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Cyclist 'My calm warning to a driver blocking the lane was met with a barrage of abuse'

Dr Emma Howard says we need to re-frame the narrative to change attitudes and behaviours around cycling.

NATIONAL BIKE WEEK has run all of this week and ends tomorrow. It is a week that celebrates and promotes the benefits of cycling. As a long time cyclist, I am fully convinced of the benefits.

For me, commuting by bike is both faster than other modes of transport and helps me fit exercise into a busy schedule. I also (mostly) enjoy cycling; it can reduce my stress levels and improve my mood.

In addition to the personal health and wellbeing benefits from cycling, there are also huge environmental benefits. This week, scientists are warning that temperatures are likely to temporarily rise above the threshold 1.5 degrees in the next five years.

It also emerged this week that Ireland was one of only four EU countries where green house gas emissions rose in the final quarter of 2022, and our 12.3% year-on-year increase was the highest of these four countries.

Although most of this increase can be attributed to airlines domiciled here, our 2021 emissions per capita were already the second highest in the EU, almost twice the EU average. To have any hope of meeting our emissions reductions targets we clearly need a modal shift away from our car dependency.

Although the electrification of vehicles can play a part in reducing transport emissions, particularly in rural areas, it is not a panacea. Even Norway, a world leader in electric car adoption, has accepted that rather than simply replacing combustion engine cars currently in use with electric, we need to move people out of cars and encourage active travel. Increasing the numbers cycling, especially in urban areas, could lead to significant emissions reductions.

Our love affair with the car

In Ireland, more than half of journeys under 2km are made by car, and in the Dublin metropolitan area, 38% of people travel by car five or more days a week. Switching from driving to cycling, even just for short trips, would reduce individual transport emissions by about 75%.

Given the volume of people travelling short distances frequently, there are substantial emissions savings to be made. For example, recent TUDublin research estimates that currently 5% of students and 16% of staff cycle to campus, but there is potential to support 40% and 46% respectively, given the distances they travel.

As an economist, I think about how people make decisions. People will cycle if the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs. There is a monetary cost saving to be made if you switch from other modes of transport to cycling, but there are also non-monetary costs to consider.

The risk of being knocked off your bike is a cost that can be greatly reduced with the provision of good cycling infrastructure and segregated cycling lanes. Although investment in better infrastructure is needed to encourage motorists to switch to carbon neutral options, that alone is unlikely to be sufficient.

Abuse on the roads

A few weeks ago, I was cycling home from work and a van trying to turn left from a side road into the standstill traffic had stopped across the cycle lane. With no room to squeeze through the cars, I calmly pointed out to him that he had blocked the cycle lane and I couldn’t get past.

I was met with a tirade of abuse; he shouted, cursed, and gesticulated at me until the traffic started to move and I could cycle away.

I can’t imagine another setting in which simply pointing out an error to a stranger would result in such aggression in response. Yet this was not the first time I’ve been on the receiving end of verbal abuse while on my bike, and cyclists will tell you that encounters of this kind are far from uncommon. For many considering cycling, the risk of threatening behaviour from drivers means the costs are too high.

To reduce these costs, we need to re-frame the narrative to change attitudes and behaviours. Transport modes do not define us, and the categories of cyclist and motorist are not mutually exclusive. It is not a binary choice to own a bike or to own a car, the majority of cyclists are also motorists who pay tax and insurance but have in this instance left their car at home.

We don’t need to eliminate car use to reduce transport emissions, simply reducing the number of car journeys, and switching to cycling where feasible would make a big impact. The false dichotomy of cyclist or motorist leads to the ‘othering’ of cyclists and levels of hostility not encountered to the same extent in other settings. This has allowed an anti-cycling culture to develop in Ireland, one that is perpetuated by certain media organisations and commentators. Recognising that as a vulnerable minority group cyclists need to be respected and protected, is a first step in changing that culture, increasing the number of people cycling, and shifting social norms.

An economic principle in how people make decisions is that they respond to incentives; when benefits or costs change, the choice made will likely change. Lowering the risk of accidents and lowering the risk of encountering aggressive behaviour both incentivise cycling by reducing the costs. Another way to incentivise cycling is to increase the benefits.

Many countries in Europe pay people to cycle to work. In some schemes, this is a direct payment, paid by the employer but tax deductible, per km cycled up to a capped amount. In other schemes, the cyclist can claim personal tax credits for each km cycled, again up to a yearly cap. A pilot scheme of this type involving 18 companies in France showed a 50% increase in the number of employees cycling to work.

Given the urgency of the climate crisis and our high levels of rising emissions, we need to do everything we can to reduce our carbon footprint. A combination of building cycling infrastructure, addressing our anti cycling culture, and giving monetary incentives to cyclists would significantly increase the number of people cycling and help to move our emissions downwards.

The resulting reduction in congestion would decrease journey times for motorists who need to drive and for those who take public transport. For those individuals incentivised to take up cycling, they could find themselves fitter, happier, and even more productive too.

Dr Emma Howard is an Economist and Lecturer at Technological University Dublin.

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