What is Bikelash?


Disproportionately intense resistance to a project, which goes beyond the ‘not-in-my-backyard’ (NIMBY) concern commonly experienced by other infrastructure projects not related to cycling.

From NZTA Glossary of Terms in their CNG (Cycle Network Guidance)

There’s two main places to read about Bikelash.  The first involves watching it unfold in the comments section of almost any article pertaining to cycling infrastructure.  The second is in academic papers, who seek to understand and advise on the sources and potential ways to address Bikelash.  Reading the former can leave you feeling rather gloomy, so instead here’s some quick takeaways from a recent academic article titled: “Beyond ‘Bikelash’: engaging with community opposition to cycle lanes”.  It looks at the causes and challenges of Bikelash through a social sciences lens. 

Kirsty Wild, Alistair Woodward, Adrian Field & Alex Macmillan (2017): Beyond ‘bikelash’: engaging with community opposition to cycle lanes, Mobilities, DOI: 10.1080/17450101.2017.1408950https://doi.org/10.1080/17450101.2017.1408950

What causes Bikelash?

On the surface Bikelash seems like a classic case of not being able to please all the people all of the time.  But because it does take all types to make the world, there is a lot of benefit in understanding what sends people over the top in their opposition.



What are we doing wrong?

When it comes to biking we tend to take the approach that just because we like it, and it’s good for us, then everyone else should want it too.  Certainly there is a case for leadership when it comes to public health and the economic benefits of cycle infrastructure, but it is not enough to organise the party – you need people to want to come, and enjoy it when they get there.

The authors of ‘Beyond Bikelash’ argue that transport planning as a discipline hasn’t adapted to a multi-mode future.  As such planners continued adherence to a “rationalist, techno-centric planning paradigm” can leave them blindsided when people aren’t rational and don’t buy into a vision of the future which is less car dependant.  “This lack of engagement with the wider social context of transport needs and transport conflicts threatens the viability and sustainability of cycle infrastructure projects.”

Politicians add intensity to the mix.  “Bike lanes, argues Shaer (2011), far from being ‘simple strips of pavement festooned with green and white paint’, are becoming ‘sponges for a sea of latent cultural and economic anxieties’.”  Meaning that the public bring a whole lot of baggage with them, everything from an ancient gripe about recycling bins to their own prejudices and fears for the future. This can give opportunistic politicians an opening to run with their own agenda by stirring things up.  True public engagement cannot succeed without acknowledging the historical and social contexts at play.  


Party People or Party Poopers?

Imagine that building a bike lane is like hosting a party.  Not everyone likes the same kind of party, and some don’t like any.  Bike lane opposition is most likely to come from four main groups:

  • Retailers – The music is too loud and no-one likes it anyway.
  • Conservative voters – Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll – the slippery slope to a life of sin.
  • Anti-gentrification activists – They’re stealing our girls/guys
  • Marginalised cyclists – This music is for old people, you call this a party?

Cycle lanes are not apolitical or neutral technologies. New space carved out for cyclists inevitably represents the disruption of a real or imagined order within the existing streetscape. For some groups this reallocation of space provides important new opportunities, while for others it is experienced as a loss.”

Retailers fear that loss of parking spaces will mean loss of trade.  They are predominantly car users, they like to park at the door, and figure everyone else does too.  They honestly and genuinely fear for the viability of their business if customers can’t park easily and closely.  And it feels like a knife at their throat – so the ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in. They also worry about their logistics – deliveries, construction disruption, and visibility/street presence.

Conservative voters feel threatened that the values and way of life which they hold dear are being snatched away.  ‘Cyclists’ are seen as outsiders with opposing values seeking to ‘steal’ road space away from the traditional (and thus perceived as more morally legitimate) use as the domain of private vehicles.  (These folk get pretty antsy about bus-stops too).  They feel strongly that protecting the status quo enables them to protect family values, economic stability/growth, market-driven economics, and they distrust state-led change.  Not only is their allocation of road-space under threat, but the association between active transport and more compact cities threatens the traditional ‘suburban dream’ of a free-standing house with a two car garage.

Anti-gentrification activists are coming from a place of fear of displacement and a history of marginalisation.  They’ve come to see all changes to the structure and demographics of neighbourhoods as clear and present danger to their values and way of life.  They are ‘always missing out’ and now they stand to lose their sense of place and belonging. They may also see needs in their neighbourhoods not being met, and see injustice in money spent on biking infrastructure.

Marginalised cyclists are most likely to appear when their has been a history of ineffective  engagement and poor design. They can feel something is happening that is not for them and without the benefit of their expertise.  When they choose to speak out and identify as ‘cyclists’ their concerns are rapidly translated into condemnation and become ammunition for other detractors.

What can we do better?

To carry on the party analogy, we need to choose the right DJ, invite the right people and focus on making it fun and inclusive.  And throughout the party we need to monitor, tweak and be good hosts so everyone has a good experience. 

Make it ordinary.  Promote cycling as part of ordinary everyday life.  Talk about people who bike: people who are ordinary everyday people who just want to get where they are going safely.  And ordinary means it is for everybody.

Make it for everybody.  Bike lane promotions that involves children, families or schools show that biking is for everybody, appeal to family values and provide great positive stories, especially in the media.  More importantly they provide positive experiences that get told and retold and become a new point of reference for people with little or no experience of riding a bike. And it pays to highlight the safety and amenity benefits of a re-designed street for all users, not just people on bikes.  

Make it everyday.  Care needs to be taken in reinforcing the notion that biking is just about the weekend, lycra or doing something once a year.  That’s where activations that make up a programme of events and activities are highly effective.

Really everybody.  Biking shouldn’t be about white middle class privilege.  Especially when it is a great transport choice option to help address ‘transport poverty’.  Seek out ways to enable greater access to bikes as an affordable and enabling transport choice.  Joining forces with the ‘urban justice’ movement is an effective way to do this. Great examples include bike fix up programs, bike libraries, bike training and bikes in schools.  These provide much needed resources and they also enable interaction that is real and breaks down barriers between different sections of the community.

Engage.  Everybody needs to be included in consultation.  Although sports cyclists and fearless road warriors are not the target market for an off-road shared path; they still need to be heard.  Recognising and valuing the different perspectives and different historical legacies brought to the table is important. Until people feel heard about their concerns, past problems or current battles with council (which may or may not have anything to do with the cycle lane) they will be unable to engage constructively with a different view of the future.  A thick skin and listening ear, along with some ability to generate some small-win resolutions to ‘bug-bear’ local issues can go along way. Including councillors and second-tier representation (like community boards) in the consultation discussions can really help. And don’t assume they’ll come to you – sometimes you’ll need to go to them: visiting local businesses, attending community meetings, engaging with schools, etc.

“Failure to acknowledge and address these anxieties is, according to Stehlin, imbuing cycle lane debates with a ‘surplus antagonism’ (Ortner in Stehlin 2015, 133) that will potentially limit the expansion of cycling infrastructure.”   In the words of the great Stephen Covey: ‘Seek first to understand then be understood’.

Make it fun.  As advocates we need to constantly remind our councils and transport planners to look beyond paint and paving.  And we need to be mindful ourselves that for people with no experience of riding a bike, our view of the future is just plain ‘far out’.  How can we give them the opportunity to experience the joy and freedom of riding a bike? Making it fun can help prevent advocate burnout too, especially if it is a well supported joint effort between council and advocates.  Family bike rides, ‘bike to the future days’ (where you ride en-mass the route of a proposed cycle lane), fun days, open-streets, bike safaris (visiting a range of bikes-in-schools and parks), ‘bling your bike’ sessions, bike-raves, frocks on bikes, tweed rides….. There’s a lot of great ideas out there to choose from, or make up your own.  The key criteria are fun, engagement and inclusion. Then rinse and repeat.

Make it pay.  The economic benefits of cycle infrastructure need to be demonstrated.  This applies not only to retailers but also to anti-gentrification folk.  The potential impacts on their business and community need to be clearly addressed.  Facts, figures and case studies can help, especially local ones. How do their customers actually get there today? What are the benefits for bringing more/different people onto their streets? How can they make a buck from that?  What are the trends in retail and consumer choice that support active transport and traffic calming? Are there training opportunities? Examples include:

  • Youth cycle mechanics training and work-placement opportunities
  • Seminars for local businesses on cycle tourism opportunities
  • Signage and wayfinding linking trails to local businesses
  • Bike passport style promotions encouraging bike users to find and spend money at local businesses.
  • Support to develop a welcoming experience for bike users – bike friendly business programs and bike parking.

There is a lot of evidence supporting the value of Bike Friendly Business programs like Bikes Welcome. “‘Creation of ‘Bike Friendly Business Districts’ has also been an effective strategy for improving support for bike lanes amongst retailers in many US cities (LiveMove 2015) .” and “growing evidence that some retailers view being part of a ‘bicycle friendly business district’ as likely to help them attract higher income, ‘creative class’ customers (McCormick 2012)”.  

Studies from around the world continue to suggest that at worst, bicycle infrastructure has a neutral effect on business, and at best can actually improve it.  To counter the arguments that ‘it doesn’t apply to here’ we need stronger and better local studies and case studies. It would be heartening to see more support for both bike friendly business programs and studies in NZ.

Make it bigger than the bike-lane.  Make it about how neighbourhoods design and function, about community, health and a vision of the future that is better for everybody in as many ways as possible.  Don’t call it a bike-lane project. Can it be a street-scaping project, ‘places for people’ or transport project? Cover off all the bases as people live in communities not ‘roading reserves’.

Manage change well

  • Retailers and residents need to be supported throughout construction and after.  
  • During construction real and consultative efforts need to be made to address business disruption.  Advocates and council could help with this – how about offering temporary bike-parking, ‘open for business’ signage and ‘destination rides’ to ensure a steady stream of customers during construction.  Why not ensure the construction crew and council are holding their meetings at local cafes during construction?
  • After construction it is worth celebrating and promoting local businesses in a way that attracts good news and customers – another place where advocates can help.
  • Throughout the whole process basic principles of change management apply.  And it isn’t just about traffic management either. It’s about understanding and proactively managing how people respond to change.  I’m not sure they teach this at Traffic Engineering school.


It’s a Team Effort

Making all this happen means really strong cooperation between advocates and council.  Each needs to value and support the others role much more than is the current norm. The opportunities are there and with the right skills, motivation, support and resourcing from both councils and advocates we can do something about Bikelash.

Bike Friendly Business

Find out how you can make your business bike friendly for customers and staff, and use bikes in your operations.



Become a Bikes Welcome Local Champion

Would you like Bikes Welcome rolled out in your town?  You could help make that happen.

Find out more about becoming a Bikes Welcome Local Champion.


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