As the repairman rummaged around in my gas oven, I tried to explain something to him about cyclists.
“We ‘cyclists’ are no more a homogenous group than you ‘vannists,’” I said. I had accepted the role of personal myth-buster, including the falsehood that cycle lanes cause congestion and pollution (thanks to Robert Winston, Unblock the Embankment, and the London assembly member David Kurten) for repeating those canards). To his credit, the repairman eventually saw my point. Admittedly, I am often asked to defend all cyclists’ names simply because I happen to get around by bike. Never mind that on my daily bike route are a range of humans, from parents with child seats on their bicycles to wobbly hire bike riders, fashionably attired creatives, elderly chaps with heels on pedals and knees out – and yes, men and women in Lycra.
Stopping using the term “cyclist” has been up for debate since an Australian study last week found 31% of respondents viewed cyclists as less than human. The research also found that the dehumanization of people who cycle is linked to self-reported aggression towards them: if you see a person as less than fully human, you are more likely to deliberately drive at them, block them with your vehicle or throw something, the study found. The authors say it is easy to dehumanize people who cycle because they often dress differently and move mechanically, and drivers cannot see their faces. I’d add that thanks to decades of car-centric planning, drivers can whizz through a neighborhood and turn into wide-mouthed junctions at speed while rarely having to face another human being, in or out of a car.
The outcome of this problem is all too real. UK cyclists experience deliberate harassment, on average, every month. The study authors note that public references to violence against cyclists are not uncommon and rarely given the same condemnation as, for example, violence towards women or bullying. Too often, comment pieces on cycling play this role online, in papers, and on TV; clickbait by misguided news and views outlets with real-world consequences. Just read the comments on articles about those injured and killed cycling, blaming the victim and even implying they deserved their fate somehow. Dehumanizing people is a dangerous business. Those who saw people on bikes as less than 90% were found to display 1.87 times more direct aggression towards them than those above that mark.
Meanwhile, news articles often remove the driver from the equation, referring to vans crushing cyclists and cars mounting pavements and running over children as human agency played no part. It is perhaps no mental leap to conclude the only person such pieces mention, the “cyclist,” is to blame. We are all human, using the roads to go somewhere, trying to live our lives. Even as competent and confident cyclists, some drivers’ everyday aggression and carelessness, hurt over time. I’ve been reduced to tears, numb shock, terror, and occasionally crossed fingers that someone driving dangerously doesn’t hit me.
The authors say experiences like this can start a vicious cycle of behavior. “If cyclists feel dehumanized by other road users, they may be more likely to act out against motorists, feeding into a self-fulfilling prophecy that further fuels dehumanization against them,” they say. So perhaps one small step could be to think carefully about the language we use. We could do as Sarah Storey suggests in her new role as Sheffield’s cycling and walking commissioner: have one word for people who cycle for transport, another for people who cycle for sport – and remember that we are all people, no matter how we use the roads.