Short version – it’s as preposterous to attribute characteristics to ‘cyclists’ as it would be to attribute them to ‘trainists’, ‘busists’, ‘planeists’, ‘tubists’ or ‘pedestrians’. A ‘cyclist’ is just a human being who happens to be travelling by bike, just as a ‘pedestrian’ is a human being who happens to be travelling on foot, and a ‘trainist’ one who happens to be travelling by train.
About halfway through the programme, a number of tweets from the audience were read out, presumably in the interests of ‘balance’. That ‘balance’ being that on a programme arguing we need to do more to keep ‘cyclists’ safe, we need other people arguing that ‘cyclists’ need to do more for themselves.
Among these tweets, read out to an audience of millions, were the following statements –
cyclists have no spatial awareness
bike riders are irresponsible
There are, I think, only two ways these comments – and countless others like them – can conceivably make sense.
1) It’s possible that a ‘cyclist’ isn’t a normal human being, but rather some variant of the species that lacks spatial awareness, or that is more irresponsible than a standard human being.
2) Alternatively, a ‘cyclist’ is a normal human being – but there is something about a bicycle that immediately removes their spatial awareness, and makes them more irresponsible; or, that a bicycle appeals uniquely to that subset of humanity that is lacking spatial awareness, or is irresponsible.
The first is obviously absurd; the second bears slightly more serious consideration, but not much.
But I think that the first (absurd) explanation does actually correspond to the way plenty of people think, reflexively. Perhaps it is what the word ‘cyclist’ conjures up in the popular imagination – a skinny young male, dressed in lycra, wearing funny shoes and a funny helmet. This person isn’t ‘one of us’. They’re a bit alien.
A clear example of this phenomenon came on a Radio 4 comedy programme last night – The Show What You Wrote, on which the ‘ensemble’ perform ‘the best’ listener submissions, chosen from thousands of entries. The very first sketch of this programme – indeed the first of the entire series – was remarkable, for what it says about these kinds of attitudes.
It starts with the sound of a car being driven, followed by a loud crashing sound, and a squeal of tires.
Man: I think I’ve hit something! Oh, I can’t believe this. A nice, country drive, and this happens. I feel awful.
Woman: Poor little thing. Do you think his little family are wondering where he is?
Man: Oh my God it moved! It’s still alive!
Woman: Well we’re going to have to put it out of it’s misery. Here – use this stick.
[Sound of a beating]
Man: Oh, that wasn’t nice.
Woman: Okay, now you get rid of his body, and I’ll stick his bicycle in the boot.
The ‘humour’ here – such that it is – relies upon the audience believing that the man and the woman are discussing hitting and dispatching something not-human, when it turns out they hit and dispatched a human, or a sort-of-human. Presumably the image the audience have in their mind is of a kind of skinny, lycra-clad, helmeted ‘species’, like in the picture above.
The ‘joke’, however, would be preposterous if the word ‘cyclist’ conjured up these images in the popular imagination.
So – as ridiculous as it is to think of ‘cyclists’ as a different kind of human, or not-human, this is unfortunately the instinctive reaction of plenty of people. Radio 4 comedy programmes would not run segments like this if it were otherwise.
The other explanation – that a bicycle itself somehow transforms an otherwise ordinary human being into an irresponsible one, or that bicycles uniquely appeal to those that lack spatial awareness, or variants thereof – is almost as ridiculous.
People who ride bikes use plenty of other modes of transport; they all walk, they almost all drive motor vehicles (except, of course, children), they take the train, the tube, and the bus. For it to be true that ‘cyclists’ have particular characteristics of lawlessness, or of irresponsibility or cluelessness, that other transport users don’t have, these characteristics must suddenly appear when they sit astride a bicycle, and then just as suddenly disappear when they dismount.
Is this likely? Can ‘spatial awareness’ suddenly come and go, according to the mode of transport someone is using? Obviously not; someone’s spatial awareness is a constant. Likewise ‘irresponsibility’ is a constant; an irresponsible person will be irresponsible regardless of their mode of transport.
A man who pushes you out of the way while cycling will undoubtedly be the same kind of person who pushes you out of the way while walking, or while trying to get onto a train, or who will use his horn while driving. But this kind of behaviour – equally likely across all modes of transport – is never used as an attribute of ‘pedestrians’, or ‘trainists’, or ‘motorists’.
A moment’s reflection will show that it makes absolutely no sense to attribute characteristics to people who happen to be using a particular mode of transport.
‘Motorists have poor hearing.’
‘Trainists are sweaty’.
‘Busists lack a sense of direction.’
All utterly, utterly preposterous; yet BBC presenters are quite happy to read out precisely these kinds of statements on air, to millions of people.
Think about what you’re saying.