Top Gear and scary lorries: the real messages we get on cycling

I rode into work by bike today. It was the first time in seven months I had braved London roads, having just returned from a sabbatical abroad. All too soon I was reminded of what a battle it is cycling.  ‘Speed up’ shouts a red escort driver honking as I weave my way down Victoria Street, past the lumbering buses and avoiding the bumpy manhole covers.

Everything as I cycled to work was screaming at me that I shouldn’t be cycling: the lack of cycle lanes, the lorries that pass dangerously close, the impatient cabbies and the sweat running down my back as I try to keep up with motorised traffic. There was a time that I loved this adrenaline rush, and the almost tribal feeling you had being part of ‘team cyclists’. Now, having had time away from it, I resent feeling so hounded, just because I choose a certain, very legal, mode of transport which the government is supposed to support.

As I rode down a quieter street I thought back to my two years in Amsterdam, where I first got a taste for two-wheels. Everything there was screaming at me to get on a bike: the safely separated bicycle lanes, the fact that people could ride along in their work clothes without having to stink by the time they arrived at their destination, the bike parks everywhere (even to the extent of a bike ‘car park’ at central station), the fact that all drivers use their wing mirrors religiously and my group of friends who all cycled regularly with no problem at all. So, reluctantly I ended up joining the huge proportion of the city that cycle, and enjoyed it. In Amsterdam there is no tribal grouping, cycling is just a normal, expected part of the way people get around.

Consider the difference between the latent messages that are being sent to me in the UK and in Holland. Here everything that I see and experience around me is telling me cycling is not a priority, that car, taxi and bus drivers have a greater right to use the road than I do, and makes me start to think that I am crazy to risk my life in this way every morning.

People believe what they see and experience, more than what they are told. The message that the government (or in London’s case, the Mayor) is trying to get through about ‘driving less’ is drowned out by the negative battle people have when they are trying to do just that. Every signal is telling me not to cycle. So am I really going to believe that my daily cycling battle is important when I sit down and see the DfT’s ‘drive less’ advert on TV, very possibly after Top Gear and inbetween car ads?

Government needs to get smarter about the messages it send out if it really wants to encourage people to change their behaviour (as well as of course putting in the required infrastructure and incentives). We need to take action on climate change out of politician’s speeches and worthy TV adverts, and into people’s lives, in a way that they can tangibly feel. This was one of the conclusions of Green Alliance’s recent publication From Hot Air to Happy Endings  which looked at how to inspire public support for a low carbon society.

In their first joint press conference as Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg promised a government ‘where fine words on the environment are finally translated into real action’. Before putting any more money into TV adverts, this new government needs to think how any action is actually experienced on the ground, by the people they are asking to change. This is as true for a myriad of other behaviours as it is for cycling.

Let’s start making sure that the signals that people receive are all encouraging them to act in the same direction. Once London is screaming the same messages to me about cycling as Amsterdam, I’ll know the government have understood how people really operate.

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