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Tribalism and Designing for the Bicycle
Alasdair Massie

    We like to think of ourselves as a civilised, rational society, but in reality humans are inherently tribalist. We like to collect ourselves into groups, forging bonds based on how similar other people are to ourselves. We then adopt a tribal uniform that distinguishes our friends (people like us) from potential enemies (people who are different from us). That "uniform" might be a football strip, the clothes we wear, the car we drive, anything to which we can attach a group identity.
    From the "outside" cyclists are quite visibly different from most non-cycling adults. We are clearly not from the same "tribe" and so are treated with suspicion and sometimes hostility. A cyclist wearing lycra, a helmet and wrap-round shades is most definitely not one of "us" and quite clearly and assertively "different". Not to be trusted or even tolerated. Definitely to blame, whatever the circumstances. If I can put the blame on "him" and "his" friends then it will never come back on "me" because we are so different. And because I will never be in "his" position, I have no need to take a reasonable or balanced view.
    It can be difficult for many of us cyclists to understand this attitude because of course we, as individuals, do not fit neatly into the box that non-cyclists have fashioned for us. We all walk down the pavements, most of us drive, and many people that you might encounter riding a bike don't think of themselves as "cyclists" at all.
    The Transport Research Laboratory did a study of "Drivers perceptions of cyclists" TRL 549 (2002), focusing on the concept of  "differentness" defining peoples' attitudes and behaviour. It is a little conservative in its conclusions and doesn't really address the more emotive issues - institutionalised discrimination against cyclists, prejudice or outright hostility, but it is essential reading for anyone trying to understand why cyclists are always portrayed as being in the wrong, when in fact they are often the only people in the right.
    Such views don't confine themselves to the highway. People carry their prejudices with them into the workplace. As a senior consulting engineer, I am perhaps in better position than many to see inside the minds of those of my colleagues who are involved in Highway design. They are all nice, decent people. They mean well. They want an easy life. They drive to work. But they have a mental block when cycling is mentioned.
    I presented a training seminar on "Designing for Cyclists" to my colleagues and to some invitees from the County and District Councils a few months ago, alongside a guest presentation by Ray Blackwell of Sustrans.  It was well attended; in fact the best attended training seminar we have ever had, so clearly engineers are interested in the issues.

    I have been surprised at the lack of questions and queries that have resulted from that presentation. Because of my position and experience I tend to get a steady stream of colleagues wanting to pick my brains on things where I am known to be a bit of an expert, but not on cycle infrastructure. The only queries I have had have come from colleagues who also cycle to work.

Why is this?

    Firstly, Highway Engineering tends not to attract intellectual high flyers. The clever, dynamic engineers tend to go into building structures, bridges etc at the more glamorous end of the industry. Highway Engineers are therefore a little intimidated by well informed cyclists, which is why they don't come and talk to me, and why they hide behind obscure regulations when their designs are challenged. They also don't always know their subject very well.
    The Highways Agency "Design Manual for Roads and Bridges" is a huge, Byzantine collection of disconnected advice notes. Knowing all the regulations affecting any given situation is well nigh impossible. It is almost universally inapplicable to the sort of situations where cycle infrastructure is needed (it is aimed at National Roads, Trunk Roads and motorways - not local roads) but engineers use it anyway because it is the only prescriptive guidance available. The sprawling nature of the regulations also makes it very difficult for lay people - campaigners, councillors, individuals - to challenge designs. The designer only has to claim it is in accordance with such and such regulation and it will get rubber-stamped. Whether that regulation is correct or relevant will probably never be checked.

Should society be on trial?

Highway Engineers all seem to drive to work, so their impressions of cyclists come through the windscreen - cyclists are usually a "them", not and "us", and all the usual prejudices apply. In my 20 years of working I have noticed that cycle sheds are populated mostly by structural engineers, architects and geographers - all creative thinkers, with very few highway engineers. This is a reflection in the highway engineering design culture - applying prescriptive rules dictated by others, and doing what everybody else does rather than thinking for themselves.

    Neither Highway Authorities (County Councils - publicly answerable), nor their designers like "risk". We are of course talking about the risk of being sued, not risk to members of the public. They therefore stick to prescriptive guidance, whether it is relevant or helpful. If a DfT advice note says make cyclists jump off a cliff then that is what they will do, and the Safety Audit will endorse it. If there isn't an advice note detailing how to do it, it will never happen.

    Nor do they like criticism. Of course they get a lot of criticism from cycling groups but cyclists are a "them" and cyclists' views, however accurate and clearly argued, can therefore be written off as extreme, politically motivated, single issue, or just the ramblings of a bunch of tree-hugging, weirdy beardies. Criticism that counts comes from the newspapers, and from friends and colleagues in the car park (they are of course an "us" in us / them terms). It is extraordinary to see how peoples' attitudes suddenly switch where cycling issues come into a conversation. One minute I am a highly respected designer, entrusted with a multi-million pound project, then suddenly I am a self-interested, single issue trouble maker who knows nothing - all because we strayed into territory touching on the other person's attitudes and behaviour. People know that driving causes all manner of ills, but they can't handle the feelings of guilt that come with acknowledging that, so they pretend it is all somebody else's fault - him over there, that ***** in the lycra.

    As for the easy life - making space for good quality cycle infrastructure is never easy. It takes drive, determination and the will to stand up and take criticism from all sides. The path of least resistance is the nasty compromises we see all over Britain - no use to cyclists, but fulfilling the political imperative of being seen to be green.

    I still haven't made up my mind about the mental block - is it genuine, or is it an excuse? The line I always take with fellow engineers is to encourage them to design all cycle infrastructure as a road for motor vehicles, and then scale down the dimensions by half. That way the nonsense features that many designers feel are essential on a cycle path / lane disappear. Encourage them to drive mentally down their design. Anything they encounter which is a nonsense when driving will be just as much of a nonsense when cycling.

    Regrettably institutional "cyclism" runs through every root and branch of our society - police, judges, politicians, civil servants, engineers, contractors. There is a mountain of prejudice to climb.

Footnote:- Alasdair's views first appeared in an egroup of CTC, the UK's national cycling organisation. If you'd like to know more about Alasdair, click here.