A Picture Paints a Thousand Words – and more besides

Around the time I began taking an interest in how cycling is depicted graphically, I saw a presentation at the 2013 Cycling and Society Symposium that opened my mind to how a subtext can be conveyed in, and gleaned from, images. The slides aren’t available, but from memory, and my scant notes, I recall Peter Cox speaking around some excerpts from the CTC Gazette during the interwar years which included a number of Frank Patterson drawings.

Seems obvious now, but at the time I was suddenly struck by an insight into why CTC’s active group members are on the whole totally disinterested in cycling conditions on their own doorstep. CTC rides, and tours of course, are largely about getting away, riding out to somewhere with better views, sweeter air and quieter lanes. It chimed with both my own experience of group rides, where we might barrel along the A40 before it got too busy, heads down, in order to get to the outer reaches of the Cotswolds on a Sunday club run, and equally with my relatively lonely experience as a CTC Right to Ride rep, paradoxically spending most of my time opposing any local schemes specifically intended for cycling. And then it was a short step from there to recognising those are just two of the different interest groups within a diverse cycling organisation (amongst diverse cycling organisations) which might also serve as a metaphor for how difficult it is to come up with an image that captures the whole.

Compared with the speed it takes to assimilate descriptive text, an image can be processed and catalogued extraordinarily quickly, before the rational part of the mind has even got into gear. Imagery can be used to make a direct link to cognitive functions, priming behaviour without the rational mind ever being aware of how it’s being massaged, coerced or manipulated. It’s a powerful tool, but more often in the cycle campaigning world images seem to be an afterthought; an adjunct to the words rather than an equally well considered part of the message. Image creation and selection will be affected by consistent biases that we are unaware of and may be a better indicator of what people hold as truisms than what they might rationally enunciate; what’s in the image, what isn’t in the image, and particularly for photographs – and this manifests itself at a population level rather than the level of the individual – what images are available in the pool for a picture editor to choose from before his or her own bias comes into play.

Most of my research into how cycling is represented and presented in images has basically come down to counting bicycles. Initially it was about looking for cycles other than bicycles and searching for other indicators of disability, but depressingly for me, it became about counting bicycles because that’s almost invariably all there is to see. With some notable exceptions.

Today’s equivalent to the CTC Gazette is Cycle magazine. The June/July edition dropped on my doormat on Thursday and while searching for a particular image I came across a photograph that completely bowled me over.

CTCAndMeMountainTrike

My first encounter with the Mountain Trike was while helping out with the Inclusive Cycling Hub at the Cycle Show. It’s propelled by what a veteran cycle archivist might describe as hand treadles – who knows, perhaps there’s a photo of an early hand treadle trike in the archives – and many of its components are mined from the cycle industry.

This is one of a number of ‘inclusive’ articles that Cycle have published, but for me it really encapsulates what cycling is about. It’s not about turning pedals, it’s not about bicycles; cycling is about mobility (freedom of movement) and social inclusion. The first is what brought me back to cycling – a better way of being mobile – and also what made cycling important to me as a child – extending my mobility. The second is what makes it fun and inclusive across social barriers.

DaytonInvalidChair

The Dayton invalid chair, c 1920

I’m a member of the veteran cycle club and through the pages of its magazines I see all manner of cycles other than bicycles, it seems that there’s little or nothing new in cycling, because it has all been tried a hundred years ago. But that phrase – there’s little or nothing new in cycling – when applied to national cycle campaigning today, means something quite different to me. There’s little or nothing new in cycling, just the bicycle. They might take different forms but essentially, it’s the same image of the bicycle presented again and again. The very same image that in many areas of the media is presented as a problem.

Which brings me to the image I was searching for. The one that got me so worked up last week and which I’d like to apologise for getting sweary about on Twitter to whichever CTC staffer(s) it was who fielded it. CTC may at times appear to be an impenetrable entity that doesn’t listen, but there’s aways a human being on the other end of any communication and I lost sight of that. Whoever you are, I’m sorry.

I couldn’t find it. Bike Week was there, as you’d expect, but not the image of the three different forms of bicycle that as I write still adorns the Bike Week Facebook and Twitter accounts. Why is that? Had someone decided it was unsuitable? Is Bike Week less a CTC project and more a United Kingdom Cycling Alliance one? Or a Bicycle Association one? Because it occurs to me now, duh, that the part of the national cycle movement ‘inclusive cycling’ doesn’t seem to have made any impact upon is the campaigning arm that stretches out from and beyond CTC.

Pre-election, I was invited by the CTC, presumably on behalf of the UKCA, to the Big Cycling Debate at the offices of News UK (the Sunday Times I think). It was absfab to be invited to what was a thoroughly enjoyable, professional event, and although my question didn’t make the cut, all the images at the event, and in the handout about the economic impact of cycling, confirmed beyond any doubt that it would have been one of the most relevant on the day. At least on the agenda of mobility and social inclusion which I’ve handily defined above as being the de facto equivalent to ‘cycling’. Just goes to show what you can do when you have control of the medium.

It’s not unusual for national cycle campaign imagery to be exclusively bicycle-centric, in fact at that level it’s demonstrably de rigueur. Despite inviting someone who handcycled into the hustings event (and thanks for ensuring an accessible venue by the way – and the fact that I’ve mentioned it shows that very often that isn’t the case) it didn’t appear odd to anyone else, that handcycles, or any form of trike for that matter, were not representing cycling on any of the promotional/marketing material. That’s just how it is in cycle campaigning at the national level – it’s all about the bicycle.

Up until now I’ve not had a problem with the bicycle being used as the default emblem for the wider practice of cycling, ie beyond bicycling. As you can see in the sidebar on the right, I even used it for our local campaign group WitneyBUG. However, I’ve found the image of the bicycle to be so exclusive and so widespread that I’m beginning to wonder whether that default image is the primary device that’s reinforcing the association of the fast thinking brain to the notion of the bicycle being the only form of cycle, and hence the only one that in my lifetime has been campaigned/designed for.

Should the CTC logo be a bicycle? Should the LCC logo be a bicycle? Should the Bicycle Association logo be a, sorry, logical error! Should the British Cycling logo be a bicycle? Will the diversity within the new LCDS make a difference? Without any evidence to the contrary, I’m satisfied in my own mind that the association of the image of the bicycle with cycling generally in the minds of practitioners has been detrimental to users of other forms of cycle. Just how far that extends, or if it can be reversed, or if a new generation can form a different association, I don’t know. Judging by how difficult it appears to be to alter the national campaign image of cycling from within, I suspect getting #BeyondTheBicycle in the national psyche from without is going to be a very long slog indeed.

[Just going back to that logical error for a moment, it’s not at all clear to me, someone who’s spent a fair amount of time in the world of cycle campaigning, quite what the role of the largely silent Bicycle Association is, or how much influence it has within the UKCA. Looking at how much CTC appears to have altered internally through the lens of its magazine, at least in terms of coverage of other cycle types, I find myself asking, who is actually managing the image of cycle campaigning at the national level? Is it being managed at all? Where did that image of the three bicyclists derive from? Who gave it the green light? Is there a process for giving it a green light? I can’t help thinking some transparency, and a forum to discuss it in, would save a lot of frustration. Certainly for me!]

It’s not only images, a throwaway comment based on the common experience of the majority can throw up a similar example of this phenomenon of simplified association, this time to do with walking rather than cycling.

SillyTwitterComment

There’s nothing unusual about that. Everyone knows wheelchairs and crutches exist, and probably everyone knows someone that uses them, but when the brain is operating in fast mode it naturally leaps to this kind of simplified association. What would be unusual, I suggest, is if having pointed it out, it didn’t result in a modification.

It’s so common in fact that the phenomenon eventually led to the creation of a legal framework called the Equalities Act to ensure that whenever it is pointed out, some reasonable adjustment is made to avoid further discrimination. For some organisations there is also a duty to think first about the implications of the action they’re about to take, but as I’ve noted above it can still be a struggle to raise awareness of what the problem is in the first place. A non-legal term you’ll often hear employed as a first line of defence by a brain operating in fast mode is ‘political correctness’. Usually it’s deployed incorrectly by the innocent and occasionally as a form of obfuscation by the malicious. For the innocent, equality complaints are basically about misunderstanding the point of view of someone with the same expectations but different constraints. For the malicious, equality issues are about loss of profit or misplaced envy. Obviously we’re dealing with the former in cycling, and I suggest a forum/method for discussing/resolving misunderstandings if and when they arise could help enormously.

And since we’ve slipped into the world of words, what about the word BICYCLE? My Chambers defines it as follows: noun. A vehicle with two wheels, one directly in front of the other, driven by pedals or (motor-bicycle) a motor.

  • Dave H pointed out that pre-1883 the Cyclists’ Touring Club had been called the Bicycle Touring Club. It changed its name because the word ‘bicycle’ didn’t encompass the club’s tricycle riders.
  • If ‘bicycle’ wasn’t an inclusive term in 1883, why did the Bicycle Association choose to use it in 1973 having used various company names since 1890 that employed the word ‘cycle’? Is 1973 a significant date for cycling and bicycling?
  • When the British Electric Bicycle Association merged with the Bicycle Association of Great Britain in January this year – a good inclusive move for cycling it would appear – why did it not take the opportunity to drop the exclusive word ‘bicycle’ and return to the more inclusive ‘cycle’?

That’s probably enough to be going on with. I imagine, like the process of reviewing images, reviewing the use of the word ‘bicycle’, its integral ‘cycle’, and cycle’s other derivatives such as ‘tricycle’, will lead to some depressing discoveries and conclusions. I just need to come up with a premise and a method for sectioning the literature. That should furrow my brow for a while!

Back to the images. I scribbled down ‘Patterson never drew women’. I must have condensed that comment down too far. While looking for the initial image to illustrate this post I came across drawings which included women, but none of women as the cycling protagonist, with one notable exception which was a female stoking a tandem. As a generalisation it seems a true enough statement. Peter also pointed out that ‘Women tourists are ‘normal’ in the interwar years’. That’s a fairly common form of discrimination, ignoring a section of the community, in this case 50%, by not representing them. That’s assuming there wasn’t also an artist at that time penning line drawings of women cyclists as prolifically as Patterson was sketching his male-based idylls. I didn’t make any notes about that.

How does the UKCA fare through the lens of gender? You might find a notable exception but from the images I’ve seen it’s very much a male dominated group and I wouldn’t be surprised if it qualified for the recent tumblr for all male panels. I don’t want to come across as too down on the UKCA though, from what I understand it came as a surprise when it happened but the UKCA where well placed to capitalise on the chance to get cycling into the Infrastructure Bill when it arose – one of the few pieces of good news we’ve had outside of the London cycling bubble.

However, national cycle campaigning really needs to get beyond the notable exceptions to be representative of all the people for whom cycling could and hopefully will be a choice. Currently women are running their own forum for their diverse voices that aren’t being heard. Perhaps we need a forum for the other diverse voices that aren’t being heard at a national level? A #BeyondTheBicycle conference may be one way of addressing that.

That in itself demonstrates that there is no organised body that is able to facilitate all those diverse voices so that they are heard at a national level. Could one of the existing organisations be the body to represent them or is a new body required? Is there more merging to be done before an organisation could represent those voices effectively? Cycling is diverse, but sometimes it feels as if it’s diversified so far that its voice oscillates from fragmented factionalism to bland bicycle-ism.

CTC_winged_wheel_ca.1927

Much like the CTC struggling to find a way to hold together the diverse nature of its different interest groups, it’s a problem that feels like it needs a better solution. On the plus side I’ve heard the CTC is thinking of dropping its bicycle logo and going back to the retro, but from my point of view far more inclusive, winged wheel. Perhaps we can find better answers to other questions if we look back to when cycling was booming – it’s a long way into the future right now, hopefully not as far as it was back into the past, but booming should be where we’re headed after all.

 

3 thoughts on “A Picture Paints a Thousand Words – and more besides

  1. Audrey Hughes

    Bearing in mind the increasing age of most “proper cyclists” might i suggest, tongue in cheek of course, the Veteran Cycle Club become the overall body?

    Reply
  2. davidhembrow

    It’s only a part of what you’re talking about, but I note that the Dutch word fiets refers to any kind of “bicycle” without specifying how many wheels it has. As I’ve pointed out before, the law is blind even to whether such a vehicle is primarily human powered. All manner of assisted and adapted bikes / trikes / wheelchairs etc. are treated as fietsen in law.

    Of course none of this helps us with the English language. Bicycle is too restrictive and there is no inclusive term which is in daily use. Personally, I tend to use the word in a deliberately confused manner, intending always that it has a broader definition.

    Reply

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