Of MAMILs and PEOPLE – what the latest AT survey tells us

Auckland Transport’s 2015 annual walking and cycling survey has just been released, and it paints an interesting picture of the present and the potential landscape for cycling. (Notes about the survey: TRA performed an online survey of 1615 people who were demographically representative of adult Aucklanders by age, gender and location; census data was then used to enlarge the picture).

Transportblog gave an overview of the survey this morning. It was also featured in the Sunday Star Times over the weekend, in an article titled: Rise of the MAMIL – Divisive or Deterrence?

Oh dear, that headline! It’s basically: ‘Sketchy Bogeyman – Quite Bad, or Really Bad?’, and is followed by this dramatic opening paragraph:

From their pasty white legs, to their bulging midriffs, middle-aged men in lycra are driving would-be cyclists to despair, a major new study claims.

Driven to despair! By the dreaded MAMILs, out there flashing their pale but shapely calves, flaunting their padded pukus, frightening women and children and ordinary people, messing with our heads by looking all sporty and yet simultaneously pudgy and pasty, the tricksy fiends! Quick! Lock them up before they pedal again!

(Mind you, good news for skinny brown middle-aged men in lycra: you guys can carry on as usual).

But seriously. We sat down and read the survey (NB it’s a survey, not a “study”) all the way through, and you’ll be relieved to hear, it actually claims nothing of the sort. So let’s dig in.

1. Firstly, the bad-and-yet-still-kind-of-good news: the survey says that 27% of Aucklanders get out there on a bike, at least occasionally. Most of them say they’re doing it for recreation and exercise. So, at the most elementary level, over a quarter of adults ride a bike, and they do it because it’s a) fun and b) good for you.


Digging a bit deeper, though, our first question would be:

When people say they bike for “exercise/ fitness or recreation”, what do they mean? Where do they ride? What do they wear, and who are they? Who do they ride with? How far do they go? Do they stop for coffee along the way, or swing by a farmers’ market, or drop books off at the library, or take advantage of the school run to go round the block a few extra times, or do they ride all the way to work and have a shower and start their working day?

We need better and more detailed numbers on what Aucklanders mean by “biking for fitness” and “biking for recreation.” Because it would be too simple to leap to the conclusion that we’re talking about bunches of weekend warriors – MAMILs, in other words (not that there’s anything wrong with MAMILs, but we’ll get to that).

2. When it comes to riding more often, and using bikes for A-to-B trips around and across town, at first glance the numbers are less encouraging – only 11% of Aucklanders ride once a week or more.

Still, look at their reasons for biking. 1 in 5 once-a-weekers and 40% of regular riders are #quaxing – a reminder, as if we needed it, that shopping on a bike is eminently doable, and that people on bikes buy stuff.

And the most frequent riders (2+ trips a week) are also the most likely to be biking to and from work or study. In other words, once biking becomes a habit, it really becomes a habit. 

Of course, the elephant in the survey room is that 3/4 of Aucklanders say they never jump on a bike in their own city.

Not to the shops, not to a train, not with the kids, not in the rain.

They do not ride bikes here or there, they do not ride them anywhere.

Compare that to the 60% who are adamant in other AT surveys that they want to bike around town and would do so if given safe cycleways – and it’s clear that Auckland is letting a whole lot of people down. Not a great look for a liveable city.

3. Back to the good news: the proportion of people who bike is noticeably up from last year… again, mainly because more people say they’re biking for fun and fitness.


Frankly, we’d be the last to rain on that parade! Especially since it’s the key to the wider picture. More people simply enjoying riding bikes means more people who might eventually choose bikes to get to work/ study/ shopping/ sports/ school, which means healthier citizens AND fewer cars on the road at peak times, which means roads that feel safer for people on bikes, and so on.

(We were surprised by those downturns in shopping on bikes and biking to sport, which doesn’t accord with our anecdotal observations.)

4. Who’s the bikiest bikers of all? Go on, have a wild guess before scrolling down for the data.


Yup. Blokes. Fit, young to middle-aged menfolk (although no word on what they’re wearing). No surprise there.

But look more closely: There is gender parity among the occasional riders.

In other words, women are just as likely as men to go for a fun or fitness ride.

So the interest in riding is extremely democratic (we also know, for example, that our blog readers and Facebook audience are pretty much half and half women and men, and little kids on bikes also exhibit impeccable gender parity). But something is stopping most women from biking more often. Could it be, oh, just to pluck something out of the air – the lack of sufficiently safe streets?

That said, 29% of frequent riders are women. That’s not insignificant. We’d say the safe commuter cycleways like the Northwestern likely have something to do with that. But there might also be micro-trends to zoom in on, and we’d love to see a follow-up survey ask those questions. How many of the female ‘frequent riders’ are mums accompanying kids to school or daycare? Or cheerful lady gang pioneers like our Jessica?

5. Right. So, getting back to that Sunday Star-Times article: is it really a problem that you’re most likely to see blokes on bikes?

Well, we could point out that white males were also early adopters of all sorts of things – voting, getting paid a fair wage for a fair day’s work, cars, and a few other things too – and that didn’t seem to put everyone else off! But that would be to accept the proposition that MAMILs are a deterrent. And we simply don’t.

As Mark Hadlow told the SST, “Look at running in the Olympics, they’re all in lycra. Does that put athletes off going to the Olympics or young people coming through and participating in running?” We’d add, does seeing people go running in fancy gear put everyone else off walking or occasionally breaking into a jog when needed?

The larger problem is that, even in the context of this data-rich survey, the idea of the Big Scary Offputting MAMIL is entirely hypothetical. It’s neither borne out by the data nor followed up with further questions. It’s just sort of plonked in there as a possibility, with photos (indeed, the only images in the survey are of blokes – most in lycra; one in a suit).

It’s as if there’s an unwritten rule: ‘If it’s a story about bikes, put a MAMIL on it.’

These cheerful chaps have no idea they’re being framed as the worst thing to hit cycling since broken glass.

What is a MAMIL, anyway? And where to begin dismantling the assumptions bundled up in that furry little nickname?? Firstly, even if the “male, European demographic” predominates in Auckland, not all of those guys are lycra-clad fitness freaks. Some ride a bike because “it’s as easy as walking, but faster“. Some are ultra-stylish and unashamedly lazy. Some just like to ride, and find that Lycra is a practical get-up. Some bike for fitness but don’t wear Lycra and are not European.

Yeah, MAMIL is a cutesy catchphrase, and it does capture a certain zeitgeisty character, as lampooned in the New Yorker…

Credit: Alex Gregory / The New Yorker Collection/ The Cartoon Bank

But it’s also a lazy, reductive, and unearned stereotype, like ‘mother-in-law’ or ‘woman driver’, that does nobody any favours. And if you’re primed to spot ‘MAMILs’, you’ll probably notice people who might fall into that category – but you’ll miss the bigger picture. Both people in this class New Yorker cartoon are riding bikes. Only one fits the stereotype:

Credit: Harry Bliss / The New Yorker Collection/ The Cartoon Bank

So take a closer look. Not all people who ride bikes for exercise are men. Not all people who ride, whether for exercise or not, wear Lycra. Not all people who ride for exercise and wear Lycra are middle-aged – or men. Not every eye-catching outfit on a ‘dad bod’ is Lycra – maybe it’s just hi-vis, so they can get home safely to their family.

The people you see out on bikes in sporty clothes are just, well… people.

Not MAMILs, PEOPLE. Perfectly Everyday Ordinary Pedallers… Looking Exceptional.

They only stand out because there aren’t hordes of them. It can’t be said often enough: make the streets safe for cycling, and everyone will cycle, for every kind of cycling, in every kind of gear… and then finally, maybe, every story about biking will just have pictures of people.

Which brings us to the bit of the survey that made us laugh, albeit sadly…

6. When asked how you’d describe those who choose to ride in Auckland traffic, the number one response was…

They are brave.

And who was most likely to say this?

The brave ones themselves. 


We know that biking in Auckland isn’t necessarily as dangerous as people think. And if there were more of us, it would look completely normal, the way it used to. And we know that the more improved streets and separated cycleways we have, the more people will bike.

But as things stand, riding your bike regularly on city streets – whether you do it in a frock or a suit, a school uniform or hi-vis, or head-to-toe lycra with a helmet on top – feels and looks heroic.

That means the MAMILs and PEOPLE of Auckland deserve our admiration, not mockery. They are out there holding space for the rest of us. The Phils and Daniels and Jessicas and Teaus and Carols and Janes and Lennarts and all – we salute you!

7. Meanwhile, why aren’t all those casual, weekend riders using their bikes for quick trips round the hood, or the daily commute?

No surprises here. According to the survey, the top reasons are:

  • because it feels dangerous
  • because there’s no protection from the bloody awful traffic
  • and because all of that goes double in the dark (which, by the way, makes winter kind of a depressing time of year to ask people about biking… would you get different answers if you ran this survey in the summer?)


(Funnily enough, ‘Because big blokes in tight lycra give me the willies!’ (ahem) doesn’t even make it onto the list).

As the survey rather bluntly sums it up: “PEOPLE ARE SCARED TO CYCLE.”

But hang on a minute: remember, this is a drill-down question for people who already regularly bike for enjoyment, but don’t use a bike for A to B trips. They’re not scared to cycle for fun and fitness.

They love riding – but they’re scared to ride in Auckland traffic (well, half of them are, anyway). The idea of jumping on a bike to go to work, or school, or church, or the dairy, somehow feels like too much.

They love riding but they’re “scared to cycle” for the same reason people are scared to let their kids walk to school unaccompanied or go to the dairy on their own – because our streets are designed to speed cars on their way, above all, and at almost any cost.

This is the vicious circle: instead of “feeling the fear and doing it anyway”, people who already love biking make the reasonable call, every day, that it’s less stressful to take the car… in the process adding to the “traffic” that is a barrier to them opting for the bike in the first place.

As we know, all these individually logical choices affect the way our neighbourhoods feel to us, whether we’re zipping through them in cars, stuck in traffic jams trying to get home, or just waiting nervously or impatiently to cross the street we live on.

And this message is transmitted down the line in ways that are hugely important, because while not covered in this survey, kids count too. Cycling New Zealand reports a startling drop: from 28% of kids biking to school 30 years ago, we’re down to 1% today.

From "A Nation Embracing Cycling", Cycling NZ.
From “A Nation Embracing Cycling”, a report by Cycling NZ.

We all know the paradox of the school run – “It’s too dangerous for kids to walk or bike because of all the traffic… so we’ll take them to school in the car, thus adding more traffic” – whereas the best possible thing you can do for your kids is get them physically active before it’s too late. And, we all know how freed-up the roads feel during the school holidays: imagine if the city felt like that every day? It would, if more kids biked or walked to school.

It’s a vicious circle, it’s entirely fixable…. and it’s got nothing whatsoever to do with men in Lycra. Take away the MAMIL subplot, and the survey tells us pretty much what we already knew: all sorts of people love riding bikes and want to ride them more often to all sorts of places.

All we need is safer streets, protected bike lanes, and more dedicated cycleways.

So let’s do it.

“Get the MAMILs off the road and then we’ll talk” on this list anywhere? Nope. Big shiny red herring.

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Bike Auckland is the non-profit organisation working to improve things for people on bikes. We’re a people-powered movement for a better region. We speak up for you – and the more of us there are, the stronger our voice!

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