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.