By Kath Cochrane

WHAT comes to mind when you hear the word ‘Cyclist’? Martian, machine, animal? A recent study in Australia published in the journal Transportation Research found that ‘around half of non-cyclists view cyclists as less than fully human’.

They also found that dehumanisation measures were significantly correlated with aggression towards cyclists. Put simply, because many people see cyclists as some sort of sub group (Peter Walker, 2017) this somehow rationalises their aggressive behaviour towards them. Respondents reported blocking, close passing and throwing objects at people on bikes as examples. This characterisation is not new, in fact Peter Walker cites examples from the press from as far back as 1892 complaining of overfast cyclists. In some ways little has changed, cyclists are commonly called Lycra louts or MAMILS (Middle Aged Men in Lycra) neither of which are complementary. I am often struck by headlines in papers such as ‘cyclist robs elderly lady’ – it implies that the mode of transport somehow defines the person. You wouldn’t say a ‘walker’ or ‘driver’ stole my rare painting. Again, people who choose to ride bikes are being defined as a sub group, more prone to breaking the law, or getting in the way of the unwritten rule that roads are for the serious business of driving.

There is a strong argument that, with such negative connotations, those trying to promote cycling as a means of transport for all people should avoid the term cyclists completely. If the public perception of cyclists is that they are a slightly lawless fringe group; any projects perceived to be just for them would be unlikely to get support. This was the experience of the first attempt to install better infrastructure in Walthamstow, London. It was only when the same measures were rebranded (with the help of the team that marketed the London 2012 Olympics) that wider approval was secured. The Walthamstow mini-Holland became about people and places rather than a niche project for cyclists. This is correct. Transport projects should never be just for cyclists, as this implies designing for people who currently cycle. In my opinion people that currently ride bikes have, to a large extent, accepted the reality of cycling on our roads with traffic. New developments should be designing for a modal shift to travelling by bike. Therefore, designing for people who don’t cycle but would and could if it felt safe and convenient. Our political leaders need to buy into this as well.

As well as avoiding the cyclist label, we should also be countering the negative imagery around cycling in the press that seeps into everyday consciousness. Of course, road users get frustrated with others’ behaviour. But we need to recognise that these are all people, people on bikes, in cars, or on their feet. Most are considerate and sensible and some are downright idiots. Their mode of transport does not define their behaviour; and other people using that same method of transport should not be punished by association.

To end on a positive note, I leave you with the message for people who travel by bike from a recent Oxford Health poster: “You’re a one-person climate improving machine, you’re turning up the endorphins and burning the calories. You’re inspiring others and making our trust and the neighbourhood that bit more fab” – that all sounds pretty human to me.