Transport tribalism (part 2)

Last week I wrote about Transport Tribalism, the curious habit of parcelling people up according to the mode of transport they are using – even defining them by that mode of transport. It was prompted by articles from Linda Grant and from David Aaronovitch, the latter a plea that polarised viewpoints should be avoided. I attempted to argue that Grant’s article itself was itself an example of just that kind of polarising, simplistic, black-and-white moralising that Aaronovitch was objecting to, in that it presented ‘cyclists’ as a unique kind of human being, without ever appearing to realise that human beings are multi-modal, and that they carry their characteristics with them as they switch their mode of transport. An ‘angry cyclist’ is really just an angry human being, who might have an ‘angry busist’ the day before – except of course we don’t ever describe people who get the bus in this way, because it’s faintly absurd.

At the end of the post, I said I would explain why this way of looking at the world is problematic, and why so many ‘cyclists’ (really, people who happen to feel strongly about using a bike for certain kinds of trips) objected to Grant’s article.

Mainly, it’s because it has consequences. Aaronovitch was fairly dismissive of any potential negative outcomes from Grant’s piece. He wrote

Some accused her of inciting attacks on cyclists as though maddened drivers would mow down anything in lycra while shouting “THIS IS FOR LINDA!!!” One man compared what she had done to the hate-articles which accompanied gay-bashing in his native Ireland back in the old days.

Now I can’t imagine any driver choosing to attack someone on a bike specifically because of an article in the Guardian – one by Linda Grant, or otherwise. Nor can I imagine some kind of strange vengeance attack, getting retribution ‘FOR LINDA’. But that wasn’t really the objection. It’s not that an article like this would lead to any specific incident. Rather that it, and the countless others like it, contribute to an already fairly poisonous background climate surrounding cycling, that reinforces prejudice.

We live in a world where people are apparently willing to use their cars to bully people on bicycles, even using their cars as a weapon to attack them, and undoubtedly many will do so because of their general attitude to ‘cyclists’ – an attitude that will be framed and shaped by the things people read, and see.

A recent trial provides a case in point. Last week a delivery driver was found guilty of careless driving, following an incident in which he knocked a woman off her bike at the Bank Junction in the City of London. The evidence presented – which included onboard video camera in the van) – is strongly suggestive that this was quite deliberate, even if the driver himself was only found guilty of careless driving.

The onboard CCTV camera in Baker’s van captured the delivery driver saying ‘Oh God’ as she moved in front of his vehicle. As she moved off and signalled to turn right, Baker was heard to say: ‘Come on get out of the bloody way’ and beeped his horn.

Mrs Kempster told jurors: ‘I got a beep which I regarded as an angry beep which I was rather annoyed about because it was a hugely busy day and I knew I was cycling impeccably. I am afraid I made an unsuitable gesture and stuck two fingers up. I continued and heard a roar of the van coming up my side. Then he slowed to my speed and came closer and closer getting towards the edge of his lane, then he must have been in my lane.’

… Baker carried on driving until a motorcyclist caught up with him and tapped on his window to tell him he had knocked a cyclist off her bike. The delivery driver allegedly replied: ‘Really, did I? Did she not run into me?’

In the context of discussion about attitudes towards people riding bikes, this particular passage is instructive –

In interview Baker admitted cursing at the cyclist and spoke ‘disparagingly’ about cyclists in general, the court heard. He also admitted hearing a bang but claimed he thought he had driven over a manhole and didn’t realise he had knocked the cyclist off. Prosecutor Martin Hooper said Baker was ‘rather irritated by this cyclist in particular but also cyclists generally.

How much did Baker’s general dislike of ‘cyclists’ (note, any person moving around London who happens to be on a bike at the time Baker encounters them) contribute to this incident? It’s obviously impossible to say, but it’s more than plausible that a person harbouring an intense dislike of users of a particular mode of transport is more likely to be involved in this kind of incident than someone who is more equanimous.

What is certain is that people behind the wheel of a motor vehicle will yell at you, or abuse you, or bully you with their vehicle, simply because you happen to be on a bike. I know this, because it has happened to me. I have been going about my business quite blamelessly, when someone decides to punish me with their vehicle – and when I ask them why, the justification is almost always along the lines of the general behaviour of ‘cyclists’, not anything that I myself had done. Whether it’s ‘you all go through red lights’, or ‘you mow down grannies on the pavement’, their behaviour towards me is rationalised by the bad behaviour of complete strangers, who simply happened to be using the same mode of transport as me. To these particular drivers, I am an embodiment of ‘cyclists’ and all their ills. It’s similar to the kind of ‘outgroup’ thinking that leads to abuse and attacks on innocent, but visible, members of a particular minority group following an atrocity committed by a member of that minority group – even if the outgroup identity of ‘cyclist’ can be shed at a moment’s notice simply by stepping off the bike.

To be clear, Grant’s piece – despite the fact it contained well-worn tropes like ‘lycra-clad cult’ – wasn’t particularly bad, as least as far these kinds of articles go. I’ve seen much worse. But as I’ve mentioned earlier, it all adds up to a kind of toxic soup, one that serves to reinforce hostile attitudes, and even to inflame them.

My personal view is that hostility towards people cycling, of the kind that Dennis Baker displayed, is almost entirely a symptom of a crap road environment that fails to take account of cycling as a mode of transport. It’s an environment that pushes cycling and motoring into the same space, two modes of transport with disparate requirements that are not suited to being treated in the same way. It’s an environment that pushes cycling onto the pavement when things get a bit too tricky, lumping it in with pedestrians in a way that again creates needless conflict. It’s an environment that inevitably restricts cycling to a small minority of the population, fertile grounds for outgroup thinking – phrasing like ‘them’, ‘they’, as opposed to ‘us’ and ‘we’. To me it’s not the least bit surprising that people walking and driving hate ‘cyclists’, because the needs of anyone choosing to use a bike are rarely catered for in a sensible way.

But newspaper articles that present ‘cyclists’  as some kind of uniquely awful species on our streets certainly do nothing to ameliorate that hostility, and just as problematically, they make attempts to improve our streets, so that they work for all users, even harder. Witness the way improvements in London are being presented as ‘for cyclists’, particularly by hostile parties on social media, but also by journalists on mainstream newspapers.

The battleground for the clash of commuters is Victoria Embankment, where the two-wheeled Utopia of a Cycle Superhighway is being built, and it is causing all manner of discord.

On one side are the high achievers reliant on Porsches and petrol to glide between engagements. Pitted against them are their cycling evangelist colleagues, Lycra-clad executives who splurge their bonuses on 1,000-pound Brompton bikes or fixie racers, pedalling their stress away by turning the city’s roads into race tracks.

Of course,  current users of the Embankment are probably disproportionately composed of males, on faster bikes, principally because this was a very hostile road to cycle on. But the Superhighway isn’t really ‘for’ these users. It’s for everyone, for anyone who might want to ride a bike, whether they are a City type on an expensive carbon racing bike, or families with children.

The potential users of cycling infrastructure like the ones shown in the photograph above disappear from view when the debate is narrowly focused on current users of bicycles in London, and their apparently unique mode-specific ills. Debate framed in this way not only contributes to a more hostile environment for existing users, but also makes the struggle to open up our streets to anyone who wants to ride a bike even harder. That’s why it’s problematic.

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22 Responses to Transport tribalism (part 2)

  1. Notak says:

    It’s an unfortunate human tendency to divide people into categories by whatever characteristic can be used. Race, language, gender, etc. To an extent, our world is built on this; what else is nationality?

  2. “What is certain is that people behind the wheel of a motor vehicle will yell at you, or abuse you, or bully you with their vehicle, simply because you happen to be on a bike. ”

    Even when the comments they offer are patently absurd. While waiting to turn right at a junction a van driver in the adjacent lane took the trouble to stop, wind his window down and shout at me that “If you lot pedalled a bit faster we might all get somewhere”. He then shot off down the road all of 20 yards to join the queue of cars, vans, buses and lorries that occupy the bulk of space on Shaftesbury Avenue – all waiting at the next set of traffic lights.

  3. Pete says:

    You seem to be following Grant’s lead here:

    “What is certain is that people behind the wheel of a motor vehicle will yell at you, or abuse you, or bully you with their vehicle, simply because you happen to be on a bike. I know this, because it has happened to me. I have been going about my business quite blamelessly, when someone decides to punish me with their vehicle – and when I ask them why, the justification is almost always along the lines of the general behaviour of ‘cyclists’, not anything that I myself had done. ”

    Although I imagine you thought long and hard before writing this bit… And I do understand the sentiment of the article is about people behaving in a particular way due to the environment they are in.

    This is about stupid people being idiots (which is normal for a proportion of the population), which is a distraction from all benefits that cycling infrastructure. I think cycle infrastructure advocacy needs to make a better case out of the “give us space and the problems will go away” argument.

    • I’m sorry, I can’t quite understand what point you are making! Could you rephrase it, or restate it?

      • Pete says:

        -Grant says (based on her experience) that cyclists are aggressive and dangerous to pedestrians.
        -You say (based on your experience) that motorists are aggressive and dangerous to cyclists.

        I (think) understand that the sentiment of the article but you have (partly) done it through precisely the same means as Linda Grant used.

        Sorry this is probably a nit-picking distraction, and I happen to agree with the article, but you seem to be fighting fire with fire here which you normally don’t do. I am not sure there are any alternatives though…

        Hope that helps?

        • I’m not arguing against the claim that some cyclists are aggressive and dangerous to pedestrians.

          So I’m still not sure what your point is, sorry!

          • Pete says:

            I probably don’t really have a point because motorists are seen as the majority.


          • Matthew Phillips says:

            I think the part of the article Pete quoted might be improved by adding the word “some”:

            “What is certain is that SOME people behind the wheel of a motor vehicle will yell at you, or abuse you, or bully you with their vehicle, simply because you happen to be on a bike.”

            Note to Pete: he did not say motorists, he said “people behind the wheel of a motor vehicle”. Though there is a lapse where Mark writes “pedestrians” where he could have used the word “walking”:

            2It’s an environment that pushes cycling onto the pavement when things get a bit too tricky, lumping it in with pedestrians in a way that again creates needless conflict.”

  4. pm says:

    The points in this post seem incontravertable to me. A mite tiresome that David Aaronovitch didn’t seem to notice Ms Grant was doing exactly what he was complaining about. Equally tiresome is his obtuse obliviousness to what the effect of hostility to vulnerable road users tends to be.

    But to be honest I stopped caring what Mr Aaronovitch had to say about anything a long time ago. Its strange how gettting things seriously wrong doesn’t seem to have any affect on professional opinion columnists’ sense of entitlement to lecture the rest of us on what’s what. Why do so many of them consider themselves authorities on things on which they have no experience or particular expertise?

  5. Andy K says:

    This is another reason we need mass cycling, really.

    The only reason people talk about “cyclists” in such negative terms, is that they don’t know anyone who cycles for transport. “Cyclists” are simply an alien outgroup, much like typical treatment of “vegetarians” or “environmentalists”. When only 2% of journeys are made by bike, mostly by a young white enthusiastic male demographic who are probably concentrated in the same friend groups, you will have a large, significant chunk of the population who simply doesn’t know even a single person who cycles to get from A to B, probably the majority.

    But these people will hear anecdotes about “those bloody cyclists”, from all kinds of sources. Anecdotes which are 95% of the time caused by inadequate infrastructure; people trying to cycle, stuck between a kerb and a hard place.

    Unless you know people who cycle, the message “cyclists are good people too” or “only a handful of all cyclists are bad apples, just like a handful of motorists are” will hardly get through. The only thing these people know and think of when they hear “cyclist”, who aren’t necessarily bad people mind you, is negative outgroup discrimination.

  6. Har Davids says:

    I don’t believe that hostility towards people cycling is almost entirely a symptom of a crap road environment that fails to take account of cycling as a mode of transport. Dutch and Danish motorists are stuck in traffic too and can see pedestrians and cyclists moving at a faster pace then they do. I’ve been using a bike for over 50 years now, and I’ve never experienced the kind of hostility as described in the article. Maybe it’s too much pent-up anger in the British in general, with some of them taking it out on just anybody who crosses their path.

    • pm says:

      Interesting issue – I wonder if there’s any solid research on that question?

      Because I’m just not convinced by your Dutch example. Firstly because far more of the Dutch drivers probably cycle themselves and/or feel its a real option for them, which surely would affect attitudes, and also because, maybe, seeing others travel faster on a separated path might not be quite the same as competing with them for the same road space (do drivers resent train passengers if they see a train running next to the road? Do even UK drivers resent pedestrians walking on an adjacent pavement?).

      I just find it very hard to believe that the Dutch are just intrinsically more easy-going and blissed-out than most other nationalities (its not just the UK where cyclists are an out-group).

      • Citizen Wolf says:

        I’ve lived in the Netherlands for a few years. Lovely place to live if you like cycling as a viable mode of transport. As mentioned above, Dutch people in cars do have the very real option of cycling, or taking the train, or bus, instead of sitting in a car (even aside from cycling, I was amazed at the availability of trains to get me to just about anywhere I needed to go). There’s a lot of segregation between cars and bikes in the Netherlands so as mentioned above, people in cars don’t complain about bikes, in a similar way to them not complaining about trains. Cycling in the Netherlands has a much larger modal share and so most of the people in the cars also cycle and therefore don’t see people on bikes as an outgroup. In the UK only a small minority of people in cars also cycle so most people in cars do see cyclists as an outgroup, and it only takes a small percentage of such a large number to make it very difficult for those who are cycling. And finally, from an outsiders perspective (I’m not from the UK, but did live there for nearly 10 years) the media culture in the UK has a lot to answer for. Personas such as Jeremy Clarkson, whilst funny, do have a very negative effect on those who watch him. Unfortunately it seems that having a car, and often an expensive car is part of ‘being successful’. Cycling is seen as something that losers/tree-huggers/unemployed/poor people do. There are many reasons why people avoid cycling, all of them need to be addressed, some of which doesn’t need infrastructure, some does.

        • Jitensha Oni says:

          In a nutshell.

        • pm says:

          I do have one disagreement, which is that the idea that cycling is for poor people is, I think, one held, if by anyone, only by, er, poor people. Those who actually _are_ hard-up may well see it as a signifier of lack of funds and hence be keen to get a car instead.

          But, if anything, the problem now is that it’s disproportionately the better-off who have taken up cycling, and thus it can now be painted as a habit of the ‘elites’.

          Which is a common line of attack made by the (ironically, usually very affluent and definitely elite) newspaper columnist professional trolls.

          Jeremy Clarkson fits both sides of it at once – being a wealthy figurehead of cycle-haters, who actually cycles himself on occasion.

      • Har Davids says:

        It was meant as tongue in cheek, PM, but I do wonder why a minority of motorists in the UK seem to think it OK to bully and threaten any cyclist because not all of them behave as they should. I’m sure we have this kind of motorist over here as well, but I think they would be in trouble with the law if they gave in to their impulses. It may have to do with the motorist being assumed in the wrong in case of an accident, but I don’t think they really think of that while in traffic.

  7. Jitensha Oni says:

    That last paragraph in the article is incredibly complex. I think I can follow most of it but I’m not sure about one element in it which I’d paraphrase as: “if road users are divided into tribes for the purposes of debate, it makes it more difficult to make streets bike-friendly.” Is that true? You have to advocate bike use as sufficiently different to walking and driving to merit infrastructure interventions. OK, maybe you mean the users not the technology. But making streets more bike-friendly *is* the technology. So is it that, because cyclists are the “naughty tribe”, the streets can’t be made more bike friendly for them? Is that an argument that is ever used? Or is there no argument and it’s more a subliminal thing?

    I’m also wondering if “potential users.. …disappear from view” could apply literally. Unsuspecting people who come across the debates will think, well, I’d rather not be in the out-group so I’ll stick to my car.

    Otherwise, for the tribalisation meme as a whole, the nearest comparison of a group I can come up with that can cause issues but, unlike ‘”cyclists”, isn’t subjected to the same month-in month-out vilification is… dog owners. Kids regularly get their faces ripped off by pit bulls. I, and I’m sure a lot of others, quite often get aggressively growled/barked at. Even though the majority of dogs are nice as pie. Do I and my pals have a rota of writing inflammatory opinion pieces or long screeds to newspapers suggesting “dog-owners” get “their” act together? Because sudden barking startles me? Because labrador owners need to take responsibility for rottweiler violence? Does anyone do that, to the same degree that they admonish British bike riders as a category? No.

    • Notak says:

      I’d suggest that, yes, some people do lump all dog owners (and all dogs) into one category. And it certainly happens with many other categories of people quite routinely: currently immigrants, Muslims and Russians, for instance, though it happens in all areas of life. Goths, punks, mods, hip-hop fans, etc.

    • Eric D says:

      “Do I and my pals have a rota of writing inflammatory opinion pieces or long screeds to newspapers suggesting “dog-owners” get “their” act together? ”
      Google [dog]
      suggests that dog poo is a hot issue for many …

    • Eric D says:

      Thinking a little more: if planners make no distinction between people who are walking, cycling or driving, then should we take that to its logical conclusion of advocating ‘shared space’ everywhere, in the Poynton, Exhibition Road, Petersfield, Frideswide Square sense ?

      I haven’t read all of
      but I get the impression that you are a ‘segregationalist’ rather than a ‘unitarian/integrationalist’ in infrastructure terms.

      Perhaps I am wrong in trying to tie you to one label rather than the other – maybe it’s a “horses for courses” thing – we need bits of both, but in the right place ? Cycling advocacy has its own sub-tribes.

      Someone on YouTube comments accused me of ‘othering’. My response (which he will probably delete again):
      “By “People other”, I mean that you seem to be complaining about something that is
      a) an integral part of human nature – we all ‘other’
      b) essential to recognise and accept that people are different – how else can we reconcile, accept and even appreciate the differences ?

      Also, can you accuse someone of ‘othering’, without implying that they are part of a bad group, which means that you yourself are also ‘othering’ them simply by making the accusation ?

      People other !”

  8. rdrf says:

    I think you are correct to take these columnists to task, but would differ on the precise reasons as follows:

    1. Motorists actually ARE a group. When you drive you are implicated in all sorts of deleterious effects on human society and the environment, in particular in your potential to hurt or kill others.

    2. I don’t think it’s just a question of infrastructure being responsible for drivers being frustrated and feeling badly towards cyclists. There is a tendency among motorists to see themselves as victims, whether over fuel prices, speed cameras, parking charges or whatever.

    3. Now the important point. The bottom line is that drivers are going to be in a position where a simple, typical failure to adhere to the requirements of the law and Highway Code can lead to the intimidation, injury or death of a cyclist even if infrastructure changes significantly. To be more precise, it requires work to drive properly. That’s the issue: I’m not (necessarily) talking about a high level of intentional, wilful bullying – although that comes into it. I’m talking about the failure to work as hard as the rules and natural justice require of a driver.

    And anybody holding bigoted attitudes towards cyclists is likely to fail I this, with potentially harmful effects on cyclists. That’s why Aaronovitch is stupidly wrong about his “This is for Linda” example. All you require for additional danger towards cyclists is a non-positive attitude, and that’s why anti-cycling is incendiary. And wrong, and we need to say so.

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