There are two words that are often used interchangeably when it comes to cycling, ‘Encouraging’ and ‘enabling’. Both are positive-sounding words beginning with the same two letters and ending with the same three, but that is where the similarities end.
Most of us will be able to point to a time when a well-meaning soul has encouraged us to do something. Perhaps we should give up smoking; perhaps we should lose some weight; perhaps we should ride a bike to work…
The path of least resistance…
We’ve talked about human nature at length already; about comfort zones and why we tend to stay in them unless forcefully pushed out. We will invariably take the path of least resistance, whether it is good for us or not.
a : to inspire with courage, spirit, or hope : hearten
b : to attempt to persuade : urge
We can be ‘encouraged’ to do the right thing, but if it isn’t the easiest option, we won’t do it. We may do it for a short amount of time, at least until the motivation wears off –often by the second week of January…
Encouraging someone to do something that is difficult or challenging is pointless. Encouraging someone to do something they perceive as being dangerous is ridiculous.
This is the problem we have with cycling. Those who really want to ride a bike are already doing it. However, the majority will perceive it as dangerous and even when faced with overwhelming evidence of the health and financial benefits, it isn’t a risk they are willing to take.
It’s rather like encouraging someone to put their hand in a pan of boiling water, or to kick a hornet’s nest. They’re very unlikely to do it, even if you promise them some sort of reward.
If you make something the easy option, people will do it. Junk food manufacturers figured this one out long ago, making food very sweet or very salty, but also very cheap.
You are unlikely to be able to call a takeaway to have a healthy meal delivered at 10pm on a Saturday night, certainly not in Cardiff. Pizza, Indian or Chinese is pretty much the extent of it. Yet, cooking a healthy meal will often involve some preparation, some time and having some fresh produce in the house ready. It isn’t the easy option but it goes some way to explain why many of us are a little more puffy around the middle than we should be.
a : to provide with the means or opportunity
b : to make possible, practical, or easy
On our streets we’ve made driving the easy option. There are roads that go to every conceivable destination; the costs of motoring haven’t risen anywhere near as quickly as public transport and you get to stay warm and dry. Yes, it kills thousands of people every year, but it is easy.
Making cycling the easy option will take a significant investment in infrastructure and time to implement –time that will inevitably transcend political careers and therefore the will of the politicians and councillors of today to make it happen.
One place we’ve been meaning to talk about is Stevenage. It was one of the “new towns” built under the 1946 New Towns Act a few miles outside London after World War 2. It was effectively a blank slate and the planners built cycling infrastructure at the same time as the roads. Stevenage had top-of-the-line cycle infrastructure, but it also had top-of-the-line motoring infrastructure.
Unsurprisingly, the modal share of people making trips by bike today in Stevenage is barely any better than ours. In 2011 it was hovering around 1.8%. Motoring is still the easy option.
Infrastructure alone does not make a cycling city, nor will a few encouraging words and some stock pictures of people on bicycles in strategy documents. You have to make the alternatives less palatable.
You have to make it more unpleasant; more expensive; slower to drive a car into the city. You have to strip the morning and evening rush back to those that absolutely must travel in a motorised vehicle –buses, commercial vehicles, emergency services and that’s pretty much it.
Only then will we see the change we need to see on our streets and in the air we breathe.