Dealing with Stigma

Update – I’ve just read this post from As Easy as Riding a Bike – posted the same day. Very interesting article and comments.

I recently started a bit of a Twitter debate about the ‘calling out’ of cyclists for bad behaviour. I hadn’t been going to extend it into a blog post, but this evening’s ride back decided it for me.

I was riding along a narrow, 20mph street, which is on the London Cycle Network (and is also now unfortunately a bit of a parked up rat run) on my way home. Taking primary position for visibility (and to be safe from dooring), I was overtaken by a car with literally two inches to spare, because the driver couldn’t be bothered to wait a minute to overtake when it was safe. I thought he was going to hit me. I felt terrified, angry and helpless all at the same time.

Now I haven’t written about this kind of thing happening to me before. But not because it’s an unusual event. Rather, because it’s mundane – it’s the kind of thing that happens on a weekly basis to many of us who cycle in the UK. You can see it on Youtube all the time. I don’t usually have the time to report bad or illegal driver behaviour unless it’s really egregious – like an HGV driver on a hand held mobile, nearly hitting someone.

Beyond events like this, I have this week seen not just obvious driver law breaking (hand held mobile, speeding, red light jumping), but a range of almost comic bad behaviour, on numerous occasions, including driving while eating a banana, while drinking a cup of coffee, or while reading a map. Or rather, it would be comic if it didn’t put me and others at risk.

I think I first realised just how inured I had become to this kind of hostile environment last year, when I was taking an injured cat to the vet on my bike. Suddenly I found myself jumping off and walking, where otherwise I’d just have carried on; thinking about whether I could really cope with a road, when otherwise I wouldn’t even have thought about it; it would just have been normal. (Not that I’d have liked it, but I wouldn’t have considered getting off and walking).

Of course, as you may be thinking, I’ve seen bad behaviour by cyclists too. And by pedestrians, bus passengers and rail passengers. Anecdotally, I feel maybe the best behaved ‘road users’ on London’s streets are its bus drivers. (Have you ever seen a London bus driver on a hand held mobile?) Many cycling advocates will claim – and with justification, I think – that bad design is responsible for much bad cycling behaviour, particularly that which stems from fear of motor traffic – for example, riding on pavements next to busy roads, or jumping a red light to get out of the way of following motor traffic. (While I don’t think any of the bad driver behaviour I have seen was a result of fear).

But really my point is not a hierarchy of virtue, anecdotal or otherwise. It’s about stigma and discrimination. Is it true that bad behaviour by cyclists is an important cause of cyclists in general being treated badly? Would policy-makers rush to invest in cycling if we as cyclists cleaned up our act?

It strikes me, by the way, that it’s a bit weird that we would want to call out cyclists as part of cycling promotion. This is the group that’s doing the right thing, remember. Would we promote healthy eating by complaining about vegetarians, and telling them their faults are the reason others aren’t eating healthily? You, you dull, self-righteous lettuce munchers, you’re driving the kids to their fried dinners…And no wonder politicians don’t want to restrict fast food joints, if you lot are the alternative!

We can perhaps learn from other examples of stigma and stereotyping. There’s lots of evidence from educational research showing that teachers’ unconscious prejudices can shape how they interpret children’s behaviour. (And this is generally a group of people that are explicitly opposed to prejudice). So researchers found that, for example, a teacher might respond to an ethnic minority child throwing a piece of paper as an example of naughtiness, but, when a white child did the same thing, it might be seen as high spirits or a response to boredom. In other words, the breaking of school rules was often found to be treated differently according to the gender and ethnicity of the child.

What’s happening there is the operation of stereotyping and stigma. All children behave badly at some point; but how it is interpreted will be shaped by dominant social assumptions and prejudices. The same is the case for the way people respond to different road users’ behaviour. As Department for Transport research found, bad behaviour by cyclists is interpreted within a ‘cyclists are rule-breakers’ framework, while bad behaviour by drivers is not seen as reflecting on all drivers.

So is it really the case that calling out cyclists as part of cycling promotion strategies will (a) lead to a decrease in rule breaking by cyclists and (b) lead previously negatively disposed drivers to think ‘Ah, those cyclists are behaving better now, I’ll try a bit harder not to run them over’?

I don’t think this is how stigma works. It’s a pre-existing world view that frames behaviour, not a neutral response to the facts. I think instead, what is likely to happen is that many drivers are reinforced in their existing belief that cyclists are rule-breakers. Possibly, a cycling promotion campaign that targets ‘bad cycling’ may succeed in reducing some naughtiness by cyclists, but this may be outweighed by –

(a) motorists’ understanding of what constitutes cyclist ‘bad behaviour’ is enormously elastic – it is shaped not just by the law, but also by cultural assumptions about what the roads are for. I have written here about the multi-faced nature of cycling stigma and here about how (legal) sociable, two-abreast riding is seen as violating the ‘true purpose’ of the roads. Therefore, the amount of perceived wrong-doing may not change, even if fewer people (for example) jump red lights. Ultimately, I’d argue, the way in which UK roads are designed means that much of the time, it’s really hard as a cyclist to keep to legal and cultural norms. My attempting to ‘hold the lane’ for my own safety today no doubt violated a cultural norm that cyclists should not be ‘in the way’, even though it was in no way illegal.

(b) as long as just one cyclist jumps the red light or rides on the pavement (or engages in any legal behaviour disapproved of by drivers), interpreted within the frame of anti-cyclist stigma, that one cyclist can still stand for all cyclists (while my banana-eating, coffee-drinking and map-reading motorists are not seen to reflect badly on all drivers).

I would argue that focusing on poor cyclist behaviour doesn’t help cycling – instead, it risks being seen as justifying the kind of driving that I encountered today and encounter every week. The kind of driving that views cyclists as illegitimate, rule-breaking road users, who are fair game for ‘punishment passes’ and other kinds of aggressive discrimination.

It is better, in my view, to understand why cyclists’ behaviour is seen (sometimes fairly, often unfairly) as problematic in our current street environments, and to focus on working towards a friendlier cycling environment with greater toleration and less need to break any rules.

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10 Responses to Dealing with Stigma

  1. Thanks for your blog.
    Reading about your experience on the London Cycle Network is similar to mine.
    The LCN is meant to be designed to encourage cyclist, often on quieter roads.
    But my experience is it varies. LCN 5 in parts of Croydon and Clapham are ruddy dangerous, whilst other sections where they’ve blocked the road to stop it being used as a rat run, are much better.
    Let’s hope one day LCN is upgraded properly so that anyone 8-80 years old feels safe enough to take to two wheels. Too many drivers are too impatient too often.

  2. Simon Parker says:

    Very, very good. Excellent stuff. The analogy with vegetarians and healthy eating made me smile.

    In the foreword to Cycling: the way ahead, it is suggested that the worst enemies of the bicycle in urban areas are not motor vehicles, but “longheld prejudices”. Interestingly, it has been shown that prejudices tend not to be based on negative feelings towards other groups, but rather on favouritism towards one’s own groups.

    Moreover, according to Wikipedia, something called the ultimate attribution error has a role in prejudice. The ultimate attribution error occurs when ingroup members attribute negative outgroup behavior to dispositional causes (more than they would for identical ingroup behaviour).

  3. Richard Mann says:

    Every public attempt to encourage cyclists to behave just reinforces non-cyclists belief that cyclists are law-breakers. So don’t fret about this issue; you can’t tackle it directly. Instead focus on bringing motorists down to earth (putting them in their proper place) by taming and calming and blocking off rat-runs. When they’ve slowed down, they will start treating cyclists as fellow humans rather than as lesser beings.

  4. Sarah Swift says:

    The double stereotype that I personally find infuriating is that of cyclists as irresponsible speed merchants who are slow and hold up traffic. The speed merchant label doesn’t just cover cyclists who behave badly around pedestrians. It seems to cover all cyclists who have the temerity to cycle any faster from A to B than an occasional “Sunday cyclist” might manage. If the speed limit on a road is 50 km/h, a motorist would need to be doing 55 km/h before that would count as transgressive behaviour, but a cyclist doing 25 – 35 km/h on the parallel cycle path will count as a speed freak. If he or he leaves the cycle path and uses the road instead, he will instantly count as a slow cyclist inconsiderately holding up traffic. So all cycling speeds faster than about 15 km/h and slower than about 50 km/h are transgressive in themselves – and these perceived transgressions occur before the cyclist has done anything more offensive than ride along in a straight line.

    A few days ago I had a motorist-turned-pedestrian curse me roundly as a “racer” as I cycled past. I had rung my bell and hit my brakes because he was standing in the middle of the cycle path and his open car door was taking up most of its width. I was on a heavy-duty hybrid and I can’t have been doing much more than 25 – 30 km/h. The speed limit on the road is 50 km/h, and I’m sure the driver who thought I was speeding wouldn’t have considered me fast if he had still been in his car. But before he had so much as closed his car door, he had adjusted to the pedestrian view of cyclists as dangerous, speeding lunatics.

    That man is not going to be satisfied by me merely obeying the law. To make him happy, I would need to limit myself to speeds below 15 km/h when I use off-road facilities and speeds close to 50 km/h when I use the road.

    The happy end? I was on my way to an aerobics class when I met this driver. A fellow participant in late middle age recounted that his car had broken down beyond repair and he couldn’t afford another one. Having seen me cycle 10 km to the class and 10 km home once a week, he had figured that he could get himself an electric bike. As more and more of these bikes hit the road, drivers are increasingly getting used to cyclists travelling at 25 km/h on the road and to widespread urban speed limits of 30 km/h. Maybe peaceful co-existence is imminent.

  5. Steven says:

    Great blog. In regards to your comment “Have you ever seen a London bus driver on a hand held mobile” please see this Not only did he suddenly pull out when he came to the lights he started texting on his mobile….

  6. Gareth Rees says:

    Excellent article, and I agree with the conclusion that calling out cyclists will do nothing to improve conditions for cyclists.

    I wrote a blog post last year about the cognitive biases that are at work in stereotypical perceptions of minority groups ( Law-breaking among cyclists: perception vs reality) where I came to the same conclusion: “Because people don’t get their beliefs about cyclists from accurate observation of the behaviour of cyclists, it follows that we can’t expect to change peoples’ beliefs by changing our behaviour, or by trying to improve the behaviour of other cyclists. Campaigns along these lines are likely to be futile if the objective is to change attitudes among the general public.”

  7. Excellent post Rachel.

    I wouldn’t , however, suggest that the way the highway is designed is all that relevant.

    (I) A lot of motorists are going to be bigoted and discriminate against the perceived “out group” come what may. Any cyclists, anywhere, doing anything – correctly or incorrectly – perceived as wrong will back up the prejudice about cyclists as a group tending to be law and rule breakers.
    (2) I suggest that coming from a non-cycling culture, without shared norms on appropriate behaviour, some or many cyclists will often or sometimes do things which annoy pedestrians or other cyclists whatever their environment is We live in a multi-cultural society – by which I mean a lot more than different ethnic groups, including categories of age groups, people with learning difficulties and mental health problems etc. – wherein there will be a massive range of behaviours regarded as appropriate.

    But good on opposing the need to “call out” those who supposedly “give us a bad name”.

  8. Patrick O'Riordan says:

    Interesting article from my very non-academic perspective.

    To me, it begs the question that if changing cyclists’ behaviour won’t change motorists’ attitudes, then what will?

    Is it a case that cycling must keep growing to the extent where it isn’t perceived as a tiny minority? Perhaps analogous to racist attitudes not causing an issue in a group of similar people, but behaviour changes when the person knows this attitude would cause a problem for themselves in a more “mixed” group.

    An anecdote from my work in London.. a supplier from Northern Ireland was visiting and as often happens, he bought some drinks for myself and colleagues after work. The conversation got around to the roads and the supplier started with the usual “Bloody cyclists…” rant, no doubt expecting the same agreement he gets with his cronies in the golf club. However this being London, the group consisted of a number of commuting and recreational cyclists who have him a decidedly frosty and pointed response. As it was him trying to sell us stuff, that was the end of that line of conversation.

    Now whether that will make him change his attitudes towards cyclists in the slightest, I really don’t know.

  9. CaptCluster says:

    People are naturally thoughtless, selfish and inconsiderate. Pedestrians are most thoughtless but are wary of aggression because they are face to face with their opponent.
    Cyclists are all three because they can.
    Car drivers are better behaved due to being wary of the law.
    Truck drivers are very careful because they have to be.
    I belong to all four categories in Oxford, and cyclists are the biggest pain, worsened by the adrenalin and testosterone tripping Lycra louts that practice their sport on the highway. Try racing in a car and see how far you’ll get, and yes, call it what you like, I pay car tax along with extra insurance and hold a comprehensive license in order to drive on the road!

  10. Martin Dumont says:

    When I took my first driving lesson (in London), after about 10 minutes my instructor asked if I rode a motorcycle, to which I replied, no. “Then you’re a cyclist” he said. “Yes” I replied, “How did you know?” “You know where the danger is, you’ve got road sense” he replied.
    I cycle in London and have done so since the early 1980’s, long before the “Boom” and have had my fair share of run in’s and near misses with cars and pedestrians. At present on collisions it’s 1-1 cars to pedestrians. The only time I’ve been knocked off a bike was by someone walking out between two parked cars who failed to see me. The car hit me whilst I was stationary, waiting to turn right. Having made what I thought was good eye contact, he proceeded to drive straight at me, whereupon I dived off and watched as he was woken up by the sensation of his car crushing my rear wheel.
    I have often been struck by the number of cyclists who seem to exhibit a lack of awareness about their immediate surroundings, and wonder just how may people both drive and cycle. There must be a fair number who do both and if they do, do they adopt completely different methodologies? The cavalier attitude that I see some cyclists exhibit might possibly be a sort of defense mechanism adopted to survive in what is obviously a hostile environment. But I think there is a better alternative.
    I do own a 2k plus Carbon framed luxury item, (a present to myself funded by redundancy), but am by no means a super fit”racer”. But as such I do try to ride in a way that demonstrably shows that I am aware, paying attention and anticipating. I make it a point to stop at red lights and (hopefully) via behavior and body language, communicate that I am confident, competent and fit to be sharing the space.

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