Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Cyclophobia in the media

Two striking features of the modern corporate media are moral panics and scapegoating. Knife crime and hooded youths! Terrorism and Muslims! Lawless anarchy and cyclists!

Needless to say there is one exceptionally violent group in society who never attract the condemnation of journalists. The criminal and violent behaviour of drivers is marginalised. The daily death toll on Britain’s roads passes unmentioned. Where it is mentioned it is sanitised. ‘Accidents’ happen. So often ‘bad weather’ is to blame. Strangely, there is no moral panic over drivers who “lose control” and crash, even though this occurs week after week, with spectacular and violent consequences. Drivers crash into trees, houses, shops, pubs, bus shelters, lamp posts, cyclists, pedestrians, even trains on railway lines – you name it. Reckless speeding is often the reason. Yet you never read screaming headlines about zombie drivers. Far from being identified as a problem, motorists are constructed as victims, exploited by the state through taxation, harassed by traffic calming, and relentlessly persecuted by speed cameras and traffic wardens.

Why are so many newspapers and journalists so keen to rubbish cyclists? Largely, I think, because their livelihoods depend on advertising from the the car industry, or their employers have corporate investments in that industry through the medium of motoring magazines. Also, many readers are car drivers and are encouraged to think of themselves as victims. In this situation it’s always good to have a scapegoat and who better than cyclists? As we know, these ‘lycra louts’ and ‘rogue cyclists’ don’t pay road tax. They are spongers. And they go through red lights. And while we sit in our cars fuming in a massive traffic jam, they go speeding past and vanish into the distance. It makes you sick. It makes you angry. They should pay tax! They should have number plates!

And motoring is often a frustrating experience in London, with its traffic jams and congestion. Read the angry comments here, where yesterday drivers took over two hours to get between Hackney and Leytonstone, a distance of less than two miles – and note that some people think an individual, who may well have mental health problems, deserves to die for delaying drivers. The sheer volume of commentary is interesting. People care more about their bad experiences as drivers than anything in the world.

Very few people cycle that short distance between Hackney and Leytonstone, and in one sense you can’t blame them. Although there’s ample scope for some really brilliant cycling infrastructure across the Lea Valley, none has ever been built. (The only good routes there are leisure routes, which run parallel to the river.) There’s no attractive, direct off-road cycling route between Leyton and Hackney, and cyclists heading into the City are obliged to share the roads with high volumes of motor traffic, with drivers who are fizzing with impatience and aggression. London is locked into a vicious circle of growing car dependency and a mediocre on-road cycling infrastructure which has to be shared with drivers, a situation which is unlikely to result in a significant shift from driving to cycling.

Just watch what happens at any road junction when the lights go to green and a driver doesn’t notice, or, sensibly, chooses not to cross because the traffic is backed up on the far side. The driver or drivers behind go ballistic and horns start blaring. And even when drivers aren’t angry, they are impatient, in a hurry, locked into their own private one ton metal world. Like the male driver of white car S82 S00, who gave me a moment of gut-churning terror yesterday by overtaking me on High Road Leyton and then turning sharp left right in front of me, to go down Lyttleton Road. He can hardly not have seen me, as it was broad daylight. But my existence didn’t register, or it registered and it just wasn’t important to him. I slammed on my brakes and a collision was avoided. Had I gone under his car the local paper would have doubtless reported that there had been “an accident” in which a cyclist “collided with a car”.

In a car supremacist society we should expect no less than a car supremacist media. And for a journalist what could be easier than to present yourself as a feisty contrarian, when in fact your ‘controversial’ opinions about cyclists simply echo the interests of the most powerful and affluent, and those of your employer?

The real commercial interests of the press are admirably represented by Andrew Anthony in his weekly motoring column in Saturday’s Guardian colour supplement. Recently Andrew enthused over the Nissan GT-R 3.8 V6 Black Edition, which costs £59,400. The people who buy one and drive very badly are unlikely to be deterred from bad driving by fixed penalties of £60 or small fines in the courts. It has a top speed of 193mph – a situation which disturbs no politician or senior police officer, even though there is clear evidence here of a criminal conspiracy to break British road traffic law. It has acceleration of 0-60mph in 3.5 seconds, which is bad news for elderly pedestrians or cyclists wobbling in the middle of the carriageway as they try to turn into a junction in the face of oncoming traffic. It consumes a gas-guzzling 22.8mpg. Its carbon emissions are 298g/km and its “Eco rating” is 1.5/10. Required to sum up this car in one word, Andrew chuckles: “Fast “. I think I’d prefer “criminal” or “unsustainable” or “insane”.

What's apparent, even at somewhere conscientiously south of 195mph, is that the GT-R is dependable at speed. Some ultra hi-tech computerised torque distribution through the four-wheel drive helps make for a ride so balanced and controlled it would be easy to break the speed limit by perhaps as much as 40 or 50mph, almost without noticing. Or it would be were it not for the G-force of the acceleration, which is not just exhilarating but also acts as an alert that your driving licence is racing towards history.

Carnage on the road and unsustainable commodities accelerating the world’s lurch towards climate break-up – all a bit of a giggle but also a valuable commercial interest for a newspaper which prides itself on its liberal and progressive attitudes and its professional, highly educated readership.