Killing the iPod Zombie Cyclist Myth

6 min readMay 8, 2020


not quite as published in The Telegraph, 28 July 2014

Boris Johnson only has jurisdiction over me and my bike when I come down to London. Nevertheless, he has the power to make me miserable while I’m there: by taking away my iPod.

Last November, after a series of cyclist fatalities, the mayor announced that he would back a ban on cyclists wearing earphones. “An absolute scourge,” he called those of us who wish to carry a tune, folding that opprobrium into larger condemnation for misbehaviour which he seemed to view as akin to self-harm.

Cycling campaign groups were quick to condemn the mayor’s insensitivity at adding fuel to ire at ‘lycra louts’ already so easily provoked. The general public, while shocked at the growing pile of broken bodies, was largely receptive to the notion of ‘iPod zombies’ and cyclist irresponsibility.

There was talk of a study, then the issue did a fade-out. I contacted the mayor’s office to determine if Mr Johnson is still interested in a ban, and what if any steps are being taken to implement it. As I await a response, it might be educational to peruse a study which has already been done: ‘Cycling’s Sensory Strategies: How Cyclists Mediate their Exposure to the Urban Environment’, by Katrina Jungnickel of the University of London and Rachel Aldred of the University of Westminster.

“Drawing on research in Hull, Hackney and Bristol during 2010 and 2011 for the Cycling Cultures research project,” the authors “describe a range of ‘sensory strategies’ enrolled by cyclists.” Their research reveals how these strategies, “such as as mobile audio devices, involve deliberate and finely tuned practices shaped by factors such as relaxation, motivation and location. This presents a contrast to media representations of the ‘iPod zombie cyclist’ who, plugged into a mobile audio device, lumbers insensitively and dangerously through the urban landscape.

“Rather than seeing the use of such audio devices as merely barriers between the cyclist and the ‘outside’ …” they “explore mobile sensory landscapes as fluid and dynamic.” Of particular resonance was their observation that “Listening to music (or talking to others on the telephone) can be a way of warming up ‘chilly’ environments.”

London and other cities offer an extremely chilly environment to cyclists. Yet we find ways to cope, even to thrive.

I’ve been cycling in The Great Wen since the mid-90s, when I discovered that it’s not so wenful as all that, particularly when you can provide your own hop-on-hop-off sightseeing transport. Once you’ve learned basic roadcraft skills, there is, statistically, little to fear. It wasn’t long before I plugged in to enhance the experience.

Critics of earphone culture often refer disparagingly to what they see as a desire to tune out of the communal wall of sound and tune into a private, presumably hedonistic, even selfish, experience. “I don’t need a soundtrack,” they say. I say, fair enough — you’re welcome to the urban cacophony in all its unmuffled glory. “But it’s obviously dangerous,” they add, playing the trump card of public safety. “It makes me absolutely terrified to see them bowling along unable to hear the traffic,” declaimed the mayor last year, rightly horrified by blood on the streets but less than fully briefed on cause and effect.

Bowling along. Guardian pic

The human sensorium is the result of millions of years of evolution which began as radar for predators and currently multitasks to the despair of mayors and moralists. You don’t absolutely need your ears to ride a bike, if you put your mind to it; and of course, your eyes. Hearing is one of my favourite senses, else I wouldn’t feed it so often, but “it’s not echolocation,” as someone put it in the comments to an iPod zombie story. The survival instinct is rather strong, shrugging at the macabre bestowing of Darwin Awards to anyone unfortunate enough to perish in a way which repels empathy.

Clearly your mileage may vary — even the shipping forecast podcast might excite some to sympathetic wobbles when imagining the effects of the Beaufort scale — but listening to music isn’t automatic enrolment in space academy. Surgeons can do it while operating, without a whisper of complaint.

a little house music?

Anyone with a license to drive also has a license to listen. Even ice cream truck men escape censure. Why should traffic noise be mandatory for cyclists?

“Listening and not-listening are not simple or straightforward separate conditions but can co-exist, signalling a range of messy sensory engagements, networks of complex actors and social situations,” write Jungnickel and Aldred.

“Our research suggests that cyclists are just as consciously aware, if not more, of their sensory engagement as other transport users and engage in sensory strategies that manage their exposure to it.

Just as drivers use the radio to create a safe, social and comfortable space on the road, it is possible to interpret cyclists’ sensory strategies as ways of negotiating and domesticating challenging environments.”

Music hath charms to tame road rage. Insults flung by our fellow road users no longer have the power to sting. The revving of engines loses its hierarchical undertone. You might even find yourself smiling, which can’t be a bad advertisement for cycling. Or perpetrating karaoke, which might. Get your playlist right and it can be like chugging a happy cocktail of serotonin and dopamine to mix with those endorphins already swimming in your system after a few happy miles under your belt.

Don’t ban our mood enhancers, Boris. It’s unreasonable, unenforceable, a smile stealer. A blue sky wouldn’t be the same without Mr Blue Sky, nor A Perfect Day. If there’s ever a ban, I Will Survive, but Don’t Be Cruel. As a [former?] American citizen, surely you can appreciate the pursuit of happiness? “Nothing to fear but fear itself”?

As an experiment in sensory deprivation I removed my earphones for a ride in the countryside where I now live and whose green and pleasant panopticon drives me to the city every week to unwind from bucolia. It’s hilly, and removing that urgent jam session from my head while sweating one ascent after another seemed an especially masochistic test of character. It was almost like becoming an X-man: my superpower was — Hearing! Mostly listening to myself breathe.

In fact the surround sound of relative silence wasn’t as dull as all that. Perhaps it was the novelty value. The landscape was like the teeth of a music box plucking the lamellae. The next day the earphones went back on, but it’s a pleasant memory.

I laid down the tracks for this piece in my head while riding and listening to music. It wasn’t brain surgery.

The Telegraph went with an almost comically drab headline, which was unfortunate, as many people don’t read past that. The choice of accompanying pic wouldn’t have been mine, though I can’t imagine my reimagined Dylan would’ve played well.

Oi, subeditor!

The Daily Mail want their zombie back.

The Mayor’s office finally did reply on the 7th of August (I had contacted them June 27th):

Thank you for your correspondence to the Mayor, which he has asked me to reply.

The Mayor is alarmed about cyclists wearing headphones and being unable to hear the traffic. The Mayor would not be against a prohibition or ban on cyclists wearing headphones, however, this is something the Government would have to legislate for.

Transport for London (TfL) actively encourages cyclists to not use a mobile phone or earphones and to stay focused on what’s going on around you so you can see what other road users might do.

Thanks again for getting in touch.

Yours sincerely,
Ruth Phillips
Public Liaison Unit
Greater London Authority

Johnson renounced his US citizenship in 2017

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