One of the main arguments made by UK politicians, and indeed many cycling campaigners, is that people can be “persuaded” to cycle more once they realise its health and environmental benefits. Accepting UK road infrastructure as “immutable fact”, they believe that people can be “nudged” in the direction of cycling through little changes in behaviour. So how open to ideas about environmental benefit are non-cyclists? Well, a good place to start, given the tiny levels of regular cycling in the UK, is with motorists.
A new study by car comparison site car buzz asked new car buyers what they looked for first in a new car. The result is summarised in the graphic above. Most were, not surprisingly, most interested in price, seating space, and running costs. Only 1% considered CO2 emissions important, and of these two-thirds did so to save money. Only one in ten expressed concern about the environment, ie just 0.1% of all surveyed.
This echoes an earlier survey conducted by the Environmental Transport Association in 2008, which found that 65 per cent of drivers “didn’t have a clue” how much CO2 they produce when driving. The survey also found that men are less worried than their female counterparts about the effect their driving has, with younger drivers being more environmentally aware.
But most UK cyclists are also car drivers. Might there be some sort of conversion to environmentalism once we mount the saddle? Although there is no definitive equivalent survey for cyclists available – most cycling-related attitudinal surveys seem to be asking non-cyclists “what would make you cycle?” – anecdotal evidence such as the proliferation of T shirts like this one would suggest that at least some cyclists rank environmental reasons as important. On the other hand, the few times cyclists are asked to say why they cycle, they come up with all kinds of other – often philosophical and contemplative – reasons. Helping the environment, it seems, is all a bit too altruistic for most people.
It is clearly a waste of time hammering on about moral reasons to get people cycling more. At the end of the day, cycling needs to be more convenient, cheaper, quicker and more pleasant than driving. Good quality infrastructure delivers this. But as long as our politicians gaze upon our urban roads without any awareness of how backward our urban environment has become, they will continue to declare that a UK cycling experience of necessity involves rubber knickers.