A few months ago I had a bit of a near miss with a driver who, in essence, failed to expect me to come around a corner on a bicycle. Likewise, I failed to expect him to appear so suddenly – a function of the speed he was travelling at.
He was driving straight ahead into a parking space, and I was cycling straight ahead, in a path perpendicular to his. I had arrived at our point of conflict first, and he was going far too fast for the situation, but (fortunately) slow enough to be able to brake and avoid hitting me.
I instinctively yelled out as this occurred, principally, I think, out of genuine concern that I was about to be crashed into. Then, reasonably calmly, I remonstrated with the driver – a thick-set elderly man in a Jaguar – about being a bit more careful. This didn’t get the desired response – instead I was told to look where I was going, and given some abusive comments for good measure.
With hindsight, I probably should have just pedalled away at this point, but his abuse prompted me to ask whether he would talk like that to the elderly ladies who cycle on this bit of road – ladies he could well have encountered instead of me.
The conversation then took a bizarre twist. The man was parking up in front a shop (recently closed) which he had owned with his wife, and he saw fit to regale me with the number of times ‘elderly ladies’ had nearly been run down by cyclists on the pavement outside his shop. The implication was that I was somehow responsible, by association, because I was using the same mode of transport. That I was reckless and irresponsible by default.
But – quite obviously – this had absolutely nothing to do with me. I have never ridden past his shop on the pavement, nor have I terrified grannies.
Somebody else was responsible. Yet the conversation had switched from a discussion about the actual danger he had just posed to me, to a general one about how ‘cyclists’ behave. I was no longer an individual – I had become a manifestation of general cycling wrongdoing.
This isn’t the first time something like this happened. In another instance, a year or so earlier, I followed a driver into a car park to ask him to give a little more space the next time he was overtaking someone, only to be told that ‘you jump red lights’.
A psychological explanation of these kinds of responses must lie in the fact that people who cycle are a minority – a very small minority – of the general population. It is much easier to stereotype people when they are a minority, and to lump them together into one homogeneous mass.
I’ve explored before how a Kurdish friend felt the need to write to national newspapers to explain that not all Kurds in the UK are like this man, who killed a girl on a zebra crossing, and left her to die. Rationally, it didn’t make any sense at all for her to have done this, because a calm examination of the facts would serve to demonstrate that Kurds in the UK are probably about as well-behaved as everyone else. But I can understand why she did it – the story was headline news for some time, and might have served to create the impression – in the heads of bigots – that all Kurds are like the man in question, especially when not many people in the UK are Kurds, and none of them is well-known.
The attitudes of the two men who responded to me with the misdeeds of other people who were riding bikes are essentially enabled by the fact that cycling is a minority mode of transport, and therefore a ripe target for those people cannot differentiate – or choose not to differentiate – between individuals. If I had been walking, and we had got into a discussion about how their driving had endangered me, it would have been obviously nonsensical for them to respond with the misdeeds of other people walking around – perhaps someone who had bumped into a granny, or someone who had knocked over a pram while walking along. It would have been laughable. But precisely the same form of response seemed acceptable and serious to these two, purely because I happened to be cycling, instead of walking.
It’s deeply odd, and probably worthy of being explored in more detail. But what is just as odd is that people who apparently seek to advance the cause of cycling as a mode of transport – people who cycle themselves, and want to see more of it – actually accept the logic of these kinds of arguments. They think that drivers have a poor attitude towards cycling precisely because some other people break the rules while cycling, and that, consequently, the way to address this is to attempt to stop people breaking rules while cycling.
These arguments will often in appear in the form ‘giving us a bad name’, or that ‘we’ (‘we’ being anyone who rides a bike) ‘can be our own worse enemy’. The logic is that cycling has a bad reputation – which manifests itself in bad driver behaviour around people cycling – and that this bad reputation flows from the fact that ‘we’ are quite badly behaved as a group. Superficially, it therefore seems obvious that to improve this situation we have to stop people on bikes from breaking the law.
The latest example of this kind of argument appeared in the Times in December, in a piece written by James Kennedy. He wrote
What I am arguing is that in the absence of exceptional circumstance we expect everyone to obey the laws of the road. I completely believe that were we to achieve this then cycling becomes safer and more popular in every sense of the word.
If they felt [cyclists] were “playing by the rules” all road users would be more likely to be considerate of cyclists’ needs – at the ground level drivers would be less angry with cyclists and would give them more space on the road on a day-to-day basis, and at the legislative level everyone would be a hell of a lot more amenable to cycle safety law changes if the popular consciousness wasn’t so pissed off with cyclists in the first place.
The re-categorisation of cyclists as being within the road rules and the weight of expectation of behaviour that comes with it is the only way that we will make sure everyone gets along, and we keep the eggs on the plate and off our hands.
Roads on which everyone gets along are safer roads. That will only happen when we’re all playing by the same rules.
Once again, we have the call for us to ‘get our house in order’, as a way of gaining respect, and as a way of ‘re-categorising’ ourselves as being law-abiding. To stop giving ourselves ‘a bad name’.
The basic, essential problem here is that there is no ‘us’. It might seem like that, because being a persecuted minority tends to push people together, but there really isn’t. We are all individuals. It is completely futile to expect ‘cyclists’ as a group to somehow behave perfectly, or even behave slightly better.
Human beings are miscreants. We get away with what we can get away with. The fact that some people pedal through red lights isn’t a function of them being a cyclists, it’s a function of them being a human being. All the rules, laws and guidance in the Highway Code are consistently broken by just about everybody, all the time, whether they are driving, walking, cycling or catching a bus. We break speed limits, we park in the wrong places, we pedal on pavements, we don’t look before we step into the road – in short, we do things badly, whatever mode of transport we are employing. Statistics consistently show that people cycling are no worse when it comes to law-breaking than anyone else.
Yet for some reason it is only the misdemeanours that people commit while they are cycling that contribute to a wider hatred of everyone who rides a bike.
So not only is it futile to expect ‘cyclists’ as a group to behave better than anyone else, we’re misdiagnosing the problem in the first place. You – an individual who happens to be cycling – are not hated and despised by a particular driver because they saw someone else on a bike doing something bad the other day, or last week, or last year. You are hated because they don’t understand you, because you are in their way, and because you are easy to stereotype. These issues of lack of understanding, conflict, annoyance and stereotyping will persist even if – by some holy miracle – we manage to ensure that no person on a bike ever jumps a ride light, anywhere.
When you exhort ‘us’ to stop jumping red lights, or to stop cycling antisocially, all you are really succeeding in doing is reinforcing the impression you are attempting to eradicate. You are engaging in precisely the same kind of stereotyping.