Is it OK to listen to music while cycling?

Author Topic: Killing the iPod Zombie Myth


Killing the iPod Zombie Myth
« on: July 10, 2014 »

Not quite as published in The Telegraph [archive]

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.

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.

They 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.

Critic of critics of earphone culture.

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.


« Reply #1 on: July 18, 2014 »
My iPod is forever pouring something appropriate into my ears. For example, Joe Walsh's Life of Illusion seems to come up frequently enough to give pause.

Herewith an exposition on the subject. Getting the title right is important, I find.

Catching the mood: A short essay on the phenomenon of hearing a song in your collection that is, bar a few extraneous verses, almost eerily appropriate and meaningful
Pick the songs you like with care and they’ll be there for you when you need them.

A selection of music that has moved me. Links are to YouTube, though plugs will doubtless be pulled in the fullness of time.

Little Victories, Bob Seger. Soundtrack for cresting all those bumps in the road.
Sit Down, James. When you're done honking.
Many the Miles, Sara Bareilles. Obvs.
Road to Nowhere, Talking Heads. Most of my rides are from A to A. I wouldn't call home nowhere.
Keep it Simple, Van Morrison.
Dignity, Bob Dylan as channelled by HeavyJ, opening act for SpecialK.

Covers are a nice challenge to the versions that have grooved themselves into my brain. In this respect youtube is a wonderful resource for cutting new grooves. Of course, it doesn't always take...

Highway to Hell. The original can't be beat, but it's not hard to see why this one's popular: "99% of men did not see any guitar."
Rock and Roll Fantasy, Bad Company.
Take the Long Way Home, unless it involves the A13. Supertramp.
Frankie's Gun!, The Felice Brothers, or as some have called them, two Dylans for the price of one. Had to hide in Jersey? I had to live there.
You Get What You Give, New Radicals with an old idea. I keep flashing on that zombie movie set in a mall. Zombie dogs!
Best Day Of My Life, American Authors. Why the hell not.
Big Bang Theory, Barenaked Ladies. Live version – can avoid some screams by starting @ 3.02.

Let's throw the elements into the mix while we're at it, and tie it up in a bow with string theory.
Round of Blues, Shawn Colvin.
Pink Houses, John Mellencamp, though he was still part Cougar when it was released. He's part Tim Robbins in that video.
Sisters of Mercy, Leonard Cohen.
40 Day Dream, Edward Sharp & attractive noughts.
Isis, Bob Dylan, who is vigilant about copyright violations to the extent of having had some great cover versions removed. One question: was Leonard still there?
You Can't Always Get What You Want, The Rolling Stones, who seem to have gotten most of it, plugged into a universal truth if you're kind of an optimist.
Only the Good Die Young, Mr William Joel, Esquire.
Bottle It Up, Sara again. I'm starting to really like that boat.
Something in the Water, Brooke Fraser.
Where Have All the Good Guys Gone, Lulu.
The Littlest Birds Sing the Prettiest Songs, The Be Good Tanyas. There was a really great cover which unfortunately went private; this one isn't up there with it, but bravo anyway.
Claire, Gilbert O'Sullivan. Not really, though it's pleasant enough. Included for the Savile-induced shiver up the spine.
Living in the Moment, Jason Mr a to z. Bar none the best song for getting your head in the right place. My wife isn't too sure about that hat.

You know how it is. Some songs sound great and you don't particularly care what they're singing; others grab your brain. Getting both together is a rare treat. Tanita Tikaram has often managed it. Neko Case is another.

The Ballad of Michael Valentine, The Killers. The latest in a long line of metronomes. Ironically – am I using that word correctly, Alanis? – youtubing is the only 'live' music I normally listen to.
Roll with the Changes, REO Speedwagon.
Destination Unknown, Missing Persons.

Then there's Shania Twain. See A special note on the musical stylings of Shania.
C'est la vie! That's life,
and that's how it's gonna be
C'est la vie! Hold tight,
it comes right eventually.


Fortunately not everything in my collection is relentlessly upbeat, else I'd come crashing down whenever I removed my earphones. For every I'm on my way from misery to happiness there's a Running on empty. Well, not mathematically; there are far more pep rallies than dirges.

There's been a fair amount of cross-pollination from those other citadels of popular culture, TV & movies. Treme stuffed a lot of jazz into my ears that I didn't particularly want to hear but grew to appreciate, if only because no jazz, no Treme. Fortunately it also delivered Letters from Rome. The Sopranos brought me Nobody loves me but you, Black Books, and Living on a Thin Line. Cabin in the Woods reintroduced me to Roll with the Changes, The Blacklist, Sundown: that's Gordon Lightfoot looking like a cross between Bill Nighy and John Cullum. I first heard Frankie's Gun on an episode of Outnumbered. Best Day of My Life landed on me from a commercial for Centre Parcs.

Why do we share our playlists? Maybe we think it'll tell people something about ourselves beyond these words on a screen. Or perhaps we wish to make converts to our way of listening to the world. I figure it leads some people to try a taste of something new or old but new to them, but most roll their eyes at the egregious taste or nostalgia on display – as if you can judge music that way. Ask not for whom it strikes a chord; it strikes a chord for you.

We share because we love music, and music is meant to be sung right out loud.


Come writers and critics
« Reply #2 on: July 25, 2014 »
Poll added. The anniversary of Bob Dylan going electric seemed a good day for it. He was said to have "electrified one half of his audience, and electrocuted the other."

I've also posted on road.cc. It was suggested I carry an organ donor card.

See also Darwin Award Award


Hit me baby 1 more time
« Reply #3 on: July 28, 2014 »
I'm pleasantly surprised that people have actually voted.

Not surprised at the reaction to the piece in the Telegraph (though splitting hairs over an ad hominem? really?). That's why they make flak jackets.

It's difficult to believe that the majority who tossed in their tuppence had given the story more than an incredulous skimming. None that I could see were willing to set aside their prejudices even for the duration of the article; a few gave a polite nod to live and let live. A couple of effective commenters from the minority point of view stepped in as I was stepping out.


BBC distracted by non-issue
« Reply #4 on: November 05, 2014 »
Headphones dilemma for cyclists
at least there was no mention of zombies


more zombies loose in the newsroom
« Reply #5 on: December 05, 2016 »
Cycling with headphones kills mother as coroner says she caused her own death.
Because "Brake cable too short" doesn't make as good a headline. And let's not even start counting coulds:
"I cannot determine if she was on her iPhone listening with earphone at the time, but if she had been, it could have caused a distraction and could have contributed to the cause of the accident." Rewrite!

I think he said it best:

Mmmmm, zombies. (Out of shot: the walking red.)
can't say I'll miss Lucy


Zombie Shuffle
« Reply #6 on: February 20, 2018 »

When I heard the news last year that Apple had killed the iPod Shuffle, I didn't grieve, at first. That model had never appealed to me due to the lack of a screen and the small capacity. Out of curiosity, and not wanting to spend £££ stocking up on its bigger brother for the coming drought, I went ahead and got one.

It quickly replaced my beloved {no that's not too strong a word for it} Nano. Since the vast majority of my rides are 1-2 hours long, a couple hundred songs, easily changed, are more than enough to keep me happy; also, I’d never realised you’re not stuck with shuffling if you don’t wanna.

A screen isn't necessary after all! This came as a surprise.

The best feature is the most old-fashioned: tactile control. Now I don't need to take it out of my pocket or even look at it (sorry Apple) to skip songs or adjust the volume.

I was so won over I bought another. Then another. Then decided that was probably enough, as I was unsure about the long-term effects on battery life for a stored iPod. Barring accidentally giving them away in change, I shouldn't have to worry about finding a decent replacement MP3 player for a while.

almost as welcome as Scottish money

The tech Borg despair at anybody who hasn't already gone the phone/bluetooth/Spotify route.

Anachronism that I increasingly am, I still haven't gone wireless, which would be useless for one of these anyway. My earbuds must also have hooks, otherwise I'll spend most of my time feeling they're about to fall out. For years I've made do with successive Sennheisers: great sound, but invariably let down by noise artefacts thanks to cheapo wires (ticking, mostly, as if they were aping a troublesome bottom bracket). For less than half their price I've recently discovered an offering by JVC. What they lack in bass they make up for in not suffering from the earbud equivalent of tinnitus.

didn't have to wait 50 years, guys

Voting appears to be stuck in a tie. For all I know there are two factions of 'bots keeping it that way.


The Transcription Blues
« Reply #7 on: July 02, 2019 »
Lyric salad from a ride, in the order in which it was served:

Give the beat boys and free my soul, I wanna get lost in your rock and roll, and drift away
Gimme those notes to climb inside… it’s gonna take me on that ride
This ain’t my first rodeo
I can see her lyin’ back in her satin dress
Keep it dark
How do you do?
I think I love you
Lover come closer
Think about it, there must be higher love
Just a fleeting sense of that rare suspense I once thought made the world go round
Absolutely everybody
Burn out the day, burn out the night, I can’t see no reason to put up a fight
Bang bang bang went Frankie’s gun, he shot me down Lucille
So let me go or make me wanna stay
My word, it’s a shame I’m so dumb.

nonlinear notes
I didn’t know Marcy sang C&W! Oh wait, yes I did. Do you ever worry you’ll die in the saddle, and the last song that was playing will be what you’re remembered for? Like your last words? God help me if it’s David Cassidy’s I think I love you. Absolutely must cleanse this Shuffle and fill it with Beethoven or something. Remembering that marvellous quote from Sensitive Skin - something like “CDs: you know, the intermediate step between vinyl and stolen.” Tanita’s brother is Ferdy from This Life. No Dylan this morning, but at least I got the Felice Brothers. All these notes to self to transcribe when I get home, is there a song called Transcription Blues?


Regret rien
« Reply #8 on: March 09, 2021 »
It turns out every day is ananniversary of something. (As the pandemic wears on, even words are having trouble maintaining social distancing.)

Voting hasn't budged for three years: it's still neck and neck. Guess it's my duty to break the tie, like Kamala.

The Yeas have it!

To celebrate the franchise, and 15 years of not having to eat my words by not getting mowed down by a Guardian-subscribing Kia driver as I'm distracted by Moonlight Sonata [more likely to be Moonlight Shadow], let's have a singalong.

The first comment I read: "Clicked on this prepared to be unimpressed... boy was I wrong."

Go Your Own Way → My Way → Regrets → The Regret Rien, from Life is Sweet.


Let the good times roll
« Reply #9 on: May 07, 2021 »
I assume the killjoys would have a problem with this, too.