Recently I had contributed quotes to a press release for newcycling.org. The press release expressed overall opposition to a planned road-building scheme through the heart of Newcastle communities. It also put forward alternative solutions. The local press picked up the release and published parts in an article, here. As usual when the word ‘cyclists’ is in the headline, commentators are quick off the mark, and predictably, flocked in to make their opinions known.
Sidestep. As a matter of regularity I have tried to put it to the local press that newcycling.org are a community group speaking for the future of cycling in our city Newcastle, outlining better urban design (ie not cyclists, rather urbanists), but we still get the ‘cyclists say’ written in the headline. There are press pressures. As a BBC radio reporter once said to me, if we want a lively show? With the word cyclist, the call-ins are certain to become hotwires. ‘Cyclists’ are a point of interest, it seems.
Back to the Chronicle article. Despite the sensible warning of “Never read the comments” as a researcher, I felt somewhat obliged and even drawn to the comment thread – may my rationality survive. On the whole, it is the conceptualisation of the anti-cycle commentators’ line of arguments, their thought strategies, that wildly fascinates me. How is the anti-cyclist angle constructed?
As Kaplan et al (2016) discovered (in the context of low-cycling Tel Aviv, Israel) when analysing online discourse between motorists and cyclists following crash-reports:
“The results showed that conflicts between cyclists and motorists involve a high perception of threat that leads to intense feelings of anxiety, fear, and stress, and that while drivers opt for a confrontational strategy leading to verbal or physical confrontation, cyclists opt for an avoidance strategy.”
So we can see
- It’s highly emotional
- Whilst cyclists may even opt to stay away and make peace (perhaps a form of self-silencing, and showing subservience to the social norm, reducing risk of outing), it seems that motorists wade in more and they aggressively pursue their cause and stake their territory
But what kind of reactions did the Chronicle article, in the context of low-cycling Newcastle, provoke? Here are some samples. There are many positive examples too, but I concentrate on the cycle-wary discourse here. Some of these commentators may well be Complacent Car Addicts and open to evidence, rather than the Die-Hard Motorist. It’s important to look at discourses and at least try to see through to the bottom.
I’m not anti cycling before anyone starts, i’m actually a cyclist but commute by car for speed safety and convenience.
Safety is described as being safer to drive, but not cycle. Making cycling safer by creating safe infrastructure, is a conclusion that is not reached. The commentator stops at the car door, at least this time as they are a cyclist too (goodness forbid).
Whatever happens – for me it’s cars etc on roads, cyclists on cycle paths, and pedestrians ONLY on footpaths. As a pedestrian I have encountered more near misses from cyclists on footpaths than I ever have from motorists on roads At the same time a warning device (bell or similar) and lights should be made compulsory for all cycles, not to mention third party insurance.
The conceptualisation of cycling as dangerous comes up. This commentator suggests well-defined space for walking, cycling and driving. This is followed by a personal experience: cyclists are more dangerous to pedestrians than motorists (before further “safety” paraphernalia are listed, this time pedestrian safety). That the commentator could experience their sentiment because of the inadequate cycling infrastructure is not clearly described by the commentator.
Naturally taking a wider view, it is the future transport system that would see a different kind of cyclist due to being supported by cycling infrastructure. The wider view can easily go under or not surface in an online thread. Comments are (sub/unconsciously) kept narrow. Especially the emotionally laden ones can stop short.
prioritise as soon as cyclists start paying road tax and take out insurance
The council are already making life as difficult as possible for motorists in Newcastle so cyclists can relax.
Cycling safety is conditional, first things first. The two commentators suggest that cyclists must wait their rightful turn. Motorists are served first. Cyclists however should pay their own way, only then would they deserve safety and comfort. A condition is set, and it is a monetary one. Cyclists are vying for a (public) service which, if they want it badly enough, they must pay (tax) for, according to the commentator. This discourse does not readily exist for motorists. It shows clearly a kind of status-money paradox (cycling has no worth) that is called upon.
Cyclists on the roads are a menace, accidents waiting to happen. They should be subject to the same tax, licensing and insurance as all road users. Especially if they wish to dictate road design.
Cyclist are “accidents waiting to happen”, and ” a menace”. The person (cyclist) is seen as the cause of crashes. This, again, is written from a purely motor-centric viewpoint, unashamedly taken by the commentator. Repeatedly the idea, that cyclists must pay their fair share (to be valued by society) comes up – here even before cyclists can have a say in matters (never mind have the infrastructure).
I noticed another type of thought-rationalisation. This one is linked to low numbers (which perhaps in turn is linked to low social norm and conformance of cycling). It’s said by a number of commentators that high participation is a prerequisite for any authoritative action. The minority status of transport cycling is held against improving its conditions.
Why would planners prioritise cyclists when they’re not the biggest road user?
Yes that is REALLY sensible isn’t it, let’s spend millions of pounds for a few cyclists who want to jaunt about in lycra whilst the tens of thousands of cars necessary for family and business life can go to hell. There is no commercial sense in prioritising bikes.
If we all just asked for things that relate to our hobby is there a chance the council would pay for it,m I doubt it very much!
That cycling numbers should be increased is not seen by these commentators. In fact increasing cycling is perhaps something that is not even wanted. The wider view is not seen. Increasing the number of people cycling helps emission reductions, tackling obesity and other environmental ills. It seems that increasing cycling is a threat to the commentators – cycling is just a hobby anyways. A person-centric point is made, somehow leaving the surrounding environmental conditions (and reasons why people don’t cycle and should cycle) untouched. There is a clear underlying sentiment of “our way of life must be preserved (at all costs)”.
Of course, cyclists are a minority outgroup (Walker, 2012) and any societal hold is slippery; UK cyclists are grappling with their identity and they can’t win (Aldred, 2013). Furthermore, there is a mismatch between the image of cyclists and the way non-cyclists see cyclists (Leonard et al, 2012). If institutions are really serious about wanting to increase cycling, these groundrules must be heeded (included in communication strategy), and overcome.
It is interesting, putting the derogatory tone of some commentators aside (the really bad ones I have not replicated here), that many are describing the approach that the authorities has traditionally taken for road safety: want more people to cycle but only in hiviz and with special gear. There is a qualifier, a but, a condition. People’s confusion (and the resulted short-circuiting logic) does not come blindly and unexpectedly out of nowhere. It has been instilled, nurtured and supported. And moreover, as we can see, road-safety rhetoric incites misconception, even hate and disgust, against cyclist and transport cycling. When many studies show, time and time again, that the majority won’t cycle without separation from motor traffic.
There used to be a voluntary Cycling Proficiency test. It should be made compulsory. Brightly coloured latex is no substitute for safe riding. Anyone in doubt about the menace posed by cyclists, need only drive the roads in the Ponteland/Morpeth area. Stray farm animals wandering aimlessly would be preferable to the head down butt up cycling brigade.
The onus is on the cyclist. And anyways, cyclists are less preferable to “stray farm animals”. Training and special kit will sort out the dangers of the road (according to the commentator) – the cyclist must address this. And the description of the common cyclists is given (let’s call it a sporty affair, which is quite in line with the current non-infrastructure in the ecology of cyclists).
Institutional road safety has been suffering this mis-focus for a long time. I am hoping to write a paper on achieving inclusive road safety.
Narrow boundaries of debate
There definitively is much confusion amongst those commentators (and misconception and the occasional outburst of hate too). It’s emotional for these commentators, and the angle of view is narrow. There could even be a cause-and-effect effect. Online commentating has its own rules. How much it reflects the real world is a good question. I suppose online commentating lends itself to faceless communication, where keeping your face (reputation and social status) is not much at stake. Listening may neither be strength in these kind of forums.
I spare you the further comments on stuff one can’t do cycling (hauling shopping, too hilly etc). An interesting discourse was present on public transport, which has a reasonably high social norm/status in Newcastle. And to stress that again, a good proportion of commentators filled the thread with sensible comments injecting reason, data evidence and calm.
Building cycling infrastructure kickstarts mode shift. Which reduces driving and which improves road conditions for drivers. This is a self-reinforcing positive feedback loop. Yet what we hear is an emotional account:
It is naive to think that all we have to do is ban cars and everyone will suddenly take to their bikes and get super fit. Bikes are a recreational not a functional option and cannot replace the vast amount of journeys made by car. Tackle the problem that exists with gridlock rather than lock to a utopian, unrealistic option.
Just how gridlock is to be tackled, and how cycling is an “utopian, unrealistic option” is not explained. The world is not seen by that commentators as one of limited resources (space, air, money, materials), where limits to growth are a reality and a concrete threat to retaining the current way of life.
Overall, taking a few steps back and becoming true to Peters’ Chimp Paradox or Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, these anti-cyclist/anti-cycling commentators totally missed to conceptualise within a fuller picture: why change needs to happen now (climate change, emissions, obesity, economy etc). They could not see beyond the “now”. Granted, online newspaper comment threads are not exactly a fertile ground for longer and slower thinking.
Bingo card is brimming with crosses:
cyclists should be banned from all roads they cause more accidents than any other road users they don’t pay road tax they think its ok to ride 2 a breast think there doing loads to saving the planet with 0 omissions next thing they will be wanting is a furkin medal get them off the roads
Looking at quick-off-the-mark commentary is probably another sign, that – to have a sensible debate – we should aim to slow debates down, create longer conversations and spaces where this is possible, to create positive atmospheres of sharing and collaborative exchange for problem solving and learning. Institutions and their own discourses, practices and approaches have a role to play to make that a reality. If decision-making levels of society could more freely, openly and sincerely talk about concepts of
- environment as dis/enabling
- safety as ex/inclusive
- climate change and limits to growth as reasons
we’d be a heck of a lot further along. This could enable civic society and social change.
Civic society is waiting. And there always is the wonderful Cycling Fallacies.
Aldred, R. (2013). Incompetent or Too Competent? Negotiating Everyday Cycling Identities in a Motor Dominated Society. Mobilities, 8(2), 252-271.
Kaplan, S., & Prato, C. G. (2016). “Them or Us”: Perceptions, Cognitions, Emotions and Overt Behavior Associated with Cyclists and Motorists Sharing the Road. International Journal of Sustainable Transportation, 10(3).
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Leonard, S., Spotswood, F., & Tapp, A. (2012). Overcoming the self-image incongruency of non-cyclists. Journal of Social Marketing, 2(1), 23-36.
Peters, S. (2012). The Chimp Paradox: The Mind Management Programme to Help You Achieve Success, Confidence and Happiness: Vermilion.
Walker, I. (2012) Vulnerable road users Jon Sutton interviews Ian Walker about how psychology can assist non-car drivers. (Vol.25 No.9).