You posed a question in the recent APPCG-organised parliamentary debate which caught my eye. Please, by way of writing this letter, let me help you find an answer.
Your question was posted by the APPCG twitter account, and it reads:
“Robert Goodwill says he will consider KPIs but we need to know why women don’t want to cycle to work. His wife says a helmet spoils her hair”.
Let me start by saying, that I am surprised you are still taking an individual focus, when really we know what keeps people from cycling is the aggressive motor traffic environments that our engineers and planners have created over the last few decades. Their practices are out-dated and do not serve inclusive city making. I do not want to diminish your wife’s approach (as individuals, we naturally focus on ourselves when looking at problems), but truly there also are much bigger things at play here. As evidence does not seem to have penetrated your department for a few decades (and also because I am sure others will make the effort to point sources out to you), let me please tell you my story.
Since 2010 I have been involved in running newcycling, Newcastle’s cycling campaign. We started up because we were increasingly frustrated with the authority’s stonewalling, blocking, inaction and seeming inability to focus on the really issues that matter when it comes to “getting more people cycling”. People were blamed for not cycling. People were offered cycle training to overcome their personal inabilities. People felt patronised and felt that money was poured down the drain: what was really needed was a collective institutional effort to improve urban design. These were the reasons to get together as a campaign group. We are all volunteers. Newcycling today has 1,600 members and we remain unhappy with the way our city is organised, arranged and designed. As for myself, I am also a chartered engineer and recently started to work on a PhD project about cycling infrastructure, politics and public perception. What I am trying to say is this. I have given how to “get more people cycling” a lot of thought in the last 6 to 7 years of my life. I am 43 years old.
I cycle, but to be clear: my cycling happens rather despite not because of its attractiveness to get from A to B, or the comfort I am afforded. I have been shouted at, driven at, objects have been thrown at me. This is the cycling reality for many of us in modern England.
Locally, I have spoken to hundreds of people over the years. These are people who cycle, and people who don’t cycle and people who try to cycle – friends and strangers alike. Their story ultimately remains the same. Road environments are too hostile, driver behaviour is too aggressive and there is a severe shortage of sensible cycle routes. These are the recurring and interconnected themes that come up over and over again when I speak to my neighbours, fellow citizens, colleagues and campaign members. When you engage people in talks about the qualities a good city should hold, I observe a great deal of consensus in the answers I am given. We need an integrated transport system with a much better transport mix of options. For mode shift away from the car we need space for cycling – largely speaking it is the missing ingredient.
I have spoken to the mum, who does the right thing and cycles her children to school. She does what the authorities want her to: she cycles. Her cycling however comes at a price. Comfortable is not what her journey could be easily described as. When cycling she suffers ridicule, abuse, anger and scorn. She gets the blame from drivers, who have been held up for a few seconds. She should get off the road and start caring for the safety of her kids, is what she hears. It’s a heart-breaking story to hear that the person who is doing good, also takes the hit. She ought to be rewarded. But the system fails her. This mum’s story is not a single case, I have heard it dozens of times. Too many times. It is also worth noting that under the oppressive conditions described here, we cannot blame people for not cycling. What’s needed for people to cycle is space for cycling. Then she could cycle in peace with her children.
I have spoken to the worker who used to cycle, until an aggressive driver drove him off the road. His cuts and bruises went much deeper than the physical knocks he took. They went to his heart. This particular man actually stopped cycling to work altogether. The system failed him too. The council offered him cycle training to “regain his confidence”. No action was taken by the authorities against the driver, and no action was taken to prevent this from happening again. Not even the railings were removed that the driver pressed him into. What’s ultimately needed is infrastructure levelling the playing field for walking, cycling and driving. Then he could get on his bike again, with good certainty that this won’t happen again.
And I have spoken to people who have lost their loved ones to road violence. These are deeply tragic stories to tell and I will not be able to do any justice to their loss or the scale of grievance that is suffered. How to picture the depth of the tragedy when your daughter is killed by an inattentive lorry driver? How can we even begin to give credit to their souls after death, and their friends and families surviving them, haunted for eternity? And yes, the system fails again, and for road deaths it fails society twice. The justice is often not done and families are left to grieve alone. And, again, the death locations are not adjusted to make them safe: flawed road designs are left intact, ready to take another victim. What’s ultimately needed – doing all so it won’t happen again – is not given. The killed will never cycle again.
There are many more stories. The husband who does not want his wife to cycle for fear of her immediate health and wellbeing. The woman who is anxious every time her boy-friend is out on the bike. The cycling parents who forbid their kids to cycle out of worry about the busy road at the end of their street. And I understand their decisions borne out of immediate and personal worry. The system keeps them caught.
These are not isolated cases. This is normality. This is modern England. The lack of good cycle infrastructure is real. I would gladly tell you many more people’s stories, despite them making my heart heavy. By telling these stories, I would hope, that maybe, they can reach your heart as well. On behalf of the people who have told me their cycling stories over the years, I am writing to you, as the responsible minister, to take action. I ask you to take these realities seriously and find a fairer balance to map a new way. A look at London’s recent achievements is warranted. We need investment in cycling infrastructure, in the form of a clear dedicated continual budget, and we need meaningful design standards to change our cities for good, for the better. We also must look at the justice system and stop its discrimination of the dead cyclist and stop the devastation to families and friends.
I hope others may come forward and tell their story. Equally I can understand if they would not, as the system has worn us down for a long time. To have hope, in a system that has failed so much, would be a grave proposition to even the firmest.
This letter is a plea. It is written from the bottom of my heart. I write this open letter as a 43-year old woman, as an engineer, as a researcher, as an activist, as someone who cycles. I would like you to take the lead on creating better cities for all – across departments and across political parties – so we can get complete closure on the question of helmet hair. I would be delighted to be given the opportunity to speak to you and your wife.
Katja Leyendecker EurIng CEng CWEM
Researcher at Northumbria University