Real politics, real communication ….

… are time-consuming and not terribly exciting. And although I’d much prefer to sit around and think, maybe read the odd journal article and look at some statistics (the latest national travel survey results were released recently), I have to admit that it is probably a better use of my time to stand on a bridge in the rush hour and hand out flyers to cyclists.
FTR bike placard

We were communicating the existence of the Bristol cycling manifesto petition. As explained previously the idea is to make visible the support for an improved cycling (and walking!) environment in the handsome-but-harrassed city of Bris. The support is necessary to stiffen the political will of the people with power (notably the mayor) to push things forward. The support does exist, but it is largely latent and so, boring as it is, and even with the internet and whatnot, talking to people’s actual physically present selves is still a necessary and excellent way to communicate.

“Mental infrastructure”

I like to coin new and useful phrases. I’ve been using this term in my own thinking about active transport and reading Dave Horton’s most recent post I think it’s time to float it into the wider world.

The right sort of physical infrastructure is essential for a less car-centric world – as with so many things, exhortation is not enough, nor even leading-by-example.

On the other hand, exhortation – in it’s more refined form of intelligent communication – is not at all trivial. Leading-by-example is even less trivial because it indicates to the onlooker that you take this seriously, you mean what you say. Walking the talk is in fact an excellent kind of communication.

The metaphor I like to use is that these communication-type things are like the lubrication of a large machine. “Oil” (except it’s not necessarily “oil” in any simple sense – I understand that some clever advanced chemistry can go into this) cannot do anything on it’s own, but without it a machine will work badly, or seize up and not work at all. It is therefore essential.

Which is why I think of bike training, campaigns, the fact that people are actually visibly out there, going into work, the shops, school, the pub, on a bike, or on foot, as “building mental infrastructure”.

Physical infrastructure assists you in going to physical places. Mental infrastructure assists you in thinking particular thoughts. Not using the car is, for many people, literally unthinkable. Anything which makes it thinkable could be described as mental infrastructure.

Language #5 “anti-car”

I really don’t understand what “anti-car” is supposed to mean. This puzzling term is often used in a sentence which starts: “I’m not anti-car but …” and which then proceeds to explain why it would be a really good idea if there was much less private motoring, or why road-pricing makes sense, or why free-parking is a bad thing or why a strong pro-cycling policy would improve the quality of life or whatever. Sometimes the term “anti-car” is thrown as an accusation – as if it makes a valid point all on its own with no explanation necessary “This legislation is anti-car”. So what if it is? That could be good or bad, depending on lots of other things. Surely it’s a neutral term?

Anyway, I propose that we stop repeating this “I am not anti-car” mantra. Just ignore the term – neither deny nor embrace it. If we use the term – even to deny it – we are giving it some sort of legitimacy and hence implicitly buying into a set of unnoticed assumptions – assumptions that the way personal transport has ended up being is actually the way that it has to be, assumptions that there is something natural or unchangeable about what I’m afraid we are just going to have to call car culture or the hegemony of the private motor vehicle.

Language #4 motorists v people-who-drive-cars

Following on from the previous post …

I think calling people-in-cars “people in cars” (rather than “motorists”) is slightly more useful than calling people-on-bikes “people on bikes” (rather than “cyclists”).

“Motorist” is more often used rhetorically as an appeal to solidarity in a way that “cyclist” is not – as in “stopping the war on the motorist” “this will hurt the motorist!” etc etc. Yet because of the ubiquity of driving, it is much less likely that any given individual in a car has any sort of serious “identity” that is built around driving. Many (most) people just go along with what society has made it easiest for them to do … (see the Gillian Anable research on attitudes to car use).

So perhaps better not to use a term that implies people do have some sort of meaningful identity as a “motorist” when they most likely do not? Spelling things out in this rather pedantic way might tend to emphasise the fact that we all make a variety of transport choices.

Language #3 Cyclists v People-who-ride-bikes

The idea here is that “cyclist” is not just a neutral word for a person on a bike. Instead, all sorts of extra meanings have become attached to it.

For certain people it has become a sort of horrid boo-word. “Cyclists” are those vile people who hold you up on the way to work, those demanding brats who are indulged with cycle paths and then don’t use them. “Cyclists” are endlessly whinging highway incompetents. “Cyclists” wear funny clothes, don’t pay enough tax, yada yada yada.

For certain other people, “cyclist” is a wholly positive term. It is what the sociologists call an “identity” – identity is part of “who you are” and threats to identity are painful and will be resisted.

For example, the lovely Dave Horton has recently suggested that if everyday utility cycling becomes the norm in the UK, then perhaps some current “cycling identities” will no longer be viable, because they are founded on cycling being a bit of a struggle, on those who cycle against the odds being rather heroic. Riding a bike won’t be special anymore. Being a reflective social scientist, he is aware that he has mixed feelings about this and can deal with them. Perhaps others cannot and perhaps identity-threat is involved in some of the vicious infighting which I gather has been a long-standing feature of the UK cycle-advocacy scene?

Anyway, to go back to language, the thing is that the word “cyclist”, in the current linguistic environment, suggests membership of a some sort of “group” and whether stigmatized or lauded it is a minority group. This is not what we want – what we want is cycling to become more like walking. It is rare for someone to have an identity as a “pedestrian” – I used to identify strongly as a “walker” but I’d never have called myself a “hardcore pedestrian” – it is not a real category, it’s just what everyone does when they’re not doing something else.

Even as things stand, a few minutes observation of the roads of central Bristol show that even now not everyone who pedals past is a “cyclist”. Saddles at the wrong height, gears all over the place, flapping trouser legs, bearings just screaming for some lube – there are clearly plenty of bikes whose owners regard them as mere transport rather than members of the family.

Conclusion?

Yup. “People who ride bikes” is in many cases the phrase to use in preference to “cyclists”. However, there are probably more important verbal tweaks. Ding! Next!