Why should I present cycling in a good light?

Whenever I tackle a controversial subject in this column, it's only minutes before my inbox starts to fill with emails from angry readers. If they're motorists or motorbikers, sounding off about how much they hate cyclists, I'm never too bothered. But the persistent drip of letters from fellow cyclists – who criticise me for giving cycling a bad name – I feel I have to take issue with.

Advocating red light jumping, calling for mandatory cycle helmets, and almost any kind of expression of aggression wind other cyclists up the most (one reader is now so distressed by the fact I jump red lights, that he has written to the CTC to ask it to get me sacked!).

The emails often suggest that provocative and aggressive articles reinforce the prejudices of other road users against cyclists. Some go further, and suggest that advocating lawlessness or aggression can only encourage others to think such behaviour is acceptable.

I disagree on both counts. Both arguments intellectualise how we develop perceptions of other road users, as well as inflate the influence of the media. In fact, the media has surprisingly little influence when it comes to changing people's prejudices, political or otherwise.

Red light jumping is already a fact of life – and has been for many years. If I began to dedicate column inches to condemning it, it would not make a jot of difference to the numbers of people who did it – just as it has no effect when I condone it. Cyclists decide to jump a red light in the moment, and will be swayed perhaps by the actions of other cyclists, as much as by the attitude to lawlessness they inherited from their parents.

However, there has always been a very serious issue underlying the articles I've written about jumping red lights – that it's simply not safe enough for cyclists on Britain's roads today. A greater degree of flexibility in the traffic rules – such as at least allowing cyclists to turn left at red lights – could make urban cycling much safer. Readers may disagree with the remedy, but few dispute the problem.

Similarly, when it comes to my recent talk of war against motorcyclists, the articles were underpinned by a serious issue about the safety of cyclists if motorbikers are allowed to use bus lanes.

Being provocative is a great way of encouraging people to engage in a debate – and debate is a good way to stimulate change for the better. Taking a hard line approach in a column is more likely to encourage people to see the other side of the coin.

So talk of the need to present cycling in a good light is poppycock.

The evidence that there are bad cyclists and good cyclists, bad drivers and good drivers, is there on the roads of every town in Great Britain. Other road users – and even cycling policymakers – gain their perceptions of cyclists from their experiences, not newspapers.

Red light jumping will be stopped if either the police crack down on it, or if the law and cycling infrastructure are upgraded to make life safer for cyclists on Britain's streets – not by commentators condemning lawlessness. Decisions to invest in cycling will be driven by carbon emissions targets, not by arbitrary perceptions of how well cyclists behave themselves. Motorists' attitude to cyclists will be determined by how cyclists act towards them every day, not by what they drivers read in the papers.

So, if aggression, generalisation and general provocation leave you furious, perhaps you'd be better off buying a copy of Reader's Digest. But if you want to take part in the fascinating debate about cycling, keep reading, and be sure to read The Independent's new cycling blog, Cyclotherapy, which you'll find at www.independent.co.uk/blogs


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