Michael O’Loughlin: How did cycling become a class thing?

Proposed expansion of cycleway network in Dublin has highlighted class-based issues

‘Somehow, bicycles always seem to have a class element. And class is something we are notoriously uncomfortable talking about in Ireland.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

‘Somehow, bicycles always seem to have a class element. And class is something we are notoriously uncomfortable talking about in Ireland.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

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In recent years I have been heartened to see the scenes most mornings of children being taken to school, when the schools are open, by parents using various kinds of complicated bicycles, some of them veritable people carriers on two wheels, often of Dutch design.

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The part of the Grand Canal where I live seems to be on a ley line from the more recently gentrified parts of Dublin 8 to the Ranelagh Multi-Denominational School. It always makes me smile, as it reminds me of my own years in the 1990s as a cycling parent, taking my daughter to school in Amsterdam. It was often not as innocuous as it seemed, as in the densely-populated inner-city schools were within easy walking distance. If you saw parents making long trips with kids on a bike, it was often middle-class white people from more mixed areas taking their kids to so-called ‘white schools’ in neighbouring districts, enforcing a kind of educational apartheid which would have disastrous consequences for Dutch society. These , ‘cycling mothers’ were regularly condemned by left-wing politicians.

Not for nothing is one wing of the Green Party commonly referred to as 'Blueshirts on bikes'

Somehow, bicycles always seem to have a class element. And class is something we are notoriously uncomfortable talking about in Ireland.

Working-class transport

The rise in cycling traffic also reminds me that my own earliest memories of moving around Dublin were of being perched on the crossbar of my father’s big black Raleigh bike. Growing up in the 1960s in a working-class suburb, the bicycle was a common mode of transport. Every morning, my father and our neighbours would head off to work at Guinness’s or CIÉ, on their bikes. When I look at old photos of my mother as a young woman in rural Ireland, she’s often holding her bike, en route to a dance. So the current rise in bike use is just a return to the past. With growing prosperity in the 1960s and 1970s, bicycles were quickly replaced by cars, with consequences we are now all well aware of.

So how did bicycles become a class issue? Because a class issue it certainly is. There is a widely held perception that cyclists and their supporters in the Government and city council are middle-class elitists, trying to force their beliefs on others, indifferent to the economic consequences. Not for nothing is one wing of the Green Party commonly referred to as “Blueshirts on bikes”.

Manhattan is now very bike-friendly. It’s also very rich and, in parts, very white

In the most recent byelection which sent the Labour Party’s Ivana Bacik to the Dáil, I came across the most bizarre example yet of this class-cycling issue. One memorable piece of election literature which plopped through my letterbox had a large section on the issue of bicycle security. Many people in this area now have expensive bikes which have become the target of thieves. I am a man who has had expensive bikes which have been stolen but I would imagine that my bikes have not been stolen by the privately-educated, well-brought-up locals here in Portobello. Talk about middle-class dog whistles.

Manhattan

It’s not just here in Dublin. A dozen or so years ago I took part in a huge bicycle rally in Manhattan, a ‘take back the streets’ operation. Escorted by police cars, thousands of people cycled around the island to end up at a great party on Pier 51 in the Hudson river. As I sipped my craft beer and enjoyed the all-girl indie group on stage, I suddenly noticed a black person in the crowd. And then I realised he was practically the only one. I pointed this out to my friend, one of the organisers, but he wasn’t particularly surprised, or even interested. “I guess black people don’t use bikes,” an answer which was lame even at the time.

Of course these campaigns were quite successful. Manhattan is now very bike-friendly. It’s also very rich and, in parts, very white. In terms of class, it could be that some people, especially upwardly-mobile groups, use cars not just to move around in, but to display their growing social status. Once their status is assured, they don’t need to flaunt it any more, and can move on to the bike. As the old saying goes, you need to be very rich to wear cheap shoes.

It may seem that this class analysis of cycling is contradicted by recent events around the Sandymount cycleway, where the local middle classes (in an unholy alliance with Mannix Flynn) campaigned against expansion of the cycle system in Dublin. But it’s only an apparent contradiction.

There is a long tradition in this country of local interest groups, often articulate, well educated and well funded, campaigning successfully against measures in the public interest which run counter to their private interests. Yes, expanding the cycle network in Dublin, which brings with it so many benefits it’s not even worth arguing about, will cause great inconvenience to some people. The question in supposedly classless Ireland, politically, is always: which people and where?

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