Tuesday, 28 February 2012

On Civil Rights

Q. How do you turn educated, affluent, young, white males into a downtrodden minority group?

A. Give them all bicycles.

NB I promise to not use the phrase "I have a dream" anywhere in this post....other than just there of course. Not least because it would seem rather bad form to have a dream that calls for segregation of the minority.

Before I begin and due to the usual sensitivities that we must take account of I want to say I am not directly likening cycling to the Civil Rights movement, but there are similarities it might be useful to explore.

First up, what is a minority in the political sense, for speed we'll turn to Wikipedia which quotes 
Feagin (1984) states that a minority group has five characteristics: (1) suffering discrimination and subordination, (2) physical and/or cultural traits that set them apart, and which are disapproved by the dominant group, (3) a shared sense of collective identity and common burdens, (4) socially shared rules about who belongs and who does not determine minority status, and (5) tendency to marry within the group.
So how does cycling stack up against those criteria?
  1. Cyclists have nominal equality before the law, although I would be interested to learn if they really do receive equal protection and redress. However cyclists definitely have to play a subordinate role to the motor vehicle if for no other reason than their sheer vulnerability and they have to contend with persistent intimidation.
  2. Cultural traits...which are disapproved of by the dominant group, simply being on a bicycle seems enough to get a lot of drivers' backs up.
  3. Yes.
  4. Ride a bike? You're in.
  5. I don't believe there are enough female cyclists to go round, but if one were interested it would certainly count in her favour.
So we're definitely in the ballpark. Add to all that the 100+ cyclists killed every year and the thousands injured due to deliberate acts of violence, or, more commonly, drivers not giving a crap, and the issue becomes rather more serious.

Anecdotally, a cycling buddy was knocked off his bike a year ago, he was on our local A-road minding his own business when some white van man took an exception to him. The van went to overtake him and swerved into the side of him, he kept his balance and a torrent of abuse was yelled from the window of the van. White van man came back for another go and this time did a proper job. Buddy was thrown from the bike and landed face first on the tarmac his helmet smashed to pieces as did several of the bones in his face. The van driver was convicted of dangerous driving and warned to go home and prepare for a custodial sentence, he did a bit of begging though and it was reduced to 12 month ban, has to pass an anger management course before he can reapply for a provisional licence. Fined £1200, 140hrs community service.

Then just a week ago a friend of a friend was riding along when somebody lent out of a passing car window, pushed him off his bike and into a ditch.

I can't imagine that either of these situations would have ended in violence if the victim was walking, driving or even riding a scooter.

The one advantage the cycling fraternity has going for it though is its demographic. I'm in a not so great part of Liverpool, but even here the majority of cyclists fit in to the white, male, young-middle aged, educated and affluent categories. The greater portion of my commuting buddies comprises 4 doctors and a surgeon, all white, one female. Cycling is also quite Londoncentric and on 'our side' we have lots of city boys, journalists, politicians, a Lord, even Rupert Murdoch for christ's sake! Seriously, if this group of people can't get something done the next step must be to employ the Iraqi Information Minister to do our PR.

Back in the 70s the Dutch went through the era of protesting and campaigning for safer streets, a battle they largely won, watch this wonderful video brought to you via BicycleDutch

Notice also the campaign posters


There's a similar theme here


Through direct action, civil disobedience and plain old making a racket they got the best cycling infrastructure in the world. Largely segregated from motor traffic and with laws to add weight, strict liability and priority for traffic going straight on. The Civil Rights movement using similar tactics won its early battles and secured an amendment to the US constitution

How might the UK's battle be won? Feel free to make your own suggestions in the comments. While you think, here are a few of mine, I'm sure you'll do much better...
  • A cyclists' strike - all cyclists in London hang up their helmets for a day and get on the tube. Add more overcrowding to an overcrowded network. Alternatively, anyone who can drives to work, adding more congestion. Give people a taste of how bad it could be if nobody bothered to cycle.
  • A nationwide cycle to work day - if your company could be persuaded, have them support a cycle to work day whereby anyone who cycles to work on that day gets breakfast bought for them.
  • Much of the Dutch protest was an appeal to the heart to stop the deaths of children. Along similar lines and with permission from families, a campaign of posters, flyers or balloon releases with details and photos of people killed while cycling.


  1. The key difference between people who ride bikes & conventional minority groups: it's not something you're born in to, it's not a religion or even necessarily a lifestyle. People are free to join or leave at any time; even vegetarianism requires a greater personal investment, cyclists are not made to forswear oil-powered transport.

    The fact that a lot of cyclists identify strongly as such (in a way that as pedestrians rarely do) is in one way a strength - makes it fairly easy to rally people around a campaign flag - but also a sign of just how far we have to go. If & when a good proportion of journeys where it's a sensible option actually are undertaken by bike, there will be no more stereotyping of Guardian readers or lycra louts. Indeed, if it's normal, everyday thing to get from A to B by bike, we won't need a special word for people that do so.

    As to the battle ahead. In London at least, there are quite a few mass rides planned ahead of the mayoral election, the biggest being the LCC's April 28th Hyde Park - Blackfriars ride. Civil disobedience is there in the shape of groups like Critical Mass (which in London at least seems to be growing & growing) & Bikes Alive.

    Love the idea of national cycle to work day with free breakfast at the end of it! Think that'd be really good for morale in a lot of companies in fact (building team spirit without losing an entire working day or shelling out £thousands on paintball or rock-climbing). Would be good to coordinate with the local cycle orgs (LCC etc.) and bike shops to sort out "Bike Bus" group rides along popular commuter routes, help novice riders feel safe & stop them from getting lost; have mechanics on-hand at the start point to do a quick fettle on any rusty bikes etc. & even provide hire/demo bikes where possible. With enough advance publicity, could get the word out to drivers & freight operators (via local radio etc.) so they know to expect more novice cyclists than usual. If it can get off the ground, that kind of upbeat, positive "cycling for all" campaign has the potential to win a lot more friends than the more confrontational approaches.. a happy middle-ground between that and the perhaps over-tame, over-branded London Skyride experience.

    Had a quick Google & it looks like there's already an organization planning something along these lines: http://www.bikeweek.org.uk/ - going to sign up for it & see what they have planned; it's not til June so plenty of time still to organize things.

    1. Hi Angus, Thanks for the comments, you are of course correct, cycling is a choice, something I had meant to include in the original post but forgot to do so, stupidly, as it is the major difference between cyclists and 'regular' minority groups.

      I hope to be there on 28/04, if London leads the way hopefully other cities will follow.

      Thanks for bringing my attention to Bikeweek I think I will try and organise something at my office.

    2. Same here, also hoping to try & sort out a 'bike bus' group ride from my London suburb to the City / West End.