The Cargo Cult of Cycling Culture

Cycling culture is a term which is nebulous enough that it can mean significantly different things to different people.

To some, it will bring to mind images of hipsters and the fixed gear scene, or the likes of the counter-cultural Critical Mass movement. To others, it will invoke the BMX scene, or road cycling clubs, or people who live and breathe mountain biking. The one thing linking all of these ideas of cycling culture is that their members all take the bicycle and make it a significant part of their identities.

Because of this, I find it weird when “cycling culture” is discussed as a cause of cycling being a mainstream mode of transport in The Netherlands. The implication is that Dutch people are not choosing how to travel primarily based on their experience of their environment, but because of some sort of unique “cycling culture” which is a part of being Dutch. This implies that this ill-defined “cycling culture” would need to be somehow replicated in the UK in order to allow cycling to become a mainstream mode of transport here. Some people may make the further inference that replication of this Dutch “cycling culture” is sufficient in itself to allow cycling to become a mainstream mode of transport.

Also worth noting is that just because driving is the dominant mode of transport in the UK, it does not follow that the UK has an equivalent “car culture” which is a part of being British. Certainly there are car and motorsport enthusiasts who make the car part of their identities, but this is hardly typical of the average person in the UK. I also occasionally see arguments that the use of cars as status symbols in the UK produces a culture of driving and works against the cause of cycling as a mode of transport. Whilst there are also people who spend a lot of money on cars which they see as status symbols, these are also the kind of people who will spend money on other conspicuously expensive items in exactly the same way. It is the display of having the means to buy the car which is important, not the car itself (or the watch, clothes, house, boat, etc.). Again, I don’t see this being a major factor in the dominance of driving as a mode of transport in the UK. This kind of behaviour can also be seen in The Netherlands. Just owning a car is not in itself much of an indicator of socio-economic status nowadays.

The truth is that The Netherlands has no cycling culture and the UK has no car culture. What both countries have is people who choose how to get around by picking the path of least resistance, based on their own experience. Whereas for British people choosing the car is usually the path of least resistance, for Dutch people choosing the bike is often the path of least resistance. This is not due to a difference of culture, but an result of the differences in the built environment.

Certainly, there are also additional non-infrastructural factors increasing the attractiveness of cycling in The Netherlands, such as the provisions organisations and businesses make for people travelling by bicycle, but these are a reaction to the transport choices people make, not the main reason they make them. This reaction serves to reinforce the effect of the built environment on transport choice, as it does in the UK.

The argument that The Netherlands has a particular cycling culture which we would need to somehow replicate here for cycling to become a mainstream mode of transport is at its best cargo cult thinking, and at its worst, acts as an excuse for inaction and a quiet acceptance of the status quo.

Infrastructure is the foundation of cycling as a mainstream mode of transport. Nothing else will stand up if that foundation is not there first.

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7 thoughts on “The Cargo Cult of Cycling Culture

  1. Perhaps consider the negative culture opposing cycling, motorists or pedestrians who without any understanding or basis will abuse/berate/frustrate cyclists and consider that an acceptable position to take. Or police attitudes when you try and report an accident involving a cyclist, a small culture, but one that profoundly impacts cycling.

    These aren’t implicitly taught behaviours which is why I’d group them under the “culture” banner.

  2. Infrastructure is very important. Yet, while they may not have a “cycling culture” as you define it, you cannot deny that cycling is an important part of Dutch culture in general.

    You may know that Dutch football supporters today, when the national team plays Germany, chant “Give us back our bicycles!” – a reference to the confiscation and suppression of bicycles during the 1940-45 occupation.

  3. British society is peculiarly obsessed with social class and status, and I think many people still do regard their cars as an important part of this phenomenon. It’s not so much having or not having a car these days, but what type of car you have. For instance, the affluent now often choose to lumber around town in huge, luxurious 4x4s to distinguish themselves from the common car owner.

    As a child in the 60s I can remember when getting a car and abandoning the bus or bike was seen as a significant jump up the status ladder. Since the end of cycling as a mass form of transport in this country only a small, mostly male and educated middle class group of people have remained interested. I fit into this category myself, but my work means I meet many people who don’t. From their reactions to seeing I am a cyclist it is obvious to me that many ordinary British people regard cycling as something for children, people who want a car but can’t afford one, people who can’t pass the driving test or eccentrics.

    In view of my experiences I am not optimistic for the future of cycling as an everyday form of transport in the UK. Despite all the campaigning from cycling groups all we get is some poorly designed cycling facilities and ever more allowances being made for cars.

    There’s simply no real pressure from the population as a whole for Britain to be made more cycling friendly because most people have no intention of ever riding a bike and so have nothing to gain from it. Politicians know this.

  4. I think the emphasis on car or bicycle is misplaced here. When people say that the Dutch have a cycling culture I think what people mean is that Dutch culture includes the bicycle as a means of transport, the knock on effect being that cyclists and cycling is taken account of when planning. When people say the UK (along with many other countries) have a car culture they mean that the general culture is that transport (and life) is car-centric. This leads to cars being the only solution to transport issues that the majority of people consider, and things like edge-of-town shopping centres that have no pedestrian access (or cycling facilities, but we can still use the road).

    By this definition the Netherlands certainly has a cycling culture and the UK (and US/Ireland/etc) have a car culture.

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