I’d like to draw your attention to an interesting new article from Rachel Aldred which addresses one important barrier to cycling – stigma. Unfortunately the paper is not freely available, but you can read what I think is an early draft of it here, which differs only slightly from the published article.
As I have written, often, and at length, the most significant obstacle to the uptake of cycling by the general population is the perception of danger and inconvenience involved in using a bicycle. But the concept of ‘stigma’ is an interesting and relevant problem. Simply being ‘a cyclist’ can carry with it negative assumptions about behaviour and personal attributes, and I think this is also a serious issue that needs to be addressed; although I would stress that much of the stigma involved in riding a bicycle flows simply from the fact that it is, still, a minority mode of transport and activity, and poorly understood. To what extent the perception of the stigma of cycling, and the very low rate of cycling, in this country are mutually self-reinforcing is an interesting question; perhaps both flow from the hostile road and street conditions which do a great deal to suppress cycling as a transport choice.
Rachel references the important recent work from the Department of Transport, entitled ‘Sharing the Road’, on the way cyclists are still viewed as ‘deviant’ by wider society and, in particular, motorists. That 2010 DfT paper notes that
most people can empathise with car drivers because they drive a car themselves. Probably as a result, no stereotype of car drivers in general exists (although stereotypes of types of car driver do). By contrast, a stereotype of cyclists in general does appear to exist among ORUs. This stereotype is characterised by:
• serious failures of attitude, including a generalised disregard for the law and a more speciﬁc lack of concern for the needs of other drivers; and
• serious failures of competence and knowledge of the rules of the road.
This stereotype of cyclists is also linked to the fact that cyclists do not need to undertake training, are unlicensed and uninsured, and do not pay road taxes (at least not by virtue of the fact that they cycle).
This is, as Rachel argues, a form of stigmatising, a ‘discrediting within a particular social interaction’ – in this case, in motorised street space. The ‘cyclist’ is ‘otherised’, defined as suspect, with assumptions about their behaviour, knowledge and attitude. Importantly, as the Department for Transport research hints at, this ‘otherising’ takes place against a background of a normal ‘driver’ identity that is ‘both invisible and universalised’. ‘Everyone’ is a motorist, while the ‘cyclist’ is so rare and poorly understood that stigmatising their behaviour, where it conflicts with the dominant motoring identity, is almost inevitable.
The main focus of Rachel’s paper involves identifying two distinct strands of this stigma; being ‘incompetent’ as a cyclist, and also ‘too competent.’ These are quite different problems faced by people who choose to ride a bicycle, and Rachel explores them at length. Her conclusions are drawn from face-to-face interviews with cyclists in Hull and Cambridge.
The ‘incompetent’ stigma is probably all too familiar to you; a passage from Rachel’s paper is worth quoting at length here.
A defensive group identity was demonstrated by concern that bad behaviour by any cyclist reﬂected badly upon other cyclists. Cyclists drew boundaries around ‘who counts’ as a cyclist, drawing or breaking links with others who cycle, and making moral judgements (e.g. labelling as ‘risky’) about other cyclists’ behaviour. Interviewees seemed accustomed to looking at their own behaviour ‘from outside’, drawing upon experiences of driving or imagining themselves as a driver. Being a cyclist involves not just managing a stigmatised identity but managing other people’s identities by seeing oneself from their perspective
The irony, of course, is that many of those people engaging in the perceived ‘bad behaviour’ on bicycles probably wouldn’t even define themselves as ‘cyclists’. These are the people trundling to the shops on the pavement, using a mountain bike they’ve dragged out of their garage, hopping on and off the pavement when it suits them. It is helpful for some cyclists to define these people as ‘not proper cyclists’; however I doubt this ‘drawing of boundaries’ has any effect on the perception of cyclists as an out-group.
And of course the poor behaviour of some motorists is never seen as problematic by other motorists for their own reputation and identity. You will never hear reference to someone not being ‘a proper motorist’ if they are driving erratically or poorly, or breaking laws. This is because driving a motor vehicle is not stigmatised. As Rachel writes
The TfL report did not ﬁnd an equivalent ‘motorist’ stereotype, with bad driving seen as an individual attribute not attached to drivers in general.
Some of the people Rachel interviewed stated that they chose to wear forms of clothing and equipment that marked them out as cyclists who knew what they were doing, and were entitled, therefore, to respect as ‘competent’. This seems to be the logic behind helmet use, and the wearing of hi-visibility jackets. One respondent -
It also makes a statement to people that you actually are not just somebody who’s jumped on a bike. You’re actually saying, I’ve got the uniform of a cyclist here. (Cambridge, male, 50s)
The effectiveness of this as a strategy of presenting oneself as a ‘proper’ cyclist is open to question. In any case, in addition to this stigma of lawlessness and incompetence, we then have the problem of cyclists worrying about being perceived as too ‘proper’ or, in Rachel’s words, ‘too competent’. This is the perception that being ‘a cyclist’ involves wearing special clothing, or requires a high degree of fitness, or necessitates putting in a serious amount of miles a week, and measuring themselves against this standard. There is a particularly interesting quote from one lady interviewed -
Well I cycle every day. I can’t say I cycle a lot. It’s daily trips to the shops and to visit my mother. (Hull, female, 50s).
In other words, despite the fact that the lady cycles every day, making ‘ordinary’ trips, she doesn’t think that she cycles ‘a lot’, because that would presumably involve more ‘serious’, sporting, cycling, or in Rachel’s words, making ‘cycling a central part of one’s identity’. The problem is that being ‘serious’ – wearing ‘proper’ clothing, and being able to go fast – is increasingly associated with ‘competence’ and a right to be on the roads. (A further, tangential, problem identified is that an association of cycling with ‘sport’ and as a ‘leisure’ activity can lead to it being framed as an ‘illegitimate’ use of urban space, by contrast with the more serious business of ‘transport’ – even just as an activity for children).
These ‘everyday cyclists’ seemed caught between the stigma of the bad (incompetent) cyclist and the stigma of sport (or being too competent).
This problem of identity is a serious one, and needs addressing, because it is quite plain that assumptions about cycling are still widespread in the general population, and even, as Rachel shows, amongst the body of cyclists themselves. She has two policy recommendations;
- firstly, to note how influential the negative perception of cyclists as ‘incompetent’ and ‘lawless’ can be on those people who chose to cycle, and to ensure that public policy and promotion of cycling works to redress the problem of disproportionate focus on the dangers posed by a bicycle, at least relative to motorised transport.
- secondly, to appreciate that the promotion of cycling sport and sporting personalities will not necessarily make everyday cycling more attractive, given the problems of perception involved in being a ‘proper’ cyclist. As Rachel writes, ‘potential every cyclists are unlikely to see the accoutrements of sports cycling (helmets, Lycra, bright clothing) as representing an image that they want to portray on their way to the shops, despite a ‘toned down’ version of this kit being associated with ‘good cycling’.’
I wrote, last year, about the problem of ‘abnormality’ (analogous to ‘stigma’) involved in cycling, within a piece about the Understanding Walking and Cycling Report, which I think draws very similar conclusions to Rachel’s work here, despite focusing on those who currently don’t cycle, rather than those who do. I argued there that the problem of ‘abnormality’
is largely contingent upon the fact that it is unpleasant, and objectively unsafe, to cycle around our towns and cities. Because it is seen as unpleasant, only a small ‘abnormal’ minority of people cycle, and because being safe while cycling currently tends to involves cycling as fast as one can, ‘sportier’ clothing is often required, alongside safety equipment, both of which are conspicuous by their absence in countries with a genuine cycling culture. Make it safe and attractive to ride a bicycle, and the ‘abnormality’ problem will simply evaporate.
I stand by this conclusion. The stigmatising of cycling, and the adoption of stigmatising discourse by cyclists themselves as they attempt to present themselves as serious and competent and worthy of respect, flow from the fact that cycling is still a mode of transport that barely registers for most people, and that the road and street environment is still designed around motoring. As Rachel writes
Those societies socially and spatially dominated by motor vehicles to the detriment of other road users are likely to generate essentialised and stigmatised ‘cyclist’ identities. Where cyclists are treated more equitably, a ‘cyclist’ identity may be constructed differently and perhaps be less salient.
To that extent, the problems created by that environment are self-reinforcing; not only does the environment discourage cycling, it also serves to create and perpetuate negative stereotypes about the few who do choose to use bicycles as an everyday means of transport.