Light entertainment?

This article was published in 2013, in Newsletter 107.

Cambridge is just like anywhere else. We too have people who are rude or even violent. Unfortunately, given the number of people who ride a bicycle, eventually somebody on a bike will become a victim of somebody who is rude or violent.

We now have a name to one such victim: Ernest. He made the front page of the local newspaper. Even though a large part of the registration plate was reported, the police have filed the case for now. The person who attacked him has not been identified or brought to justice.

This assault certainly made people angry and upset. A quick scan of some of the comments posted on the website for the story shows how depressing some of these comments can be. The Newsround column in the same paper from 8 March calls it a ‘sinister turn’ and refers to a deeply ‘worrying number of people apparently sympathetic to the driver who battered the victim so badly he needed 13 stitches in his head’. Worrying indeed.

Should we complain about the ‘media’? Should we talk about how they possibly mis-represented the story, for example by repeating one bit of information about a gesture whilst ignoring the bigger picture of why somebody driving a car would want to attack somebody who was taking up less road space than a car. However, such complaining misses the point. They want to sell newspapers in order to employ a few reporters to educate the public about important local issues. Often they seem to find it easiest to write a story that gets people angry or upset. Stereotypes are simple. They may entertain, but they fail to increase our understanding. It is much more difficult to show the public how the roads have to change to avoid such violent events on them. Such reporting does happen, but rarely on the front page. Cycling is a big issue in Cambridge, but the public has been served badly whenever the issue is presented along the lines of a stereotypical ‘war on our roads’.

Bicycles create space for cars. Were it not for those who ride bicycles, car traffic in Cambridge would be at a standstill most of the time. A ‘war on our roads’ and the associated stereotypes are simply no longer required. People on bikes create the space that allows other people to drive. Roads and communities which offer everybody a safe option to use a bicycle are better places to live, better places to work, better places for trade and better places for smiles.

Perhaps the local media in Cambridge feels an unconscious commitment to the motoring interest. Perhaps there is a hidden connection between the flow of advertising revenue and the outdated stereotypes about the ‘war on our roads’ that resurface far too often. Recognising that bicycles create space for cars should help to end this stereotype.

Last year The Times launched its ‘Cities fit for Cycling’ campaign. Could the Cambridge News create a similar campaign in the most cycled city of the nation? Its launch would celebrate the end of the divisive stereotype of the ‘war on our roads’. Road safety is an issue of great importance, one which can unite a community rather than divide it. Safer junctions with dedicated road space for those on bikes would be a worthwhile topic, stories about the issues faced by those who have just started cycling would also be of wide interest. Cambridge fit for Cycling!

We don’t need a war on the roads. We need a road map to peace. Because road safety is not light entertainment.

Michael Cahn, Co-ordinator