This is part of a series of posts featuring parts of my paper, Road Rash.
Fear: The Great Obstacle
North American attitudes towards cycling seem to be founded on a perception of fear associated with the activity. Common criticisms of cycling routes include:
Conflict with pedestrians on shared-use paths, particularly those that take space away from existing footways; Lack of continuity of routes, resulting, for example, from ‘give way’ and ‘cyclist dismount’ signs; Street furniture that creates obstacles; Poor surfaces on off-road routes; and Off-road paths that take inconvenient routes (Ibid 78).
The general design of many North American cities does not incorporate cycling as a method of transportation for the masses. Because of this lack of planning, people who choose to cycle then integrate themselves into motor vehicle traffic since dedicated spaces to cyclists are not common. Despite the geographical or infrastructural dissuasions from cycling, one of the paramount barriers to North American cycling is fear.
The car is experienced as an extension of the home for people (mainly women) who are fearful of public space. In contrast, the bicycle affords no shield from the (masculine) gaze. There is surely an existential vulnerability attached to performing physical activity in public space… Then there is fear of using one’s body, of sensing one’s body, of getting sweaty of experiencing ‘hard work’, of hills. Other fears are more connected to issues of identity and include the fear or ridicule, of losing status, of riding a gendered, classed, raced and stigmatised vehicle, of undermining one’s existing sense of identity; fear […] of becoming ‘strange’ (Horton 134-145).
The issue of fear presents a feedback loop. The fewer bikes that are seen on the road the more dangerous and risky cycling as transportation seems. On the other hand, the more dangerous cycling seems, the less likely new cyclists are to try using bicycles as a viable mode of alternative transportation. Horton claims that fear of cycling is a symptom of living in an established fearful culture. “We have never been so safe, yet never have we been so fearful” (Ibid 137). Within these constructions of fear with regard to cycling Horton points to three areas where this fear might manifest. One is the area of road safety education, the second is helmet promotion campaigns, and thirdly we have new cycling spaces.
With road safety education we examine how roads have overwhelmingly become car-centric. I doubt many people now think of a road with children playing on it or with bicycles breezing past. It would appear that gone are the days when kids would just push their hockey nets onto the road for street hockey, and move them on occasion when a car needed to pass. Roads have been annexed by a bevy of cars. They dominate streets, and the people who endeavour to wander into the realm of cars are cautioned against doing so. “Motoring organisations such as the Automobile Association and the Royal Automobile Club argued that children should be taught to keep out of the car’s way, and road safety education was born, as an alternative to preserving streets for people” (Ibid 138). So instead of impressing upon drivers how much responsibility they have operating a vehicle that weighs several tons, the onus is on children and pedestrians to stay out of a car’s path. This well-established notion that cars are dangerous has translated to the notion that roads are dangerous. All other attempts to reclaim roads for the movement of people via bicycle, therefore, require mindfulness that the roads and cars are dangerous. Ironically, instead of the lesson being that cars are dangerous and operators of motor vehicles should always exercise extreme caution while driving, the emphasis is placed on the individual who willingly chooses to interact with the vehicles, making the notion of riding a bike a risky endeavour as opposed to educating road users about traffic safety in general. Riding a bicycle is not inherently dangerous. However, riding a bicycle amidst cars is perceived as undoubtedly dangerous. And somehow the breadth of responsibility for such risk and danger falls upon the cyclist.
Road safety educators inculcate ‘safety-consciousness’ in various ways: they provide children with a variety of reflective gadgets; children are encouraged to wear high visibility clothing and cycle helmets; and exercises in road safety literature teach children to walk or cycle by convoluted routes because they are ‘safer’. The road safety industry thus strike to reduce casualties by inculcating fear in children, and giving them not incentives but disincentives to walk and cycle”. (Ibid 139)
The fear of road use by non-motorists is heightened by lack of non-motorists. This refers back to the aforementioned feedback loop, where the cyclist or pedestrian is expected to take safety measures before occupying road space, but the necessary preparations for biking in traffic render the experience intimidating in its complexity. The perceived risk of cycling in traffic has been so naturally crafted that it has become a real fear for those who may not even have attempted it. Consequently, drivers may not feel the imperative to drive more carefully or understand the concept of sharing the road since there are not many occasions where this is necessary. Roads have been prematurely declared for cars. This ultimately acts as a deterrent for bicycle transportation, because of the fear of motor vehicle traffic and the lack of examples of ordinary people on ordinary bicycles amidst cars. A fear of the road exists largely because general North American transportation seems to have been branded and designed for the car
This extension of risk management on the part of the cyclist continues with Horton’s second category of fear construction with cycling: the Helmet Promotion Campaigns. “Like road safety education, campaigns to promote the wearing of cycle helmets effectively construct cycling as a dangerous practice about which to be fearful” (Ibid 140). There are varying degrees of severity where helmet promotion is concerned. Some camps encourage people to decide for themselves and to wear or not wear a helmet as their own personal choice. Others feel that helmet usage needs to be compulsory for all ages, at all times. Rarely asked in this controversy is whether wearing a helmet actually reduces or increases the risk of sustaining a head injury (Ibid). Several factors contribute to a helmet’s effectiveness, including the angle and speed of collision, in addition to how well the helmet fits and is affixed to the head, and also what material the helmet is made of.
Cycle helmet programmes and legislation have never been justified by evidence that cycling is particularly hazardous or a major cause of head injury. All such programmes rest for their credibility upon a deep-seated stereotype that cycling is "dangerous". In fact, risk assessments show that cyclists face everyday risks comparable to pedestrians and drivers. In Canada, the rate of child head injury admission due to cycling accidents is exceedingly low. (Wesson)
A subsequent concern is whether the militant lobbying for helmet use casts an overall shadow over bicycle safety. “There is evidence that cycling levels decline when helmets are promoted and collapse when they become compulsory” (Ibid). On the contrary, the Netherlands and Denmark experience very high levels of ridership where the cycling demographic does not favour helmet usage (Ibid, 141). If one of the main fears of cycling is contending with traffic and potential collisions, then wearing a helmet sends a few messages. It confirms that traffic is indeed dangerous and that wearing a helmet may safeguard against head injury. It also shows responsibility on the part of the cyclist and reinforces the expectation that cyclists should prepare themselves for travel in motor vehicle traffic. At the best of times it relays to observers that the cyclist is having an enjoyable and safe journey via bicycle, while being mindful that the cyclist is participating in a potentially dangerous activity. Taking these scenarios into consideration, it is not all that surprising that the mandatory use of helmets sends a message of warning to would-be cyclists. Such an example of a jurisdiction with highly reinforced bike helmet laws would be Melbourne, Australia.
The fine for cycling without a helmet in Melbourne is a whopping $160. Not exactly encouraging people to cycle, now is it. Fining them for contributing to lower pollution levels, better public health, etc etc. is hardly the way to build the foundations of a bicycle culture. In contrast, Sydney is experiencing a greater boom in cycling, despite having less infrastructure, largely because they don't bother punishing cyclists for riding bicycles without helmets. (Colville-Anderson, Bike Helmet Protest in Melbourne)
An important thing to keep in mind is that “cyclists are at lower risk of head injury than motorists, pedestrians and children at play, yet none of those groups is encouraged to wear helmets” (Horton 141). So although wearing a helmet while cycling can send some discouraging messages about bicycling and safety, the context of this perceived danger in cycling is also very important. A helmet may safeguard against the eventuality of a head injury sustained while cycling, however, the instances of such occurrences are even less than the likelihood of a similar injury for motorists and pedestrians. Therefore, it is rather illogical for the emphasis of danger and fear to be associated specifically with cycling when travel by car and by foot has recorded higher instances of head injury. The greatest irony is the lack of measures taken to ensure that motorists and pedestrians protect themselves from head injury the same way cyclists are generally expected to. In North American cycling literature, the context of these discussions is most often marred by the established fear that cycling is dangerous with little mention of the more terrifying statistics related to head injury and fatality via travel in motor vehicles. Most subsequent debate of the issue cannot avoid reinforcing this fear as the discussion itself continues to steer the topic back into the same frame of personal safety when cycling. In some ways the discussion about what makes cycling safe becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, with the proposed danger of cycling being reiterated ironically, through the debate about its safety.
Horton argues this reinforcement of safety is also fed by the discussion around bicycle lanes. If the prevailing agreement is that roadways are for cars and bicycles should operate elsewhere, it becomes more difficult to legitimize the practice of cycling as transportation as opposed to a fun, recreational activity. Although, separated bike lanes may be a realistic solution in many North American cities based on the general perception of the roads being dangerous. “The road safety industry, helmet promotion campaigns and anyone responsible for marketing off-road cycling facilities all have a vested interest in constructing cycling – particularly cycling on the road – as a dangerous practice. Cycling, in other words, becomes ‘dangerous’ because of these attempts to render it ‘safe’” (Ibid 144). The North American cycling dilemma is characterized by the negative relationship between perceived safety and ridership numbers. Some feel as though riding is risky and unsuitable for their lifestyle because the types of cyclists they have witnessed fall under the bike messenger cliché or perhaps the recreational sportsman category. A potential rider may be discouraged to try bicycle commuting due to a lack of affinity with either of these stereotypes.
So cycling advocates face a dilemma. Safety is probably the biggest barrier that discourages people who would otherwise be more willing to cycle. And clearly cycling is more dangerous in this country than in European countries that have done more to encourage cycling and gain safety in numbers. One study, for example, calculates that the fatality rate of America cyclists is at least three times greater than in the Netherlands, even though virtually no Dutch cyclist wears a helmet (Maples 24)
My analysis of North American bike culture has revealed that safety is among the most frequent topics. Most writing tends to be research exploring the risks and how to manage those risks, or a discussion of how this culture of fear has now come to dominate the discourse. In contrast, much of the literature refers to European bike culture (that of the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark) as a model for what has driven the cultural shift in transportation in those countries. Inquiries are made as to what motivates the increase in ridership and how those initiatives could be implemented in North American municipalities to yield similar results. In essence, it is quite common for North American cycling literature to focus on European models of cycling as a point of discussion. These texts tend to give the impression that average North American cities are doomed to oscillate in the vicious cycle of wanting more infrastructure to promote ridership, but lacking the critical mass to shift the paradigm due to fear of cycling.
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