When big media writes the story on cycling
What we have here today is more or less just a stream of consciousness rather than a concise argument and a well thought out conclusion. Take is as a starting point for further discussion about how we deal with, and, as much as we can, take control of the cycling narrative being spun out in the places we live.
This strikes me as something worth considering: that one or two big stories about a single piece of infrastructure can dominate in such a way as to paint the picture for an entire city, when the overall picture can actually be quite different.
The cycleways in College Street in Sydney and Frome Rd in Adelaide are two examples of that. While in their own right they are significant things, there are many other developments happening all over both cities. It is possible that these headlines may be painting an inaccurate overall picture of how a city is developing its cycling infrastructure. I’m not necessarily saying that either place is becoming a world leader for cycling or that the “infrastructure” being implemented is even all that good, but there are most certainly many other smaller cycling projects happening that are kept in the shadows of these two controversial stories.
What they are good for is symbolism – fodder for whipping up a media storm. But, is that storm accurate? Is it representative? Can it be used for good as well as bad? Is it avoidable? Should it be? Is this even worth thinking about???
Both of these bits of infrastructure are important, not least of which because they are so rare, and given that, they send a message that this country is not behind cycling as a mode of transportation (though it is behind in cycling as a mode of transportation). While there are modest concessions to cycling being made in many parts of both cities, even if they are often half-baked and ill-considered, these small, innocuous, and sometimes even truly helpful projects don’t capture the attention of most people regardless of whether these people are for cycling or against it. A painted line marking where cyclists are supposed to be given consideration does not interfere with a motorists ability to cross it, park in it, or open a door into it, making it hardly much of anything that is a real game changer, even though it falls under the category of “cycling infrastructure”.
So much of the cycling infrastructure that is in place in Australia, like in Canada and the US, largely pays lip service to cyclists, rather than making any real, fundamental steps to encourage more cycling, or safer cycling. Still, there are improvements, however small, being made to our cities. The tide is turning, if very, very slowly. With that said, can all this attention and debate and controversy on one single, but important bit of cycleway be harmful to all the other efforts to improve cycling around the city? Could it be harmful to future efforts? Is there any way it can be helpful?
Firstly, it’s not like cyclists had a choice in the matter in either case. The College Street cycleway is in the early stages of being torn up in the midst of a very heated situation in Sydney, while some politicians and a few loudmouth “ratepayers” are (still) calling for the Frome Street cycleway to be removed, ideally, or at least altered to give the largely unused space by cars back to cars. In actual fact, the situation for Frome Street isn’t nearly as bad as for College Street, but for a short while there were grave fears for its future, which of course, in true Australian fashion, started directly after an independent and government-funded report on the cycleway concluded that it’s all good, brah! At least in Sydney there is a massive construction project for light rail behind the controversy (actually, the real issue the failed promise of the government to replace the College Street cycleway before it was removed with a segregated cycleway on an adjacent street, but instead leaving precisely zero (0) heavily used segregated cycleways at all), whereas in Adelaide… well, just because… cars.
So the choice seems to be between a situation developing into a controversy, or no one makes a stink about it and the cycling infra just quietly gets removed and the endangered species is wiped clean from existence. Clearly, a stink must be made.
On the one hand, these controversies put cycling in the minds of the general public, which may increase its profile. That is a good thing when most people are not blindly hostile towards cycling and at least willing to put up with it at a minimum, and if cycling has a fair shake in the general media. Sounds bizarre enough to set the scene of an early Woody Allen movie…
Much attention, however, can be a bad thing when the media is uncompromisingly hostile to cycling, as it is in Australia, where there is a general, underlying preference to keep the roads for cars, the pavement for pedestrians, and… well, I don’t know where, for cyclists, just not either one of those. In this environment, a controversial cycling story creates more bad press than good, and could be seen as detrimental to the furthering of cycling as a normal mode of transportation and merely fostering the growing hostility towards cyclists from one and all.
When the main media outlets get to write the narrative based on their own preferences, and the government’s position on the matter is conservative at best, and silent or harmful at worst, the remaining voices in support of cycling infrastructure and against promoting further encouragement for driving just create an annoying buzz in the ears of the general public. The lone voice of a Charlie Pickering or a Chris Bordman is a huge help, but it’s still just one voice (or two) amongst the throngs of the “we’re not Europe mate, take your Lycra elsewhere” masses.
…On the other hand, if these controversial issues aren’t aired out in the media, then how else is everyone going to know about them? These things can’t go unchecked, and besides, isn’t opposition a sign that the established order is being challenged?
You could look at it as a sign of things changing for the better. Or at least will, someday… There is the old Schopenhauer quote, “All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Applying this to cycling and depending on where in the world you live, you are likely somewhere between the first and second stage when it comes to cycling’s place in society.
I am most certainly inclined to believe that things are changing for the better, but that we are definitely embroiled in the second stage of truth, which may not get any better in the immediate future – at least, not here in Australia. Things here are pretty heated out on the roads between motorists and cyclists. And when I say between motorists and cyclists, I mean some motorists and a few cyclists. Then again, if you live and cycle in Minneapolis, you might want to be a little extra cautious of the lesser-known migratory patterns of flying bricks…
So clearly we can’t let controversial plans to compromise the little real cycling infrastructure we have go unchecked, which necessarily gives rise to the poo-throwing contest that gets played out in the media. The controversial headlines are here to stay.
What about the numerous small stories? Well, they’re too boring to make any real impact in the media. And that might be our golden ticket. Or maybe a bronze pass. Or a copper 2 for 1 voucher. Anyway, there are numerous small stories happening all the time, and that’s great.
Now, I’m not suggesting that any aspect of the big juicy stories about significant cycle infrastructure being torn up is a good thing. It’s not, and we need to keep actively responding to the obtuse, short-sighted and prejudiced media outlets. But, the fact that the rest of the story of cycling in our cities is largely left untold (in “big media”, anyway), might contain within it an advantage…
These small projects that people don’t really pay any attention to – could we be a bit sneaky with these and use their relative obscurity to our advantage? Take this as a hypothetical: we could start rolling out a vast and connected cycling plan that involved nothing more than white lines and (slightly wider sections of) green paint that aren’t overly restrictive to hostile motorists (let’s call this soft cycling infrastructure), giving them time to adjust to the idea of real cycling infrastructure (let’s call this hard cycling infrastructure). Then, once this has become reasonably normalized… BAM!… we whack up a whole bunch of bollards at the edge of those green bits.
Yes, there are far more things to consider and design for than whacking up a bunch of bollards, and it’s highly (ridiculously) unlikely that a secret plan to sneak a large-scale cycling plan through local government and under the noses of local media would be successful, never mind entertained… Really, I’m just wondering if there is a way we can use the low-key nature of the less controversial cycling projects to cycling’s advantage, especially when all eyes are on a single, extra controversial story.
Anyway, this is getting really long, so I’m going to have to just stop, but I’d like to hear from you regarding how we can, or should, react to or make use of the way cycling is being handled in the media? Do you think that the overall position of cycling in our cities is accurately reflected in the media, and if not, is that harmful? Are there any benefits? Should we even care?
All images: www.thestickybidon.com