In early February 2019 I received a phone call from a BBC producer explaining that she was looking to do an item for the BBC’s Crossing Divides season, which seeks to get people on opposite sides of an argument to sit down together and seek out areas of common ground. She thought the cyclist/motorist divide might be a good subject to explore and would I be interested in being the cycling voice? I explained very clearly that I consider the cyclist/motorist question to be an artificial dichotomy manufactured by the more scurrilous parts of the media to whip up conflict and cynically generate clicks, and that I will normally reject any media request to be pitted against a driver and debate such fruitless topics as whether “cyclists” should pay “road tax” or be forced to wear useless hi-vis clothing: not only do those things have no impact on safety, that approach also never changes anyone’s mind. She assured me that this wasn’t that type of adversarial format and the whole point was to find consensus. Trusting that assurance, I agreed to take part.
Shortly thereafter my counterpart was confirmed: “Natalie Barratt, a former rally driver, and hypnotherapist – who now runs a GlutenFree food business”. Now this was looking interesting. Sports driver vs. utility cyclist with the potential to explore the nuances around sport and transport in both modes; someone who clearly has an interest in alternative lifestyles and may offer some interesting insights on how one reconciles the harmful effects of car-dependency with issues around healthy nutrition and so on. I was told not to Google her so as not to render the conversation unnatural, which I didn’t. Though I did avail myself of the Twitter hive mind to make sure I could cover any angle the conversation may toss up.
a) Anti-bicycle arguments & rebuttals
b) Pro-car arguments & rebuttals
a) Pro-bicycle arguments & rebuttals
Thanks as ever for your wisdom.
— Prestwich Pootler (@pootlers) February 22, 2019
The day before the recording date, I received another email telling me not to prepare too much for the recording so as to “just let the conversation flow”.
My response once again included the clear proviso: “One thing I’m not willing to do, as we discussed on the phone, is to deal with the hackneyed tabloid stereotypes and prejudices around ‘bloody cyclists’, red light jumping and pavement riding. Instead I see this as more of an opportunity to explore issues around why our society’s perception of people who ride bicycles varies so greatly from how we view people in motor cars, and indeed also from the way people who cycle are viewed in other cultures.”
That point having been made emphatically, I pedalled over to Media City on a climate-change-induced balmy February Wednesday to record the piece.
When I first met Natalie, one of the very first things she said was she was surprised I hadn’t come in “full lycra” (this being a regular weekday and not a club-ride day, I was dressed in jeans and sneakers and a shirt – as she also hadn’t turned up in a fire suit and racing helmet, but rather a trouser suit and scarf). However, it was her next remark that gave me a real sense that I would be dealing with a rather unsophisticated set of expectations around cycling. “I’m actually quite surprised you didn’t cycle here.” When I told her I had, I could see her struggling to reconcile the image of “cyclists” she had in her mind with this normally attired chap claiming to have turned up on a bicycle.
When we sat down to record the piece, I let Natalie go first to set the tone of the debate. I couldn’t have been more flabbergasted at her opening gambit, which as verbatim as I can recall, went: “Drivers and cyclists both get a bit annoyed at each other and cyclists don’t pay road tax and we’re going to discuss those things”.
Jesus fucking Christ. What do you do at that moment, when all assurances of a measured, mature, balanced debate simply evaporate? Should I get up and walk out? Ask the producer if we can start again? Or counter reasonably? I opted for the last option, side-stepping the question and saying that I didn’t believe we were natural opponents (Natalie has a bike, I have a driving licence; we’re not Israelis and Palestinians, we’re not Northern Irish Protestants and Catholics), so why on earth have we been pitted against each other? That nuance was lost, and we were instantly embroiled in a road-tax/insurance/testing discussion. “But that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the legal position. There’s no such group as ‘cyclists’ who are being given special treatment. If I drive a car, I pay that stuff. If you ride a bike, you don’t. It’s about the choices we each make,” I reasoned. It didn’t work, though, and the point kept coming back, like a late VED reminder letter, enabling me to wheel out the many different logical and factual arguments against that particular fallacy. Other nonsense points raised included (rebuttals in brackets):
- Cyclists are a menace to pedestrians (in a recent Manchester Evening News story about the region’s most dangerous pedestrian crossings, by far the lion’s share of collisions were between pedestrians and cars);
- Cyclists should be forced to wear helmets, hi-vis and have lights on all the time (if you’re convinced that’s what makes cycling safe, will you come on a bike ride with me if we do all those things? Of course she declined);
- When there is a collision between a bike and a car, it’s always the driver who gets the blame (yes, because the driver usually is at fault, but given the the bias inherent in our justice system, it is unlikely they will get their due comeuppance);
- Cyclists regularly speed around at between 30-40mph terrifying everyone (I know no one who can cycle on the flat at 30mph, let alone 40);
- Cyclists put themselves at risk by listening to music (if hearing is such an essential sense on the road, would you support a ban on car stereos and insulated vehicle windows – of course she didn’t);
- You get the idea.
A murmuration of canards was dispatched, politely yet clinically, over the course of an hour, until we finally arrived something approaching consensus. Natalie said that actually she’d love to be able to hop on her bike and nip down to the shops, for her kids to be able to cycle to school, but it’s just too dangerous. “Yes,” I agreed, “it is. And that’s the type of change we active travel campaigners push for.” She told me she fears for her kids’ future, she worries about emissions and carbon footprints and climate breakdown. I’m nodding furiously here. I tell her I see a glimmer of hope in the younger generation, in that they are less interested in car ownership, and also the school climate strikes signal an engagement with ecological issues that our generation is ignoring.
And then, almost out of nowhere, the sucker punch, the Damascene denouement: as much as Natalie loves cars, as much as they’re practically part of her DNA, she thinks they’ve had their day as means of transport in our towns and cities. In fact, what Natalie thinks we need are car-free zones, where people can walk and cycle in safety and breathe clean air. Of course I’m delighted at this outcome. I tell her I agree and am heartened that it came from her. It’s not the cycle campaigner demanding a car ban, but an avowed petrolhead.
I’ve worked hard to break down deeply entrenched prejudices and got a committed driver to consider her own choices and acknowledge that a liveable future is a car-free one. It was worth sticking with it after all. What a great piece of radio this is going to be!
The piece was broadcast exactly a week after recording. I hadn’t heard the edit – in fact my request for an advance listen was declined. Instead, we’d both been asked to be available on the phone to comment on the conversation just after it went out. So the first time I hear it is down a crackly phone line as I’m waiting to be interviewed on live radio, which is not the level of preparation I would have liked. Anyhow, this it how the recorded conversation was edited for broadcast:
Me: You cycle & I drive, we’re not natural opponents.
Natalie: But motorists pay road tax have insurance and have to pass a test – as a cyclist you don’t. You don’t even need to wear a helmet!
Me: The government has ruled out all those things as it’s not in the public interest to make cycling any more onerous than it already is. The upshot would just be more cars.
Natalie: I love my car, it’s part of my DNA, but if I could feel safe cycling, I would do it more [sic].
Me: The status quo forces people on bikes and in cars into the same space, and that’s where the conflict comes from.
Natalie: But cyclists need to make themselves more visible.
Me: I invite you on a bike ride, we’ll dress up like a cross between a bin man and a Christmas tree, and that should keep us safe, right?
Natalie: I would never cycle in Manchester because it’s too polluted [sic] and too dangerous [sic].
Me: If we care about safety, then shouldn’t we be focusing on measures that have been proven to make cycling safe elsewhere in the world?
Natalie: Sure, but we Brits don’t like change, but that’s wrong. Motorists feel unsafe around cyclists because they don’t want to knock anyone off their bike and have to live with that. We need national measures.
Me: Yes, we need a cultural shift.
End of recorded section (listen again here from 47 minutes).
And that was that. No car free zones, nothing about broader climate issues, nothing about our concerns, and indeed praise, for the next generation. I’m staggered, speechless – but I’m on live radio, and Darryl Morris standing in for Mike Sweeney is asking me a question. “Nick, how did you feel listening to that?” My reticence is clear in my voice. “I thought it was erm … a really … erm … interesting take on the discussion…” I mention that we arrived at the common ground that cycling should be safe – and that we need to get away from all the tabloid stereotypes about cycling – and that’s the only way to get a handle on gridlock, pollution and so on.
“Hmmm” says Darryl. “Natalie, how did you feel speaking to the opposition?”
“It’s like putting a vegan and meat-eater in a room,” says Natalie, apparently forgetting that literally seconds earlier we heard her saying that she likes cycling and would love to be able to cycle more.
“We’re doing that [vegan/meat-eater thing] as well at some point,” salivates Darryl, cackling. So for him, at least, it’s about the fight, not the reconciliation.
Natalie continues by informing us that everyone she told about the discussion said how much they “hate cyclists, hate cyclists, they’re the worst things for motorists”, but what we need is to sort the roads out and separate bikes from cars, she continues. OK, it’s not quite car-free zones, but it’s an acknowledgement that the issue is systemic and needs intervention at that level, which is something.
Isn’t it just about being more aware of the other side, asks Darryl, cyclists being more aware of drivers and vice versa? Natalie agrees. “It’s on both parts,” she says, and Darryl agrees.
I get a word in. It’s logical to think, I say, that both sides need to be aware, but as you pose a much greater risk in a car, you should legally have greater responsibility. That’s the case in many European countries, but not here. I ask Darryl that if he, or any listener, thinks that’s the case, will he come on a ride with me and see how it goes. “Hmmmm,” he says. I’m about to add that conscientious commuter cyclists probably have the keenest awareness and sharpest reflexes of any road user, but Darryl cuts me off.
Darryl then asks Natalie whether it’s changed her view. “No,” she dissembles. “Could I do everything I need to do on a bike? No.” Which of course was neither the question nor the point, but it is the bombastic, nuance-free final word that many listeners will take away.
And that was that. How very deflating.
Within seconds of the item ending, the condolences are coming in. “What a crock of shit,” messaged my pal Steve. “Whitewash” comments a Twitter buddy. And I’m reeling at how the discussion – which on the day was a rhetorical triumph of reason, logic, fact, evidence and data over a sea of erroneous, unsubstantiated, ill-considered assumptions – could have been edited to leave me feeling hoodwinked.
And the question really goes to the issue of balance. OK, if you’re “crossing divides” between, say a City and United fan (which we were told was the piece recorded before ours), you have two people with an equally subjective perspective on a matter, and balance there is to give equal weight to both personal viewpoints.
But here we’re dealing with someone who’s plucked a bunch of platitudes out of the ether facing someone who’s actually done their homework. Is the balance there the post-truth approach – where one side’s unfounded opinions are deemed equivalent to the other side’s facts? Or is the balance in revealing how those unfounded opinions shift when presented with compelling evidence that undermines the original assumptions? I – naively perhaps – assumed that the latter would be the case, but once again we got the former. The BBC has previously come under criticism for false balance, e.g. in inviting climate-change deniers to comment on stories about environmental breakdown. And I would argue that this is similar. To be able to say on the BBC, our public-service broadcaster, that you and your friends hate a group of people simply because of their chosen form of transport, for that to go unchallenged by Darryl, for the startling reveal of the initial discussion to be omitted entirely from the broadcast piece – is that balanced? As gridlock and pollution rates soar, climate change accelerates, child asthma reaches epidemic levels, inactivity costs the NHS billions – the balance within the cyclist vs. motorist trope surely has to be: you’re entitled to your opinion, but the reality contradicts it. Isn’t it? And I’ll bet that this is also exactly how the vegan/meat-eater one will go, too. The side with the evidential and ethical high ground will be faced down by societal convention and broad reluctance to face uncomfortable truths.
Even writing this days later I’m still angry about it. Am I overreacting or is this a fair assessment of what happened? Let me know your thoughts.
And: this being my blog, I’ll give myself the last word, tweeted shortly after listening back to the piece on the day:
That gobshite on the radio again. Sadly dragged into discussions about "road tax", helmets and "can't we all just look out for each other" as we choke in the fug of combusted fossil fuel and the planet fries. Kinda frustrating. https://t.co/2KC1NAmOtD
— Prestwich Pootler (@pootlers) March 6, 2019