Two Wheels Good?

Posted May 3rd, 2014 in Blog by admin

Am I a cyclist? Well yes – in that I cycle, sometimes, anyway. I cycle to get from A to B and for leisure and for fitness. Well, sometimes, anyway. Not that I think too much about it, in the sense of the distance I cover. I just do it, as and when I see it as appropriate, or as the fancy takes me; more so if the opportunity exists. In some ways I guess I’m more of a walker (a ‘pedestrian’ to some) and train user (a ‘customer’ to others), particularly if I was to think about all the miles I do. Doubtless, this is a function of actively having chosen to live next to a railway station in order that I (and my family, and folk visiting) might find it easier to get around, without a car – which probably says more about how I see the world.

Not that I don’t have a car, only that it sits there for often long periods until such times as these other ways of travelling are judged more than difficult. But I certainly don’t walk in a room and introduce myself as a cyclist; it’s not my primary identity. Which, I have to say, may well be the case for many who attended the Cycle City Leeds Expo this week. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love it when I come into contact with anyone who’s passionate; we need more folk like that rather than less. I’ve been called the same, albeit for different reasons. And yet, if the (singular) name of the game at Cycle City Expo was, quite simply, to get more people on bikes, my overwhelming observation is that we might need to think a little more about those millions who don’t identify as ‘cyclists’.

Which takes me to thinking; which is something I am passionate about. Granted, it might be an odd thing to say; for some at least. But it’s true. Let me explain. It’s philosophy. I’ve done a bit of that. In fact, I’ve tried to use it in my work for many years now. I think it helps. So I’m going to try to write down some of my thoughts on my experience of attending the Cycle City Leeds Expo.

First, I was struck by how much effort has been invested in thinking about thinking. But then this does seem to me to be a particular kind of thinking, namely psychology. It was everywhere, inescapable. In fact, the conference could well have been billed: ‘Behaviour Change’, like the others I go to on education, crime and a range of other social ‘problems’ – such was the number of times that ‘behaviour change’ was referred to. Hands up, I’m not enamoured with psychology. Or behavioural psychology, or behavioural economics. Nudge, Nudge. In fact I’ve blogged on this before, so if you’re interested you can read my thoughts on the ‘psychologisation’ of society here.

What seems to happen is that some folk spend a lot of time considering the thinking of others, and not so much thinking about their own. Unless we look a little closer: wherein the focus is not so much on how to get these others thinking differently but rather how we can get them behaving differently. Which is why, whether in cycling or any other ‘positive’ behaviour, you are invariably treated to a series of sales pitches for products (usually ‘apps’) that incentivise these behaviours through ‘reward’ schemes. Extrinsic motivation is where it’s at; or behaviour management as we call it in education. Not that the sales folk mention their other ‘benefits’; that being GPS-enabled they could just as well be used to track employee behaviour, potentially then becoming a criteria by which promotions are handed out. Personally, I quite like the idea that cycling gets me away from all that and especially the surveillance culture that makes me feel so poorly – and angry. And which I know has often unintended consequences, as people learn to play the game (think giving your smart phone to an obsessive cycling colleague so you can bank his miles against your score). Note gaming can be applied to everything these days, as companies learn the art of ‘gamification’, in order to sell us stuff  that “makes doing something we do everyday rewarding.”

Likewise language games – a further element of the diet of any philosopher. It always amazes me when I’m told that cycling surveys reveal the British pedal (or are minded to pedal – which actually means they don’t) for health, fitness and well-being benefits. Why are they saying this? It could be true, but I doubt it. I figure it’s a symptom of that surveillance culture, in which we learn to say what we think those in power want to hear. Back to the sociology of the primary school. Given then the oppressive and inescapable mantra from government, about health, fitness, and well-being; we just spew it back or commit to the bare minimum to evidence our ‘learning’. In philosophy it’s called performativity; you get the idea: performing to the piper’s tune played for us.

Then there’s my beef that psychology has an extraordinary capacity to individualise us all. The consequence being that the ‘problem’ becomes located within the individual. It’s pathologising. Whatever happened to consideration of the cultural and structural influences on our lives? ‘Progressive’, 60s, nonsense, I guess. Such atomisation has another function; it can create an ‘us, and them’ culture. Which reminds me of the deserved opprobrium heaped on Grant Schapps with his now infamous and patronising tweet: “#budget2014 cuts bingo & beer tax helping hardworking people do more of the things they enjoy. RT to spread the word.” Of course, the operative word, was “they”. Enough said. Apart from the linguistic magic at work in the phrase “hardworking people”; which so obviously is designed to create another dualism: between, of course, those that do, and those that don’t. A fiver says it was Lynton Crosby (the master purveyor of ‘Wedge’ and ‘Dog Whistle’ politics) that dreamed this one up. Political basics really; divide and rule; create an enemy within, deflect attention from the real criminal activities. Better stop there.

So, the question is: is the cycling lobby guilty of the same? Consider the extraordinary confidence in the statement that “cycling is just the right thing to do”. It may be, but this takes me back to the point about what happens when the powers that be simply assume they’re right. Some reasons would be good rather than the arrogance of assumption. Synchronicity then with the often heard refrain about putting in cycling infrastructure: “let’s just get on with it”, they say. Again, few would disagree, but then we might need to remember that this is precisely the narrative we hear from those others who have an unshakeable belief that what they’re doing is “right”. Take the ‘reform’ of our welfare state as an example. As I was at pains to point out in my workshop interventions, ‘just getting on with it’ might fly in the face of the (I accept often minimal) gains made by those who have striven long and hard to secure some semblance of a participative democracy. In the same vein, think of the legacy of Le Corbusier, from whence master planning arose: the view from above, rather than that from the street, and its occupants.

Democracy is not a word I heard these last two days, but it offers thinking provocations also: why is it that when we ‘consult’ on cycling we so often individualise this process (back to that theme again)? Given we almost always ask individuals or particular lobby groups what they think, it’s hardly surprising then that this gives status to any partisan position. But then this might be based on a further and increasingly prevalent cultural influence: that all conflict should be mediated, ‘resolved’, avoided. Consider instead that conflict, or at least contestation, might be at the very heart of a good democracy. Don’t we think differently when we think with others, especially when these others hold different views to ourselves? Don’t we think differently when we’re in an environment where reasons are demanded of us? Don’t we think differently when we are encouraged to air our values and test them against the scrutiny of others?

But then if we did, and, in so-doing, thought about values more, we might realise it’s a little odd to invite colleagues from other countries to show us how things should be done. Naturally, the images from Copenhagen and the like are extraordinarily persuasive. But the problem is we are not processing the context behind these images. Their successes are not so much a product of just building things, they are a product of culture, mentality, attitudes, of values. Further enquiry reveals it’s no coincidence that these are countries that are among the most equal in the world, where a commitment to egalitarianism dominates. And where humility and modesty is writ large. Take the Swedish Law of Jante. And compare that with the attitudes that prevail here. Not that we don’t know the penalty we all pay for living in the 5th most unequal country in the world, as laid bare in The Spirit Level: status anxiety (only temporarily relieved though obsessive consumerism – of which cars are perhaps the ultimate symbol); then negative attitudes to risk and making mistakes; a lack of trust in strangers; low confidence; selfishness; a general tendency to feel unsafe despite the realities. Read the Spirit Level, Wilkinson and Pickett, go on, and on. It’s painful but nonetheless the back drop to the challenges we face, in getting folk cycling and walking, amongst so many other things we wish for.

Contrast all this with the commentary of the average Dane. “Why cycle? It’s easy, convenient, practical, simple, efficient, obvious … why do you even ask?” Rarely a peep about finance. And contrast again with that drum banging in the background at Cycle City Expo: “the economic benefits of cycling, the economic benefits of cycling, the economic benefits of cycling …” What a cage we live in. And best exemplified by the tyranny of ‘value for money’. It’s bloody everywhere; here that is, not there. Where’s the philosophy? Value for money means there is only one value in town: money. Note, money is a commodity you can count. So only that which we can count is valuable. Granted, a bit of poor logic, but you get the idea, I’m sure. Desperate voices shout: “I like cycling” and “cycling is fun”. Thanks to the guy who responded to my challenge of how to measure that. “You need a unit to measure” said I. “What’s the unit for fun?” “The grin” he replied. “How wide it is.”

Of course we can all wax lyrical about the economic benefits of putting in that cycling infrastructure. But what of a park, a place of worship, a museum, a school, a hospital, some public art? Can all be monetised, reduced to ‘vfm’? Why cycling then? The inexorable shift from values to value. Not that the App man would agree: “We pick value – business value – over values any day.” Which, I contend, only distances us further from the great non-cycling public. And heralds the spectre of two kinds of cyclists: those welcome in our cities because their pockets contain the equivalent of the ‘pedestrian pound’, and those not: the poor, the young, and others without the price of a Cappuccino and whose presence might detract from the ‘economic benefits of cycling’. Wither inclusion and  the simple value of mobility in accessing, for example, the library.

My plea then is to have some faith in ‘them’; we’re all philosophers after all. We understand and use the language of good and bad on a daily basis; we understand and feel what this means, without having to quantify the judgements we make. We don’t feel it necessary to articulate everything in terms of value for money. Let’s trust to this in asking some more philosophical questions in pursuit of our aim: what’s good, and bad, about where we live; and how could things be improved? What does it mean to live a good life, and how are we going to get on with building a good society? Monbiot got an airing and his words on framing problems offer a cautionary tale: ‘beware framing with only one set of values, you might lose the ability to frame with others’.

Try this for homework: ask yourself “Two Wheels Good? Why might cycling be bad?” A starter for 10; you’re just like those ‘Other’ dudes: you want to start your journey from home and end it where you – the individual – want to go. You’re selfish. You’re anti-social; walking (and car-driving?) with others trumps cycling with others any day if you value having a chat. You’re just another ideologically-driven individual. Unless, of course, you’ve other reasons you want to make known; reasons that might help us unpack a wider context – a context of values – without which nudging the old Boneshaker on a bit might be harder than it need be.



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