In the last leg of the 127 km ride of the Triadventure, I was riding in a pack of six. We hit a light on a city-edge street, four of us got through and two of us stopped. It was a T-intersection going into a shopping plaza. There were no cars around anywhere. After stopping completely, Joh and I looked around, judged it safe and went through the red light to catch up with our pack. A guy walking on the sidewalk on the other side of the street started yelling abuse at us that included “I hope you two assholes get killed!”
So what’s that about?
Last Friday, I was riding in the city doing errands with my friend Jess, who is 7 months pregnant with twins. We were doing absolutely nothing “wrong” — just threading our way slowly through a somewhat busy street that had randomly appearing and disappearing bike lanes, using our bells when appropriate. Someone shouted out the window “what the hell do you think you’re doing?” “Riding my bike?” Jess said, mildly. Then told me that she’d been in a new bike lane on Bloor recently when someone screamed at her “I hope you enjoy that bike lane my taxes paid for!!”
What’s that about?
In June, a group of six of us doing a hot training ride on a completely empty country road stopped for a few minutes on the edge to have a drink of water. A pickup truck accelerated as it got close to us, gunning it past us as someone screamed “fuck you!” out the window.
What’s that about?
I’ve been riding since I was 8 years old, shopping, commuting, touring, road riding and just plain tootling around, and I have these kinds of encounters at least twice a month. Most of the time (despite my red light jumping in the first scenario), I’m doing absolutely nothing that could be considered remotely in violation of any rules.
Everyone who rides in the city has constant experiences like the one Jess did, where people spit vitriol because of the existence of bike lanes. In the country, even where slow-moving farm vehicles are common and there is a ton of room on empty roads, it’s rare for me to do a long ride without at least one encounter with someone who seems to be offended by my existence. I’ve had people deliberately speed up, drive super-close to me and shout at me out the window as they passed, clearly hoping to throw me off my bike.
I’ve spent a bunch of time this summer talking with other cyclists about their experiences, and reading all sorts of stuff online, ranging from actual research to the comments on stories about cycling or bike lanes. The full anti-cyclist perspective seems to be that we are cheap, freeloading, smug, tree-hugging scofflaws, espresso-swilling urban assholes, wearing ridiculous clothes because we’re pretending we are in the Tour de France.
If you google “why do people hate cyclists” you get a huge number of hits, and if you read the online comments on any news story about cycling, you get a rich vein of all the hate. I’m trained as a communications scholar, and I spend a lot of time looking at comments as primary source material. There are several different discourses about the badness of cyclists, all of which add up to positioning cyclists as “the other.” Sociologists call this alterity, and it’s the same process that enables people to develop racism or other hatred against another group of people.
One recent news story that stood out for me was about a New Zealand café owner who banned people wearing cycling clothes because their “bulges were too unsightly.” One night when I couldn’t sleep, I read all 2000 comments on it. It was a seething morass of derision, animosity and mockery. I was astounded by the number of people who assumed that the only reason cyclists might wear lycra was some self-aggrandizing desire to “look like a professional” or “shave a few milliseconds off their time.” They had applied what they’d heard Olympic commentators say about racing suits to ordinary cycling clothes, and refused to listen to the few cycling commenters who pointed out that you wear cycling shorts for the same reason you wear a bathing suit to swim in. There were endless rebuttals like “I can easily wear my regular trousers to cycle, anyone who doesn’t is just doing something ridiculous.” (It also amazed me how many people didn’t have a clue that the “bulges” they could see were actually necessary padding, not genitalia).
Within the animosity, there was also a huge amount of mockery of the “Middle Aged Man in Lycra” — the “MAMIL,” a target of derision in the UK, Australia and NZ. Along with assuming that men in this category were somehow, laughably, pretending to be in the Tour de France, there is a strong implication that it’s counter-cultural to take your fitness seriously. This derision is far more overt in those countries than in North America — this piece semi-satirically argues that not enough smug cyclists are being killed every year and mocks their “pointy little hats and fatuous water bottles,” and this one mocks the “daily fashion parade for designer sportswear.”
The “othering” of cyclists enables active violence in the UK; last summer, someone sabotaged a road race in Wales by scattering tacks in the course, and there were reports in different parts of England of people stringing wires across roads and paths cyclists ride on.
I’m not aware of any equivalent guerrilla tactics in Canada, but every cyclist on country roads has had the experience of someone — often in a pick up truck — deliberately speeding up to pass us too close, or honking loudly as they pass. A couple of years ago, a friend was hit by a boat trailer by someone passing him too fast and not paying attention to the cargo behind his SUV. I often wonder what is in the heads of these drivers, but it feels like there’s a moment of red rage that blinds them to the fact that we are actually vulnerable human beings.
My own read of the pick up truck paradigm is that it’s a blend of three unexamined inner narratives: class stuff (we’re urban people on country roads with expensive bikes and fancy gear); road fairness (someone being on a bike makes people think we don’t pay car insurance or taxes); and, I think, some blend of unexamined shame related to both health and the environment. The pick up truck guys tend not to look like the kind of guys who climb out of their trucks and run 10K, and I have often wondered if our blatant pursuit of fitness triggers, at some unspoken level, a kind of recognition or shame about their own physical choices, which quickly gets masked as externalized anger.
Similarly, the argument that cycling is “good for the environment” infuriates people. I read one comment on an article about bike lanes in Calgary that argued that in fact cycling was worse for the environment, because every time he saw a cyclist he had to change lanes or slow down and speed up again, which was far more of a waste of fuel than any stupid cyclist was saving. One of the UK pieces I cited above spits “they think they’re saving the bloody planet. And they think that the rest of us are destroying it.”
The us/them divide that gets created through the “smug show off” paradigm is further reinforced by a deep-rooted notion that cyclists are getting away with something — whether that’s using roads they don’t pay for, contributing to congestion on city streets, or following the rules of the road only when they feel like it. There’s a widespread idea that roads are for cars (read the comments on any piece about bike lanes on city roads for a huge dose of fury), and that “spandex warriors” are anarchists in a system that’s barely hanging together as it is. In this context, cyclists are almost always blamed for an collision between a cyclist and a car, even in situations like this one, where video captured a cyclist who was in a segregated bike lane and was brutally doored by a van illegally straddling the bike and traffic lanes in a no parking zone.
Psychologists have a whole mittful of explanations for the cyclist-blaming discourse. Cyclists and drivers haven’t worked out how to co-exist in the context of “cooperation theory,” and haven’t figured out who is responsible for what. When a cyclist creeps up beside a long line of cars on a city street and leapfrogs past a jam, it triggers anger at “free riders,” or people who aren’t operating by the same rules as cars. And cyclists make sometimes unpredictable decisions about which rules of the road to follow – see my first scenario — and seeing one cyclist do something like run a red light leads to “error group attribution” — i.e., not interpreting this as a lone act, but as “all cyclists jump lights.” This narrative that cyclists are lawless rule-breakers leads to “altruistic punishment,” an attempt to reinforce order onto possibly chaotic social arrangements.
One of the reasons for this deep division is that many people who don’t ride bikes can’t imagine why anyone would do it. Most cyclists are also drivers, but most drivers are not cyclists. In one study, a group of bus drivers repeatedly said that the only reason people might ride bikes was to save money, and they resented that they had to “look out for this person who’s on the road because they’re too cheap to buy a car or too cheap to pay for bus fare.” If anyone has ever ridden a bike, they are less likely to see “all cyclists” as one amorphous group. Everyone breaks different traffic laws sometimes — drivers speed, pedestrians jaywalk and cyclists don’t always make full stops — but we tend to excuse our own familiar choices and vilify what other people do.
As a cyclist, I’m not sure what to do with all this information. It does help me understand angry drivers better, and to reinforce my commitment to not contribute to the hostility on city streets. And maybe to get a tshirt that lists the property taxes and car insurance I pay.
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who works as a consultant and educator in the space of strategic system change in academic healthcare in Toronto, focusing on creating sustainable, socially accountable healthcare communities. She also coleads an all-volunteer learning and development project for orphaned and vulnerable youth in Uganda called Nikibasika. She blogs at fieldpoppy.wordpress.com.