There’s a very good piece by David Aaronovitch in the Times (£) on how the Hillsborough disaster shouldn’t be seen purely as a result of police incompetence and negligence, but instead as the product of wider institutional failure and prejudice.
Aaronovitch identifies three contributory factors and one aggravating one’ – the three contributory factors being crumbing infrastructure and the absence of what is now called ‘health and safety’ culture; the violent sub-culture that had emerged amongst British football fans; and, finally, prejudice against football fans in general. Here’s Aaronovitch on that prejudice –
By 1989 the English football fan was pronounced, as a breed, to be scum. A presumption of guilt was made by politicians, authorities, press and by many ordinary people. So fans — all fans — became, by default, a disliked and even pathologised group. Consequently their comfort, their conditions, their civil liberties even, were regarded as moot. They could be herded, coerced, smacked about a bit sometimes, and anything could be believed about them. And then, when the bodies came to be identified, it was discovered that they were just people after all. Dads, daughters, lovers, sons.
Perhaps I’m too prone to reading a particular kind of parallel into everything I read, but this is, of course, highly reminiscent of the way ‘cyclists’ are presented in everyday British discourse – a ‘disliked and even pathologised group’ (check); subject to presumptions of guilt (check); their comfort and conditions regarded as moot (check); anything could be believed about them (check); and of course the appalling realisation that the victims weren’t ‘cyclists’ after all, but ordinary human beings.
Department for Transport research has captured these attitudes amongst the general public –
… a stereotype of cyclists in general does appear to exist among [other road users]. This stereotype is characterised by:
• serious failures of attitude, including a generalised disregard for the law and a more speciﬁc lack of concern for the needs of other drivers; and
• serious failures of competence and knowledge of the rules of the road.
This stereotype of cyclists is also linked to the fact that cyclists do not need to undertake training, are unlicensed and uninsured, and do not pay road taxes (at least not by virtue of the fact that they cycle).
Lawbreaking; scrounging; ‘they’ all dress the same and act the same; ‘they’ are self-righteous, and look down at you; and so on. I’m sure don’t need to run through all the clichés and stereotypes, the ones that are so prevalent cycle campaigners have wisely chosen to avoid even using the word ‘cyclist’ because of the negative connotations it carries. These attitudes and opinions are then used to legitimise claims that ‘cyclists’ don’t deserve any kind of ‘special treatment’ – i.e. cycling infrastructure – that would reduce risk of serious injury or death. The comfort and conditions of ‘cyclists’ regarded as moot.
The most recent (and typically appalling) example of this kind of stigmatisation appeared this week on the BBC, when Janet Street Porter was given a free rein to spew a stream of stereotypes. We are told that
cyclists breeze through the city with little regard for anyone else
why should cyclists get preferential treatment? What about the very young, the elderly, and the disabled?
The clear assumption here being that ‘cyclists’ aren’t like ordinary people; rather, a subset of society who stand in opposition to the most vulnerable.
Riding a bike is subject to few rules, and many London cyclists can’t even stick to those.
‘A pathologised group’. (Of course, this is in the same week that the CEO of Ryanair has said that people cycling should be taken out and shot.)
This kind of rhetoric poisons the well of public discourse to such an extent that it is contributing to lethal outcomes, just in the way the demonising of football fans as ‘hooligans’ partially contributed to disasters like Hillsborough. Just as ‘hooligans’ don’t deserve to be treated properly, with due concern for the safety, so ‘cyclists’ don’t deserve to be insulated from danger. To take only one example, witness a charming commenter who has ‘no sympathy’ for a 70 year old man left for dead, apparently because ‘they’ (and it’s always ‘they’) ‘get a kick’ riding far out from the edge. Of course.
Naturally, the sources of danger presented to ‘cyclists’ and ‘hooligans’ are very different, but the logic is identical. Just as ‘hooligans’ could be pushed around, squeezed through narrow gates, crammed onto the terraces, so ‘cyclists’ should get on the pavement, get on the road, get out of ‘our’ way, and frankly just disappear. Why on earth should ‘they’ get their own space?
And when the bodies appear, it turns out the people who are killed aren’t ‘hooligans’, or ‘cyclists’, but fathers, sons, mothers, daughters.
Just people. Not ‘hooligans’.
Someone cycling. Not a ‘cyclist’.
But attempts to stop ‘cyclists’ from being injured or killed collide, time and again, with the pervasive stereotype that ‘they’ are lawbreakers, that ‘they’ are dangerous, that designs to keep ‘them’ safe will be at the expense of ‘us’. Take the absurdity of an NHS trust – an NHS trust – launching a petition against cycling infrastructure on Westminster Bridge, apparently on the basis of a belief that ‘cyclists’ will pose a risk to the safety ‘vulnerable road users’.
The safety of ‘cyclists’ themselves plainly isn’t a consideration here; as far as Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital Trust is concerned, anyone cycling, young or old, disabled or able-bodied, will just have to lump it on the road, because a failure to provide bus stop bypasses on Westminster bridge means people cycling mixing with heavy motor traffic. People cycling like this gentleman –
Or this lady –
Or this couple.
Concern for the safety and comfort of ordinary people is jettisoned as soon as they start cycling, because they’ve become ‘cyclists’, a pathologised group, pathologised in precisely the same way ordinary football fans became ‘hooligans’.
It’s deeply, deeply damaging, and it needs to stop.
Risk, most dictionaries agree, involves exposure to the possibility of loss or injury. Perceptions of this possibility are embedded in culture and vary enormously over space and time. One frequently encounters the contention that it is important to distinguish between “real”, “actual”, “objective” risks and those that are merely “perceived”. But all risk is perceived. Risk is a word that refers to the future, and the future exists only in the imagination. And the imagination is a product of culture.
Opening paragraph of Chapter 7 of Routledge Handbook of Risk Studies – click here for the complete chapter
If you’re a regular reader of this site and well versed in the need for a sustainable transport policy based on reducing the car-centred status quo, you won’t necessarily gain much from reading this book. But for most people – and particularly the politicians supposedly representing them – who are not, this book is a timely and concise reminder of the main problems, and what is needed as an alternative.Where John Whitelegg’s “Mobility” is more of an in depth and general critique of the cult of going further and faster for the sake of it, Wolmar’s book focuses on the UK.
Wolmar concisely critiques the road-building dogma of decades of UK transport policy – although, as he puts it, this is more a default position than an actual thought-through policy. He refers to the famous quote by Nicholas Ridley as encapsulating the road building philosophy:
“ The private motorist…wants the chance to live a life that gives him (sic) a new dimension of freedom – freedom to go where he wants, when he wants, and for as long as he wants.”
To which one might add “and how he wants”, but otherwise how much has changed since the 1970s? Wolmar traces problems back to Buchanan in an uncompromising analysis of Traffic in Towns and the doctrine of “predict and provide”.
There is a neat review of technological fixes as supposed solutions to transport problems: Wolmar makes the basic point against technological determinism that :
“The starting point…must be to ask: if technology is the answer, what is the question? What are we trying to achieve? What, therefore, are the major transport problems that technology could and should be addressing?”
Indeed. Information technology can reduce the perceived need to travel to meetings, but encourage it by increasing connectivity.
I have a few differences of opinion with Wolmar. I think cost-benefit analysis is more problematic in the assessment of disbenefits than he suggests, and I think he lets John Prescott off too lightly. And on a minor point, the 1930s cycle tracks on the A4 were not “excellent”. But his main thrust is spot-on: placing the onus on politicians to get it right and concentrate on access rather than mobility:
“Any attempt at transformation needs to start with a recognition of our failings and a willingness to address them, as well as a key cultural change. That is probably the hardest bit.”
Again, indeed. Wolmar urges three principles to take us forward: firstly, we have to state what we think transport policy should be about. Secondly, we require demand management – for him this is essentially road user (motorist) charging and “soft measures. Finally he urges governmental change linking devolution with local governmental financial independence.
Getting across to the general public the idea that transport policy has to be re-framed with a full awareness of the negative effects of mobility for its own sake – and the need to control it – is vital. Wolmar’s book is an excellent start for the general reader – and for politicians who have so far been too scared to face up to their responsibilities in this area.