like the way is littered with obstacles including when you get to your destination.

    Perception is one thing but I think the built environment is decisive.

  13. As a rural type with a 20 mile each way commute it is always quicker in the car but sometimes my wife needs the car (fridays means swimming lessons), sometimes it is sunny, its always cheaper by bike, guilt free cake and ale tastes even better and to be honest sometimes its nice to have an hour and a bit each way to my self without the noise of tellies, radios, dogs, kids, computers and my wife's appalling taste in music