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Word of the Day: Bikeism

Adrian, a psychology grad student in Australia, wrote in with mention of a disturbing episode in Australia, recounted here, of a car driver going after some cyclists in an “Around the Bay Day” event (for charity, mind you).

What one editorialist also found objectionable, however, was the link at the bottom of the page where readers could vote on that day’s opinion question. The question was: Are cyclists responsible road users?

Not really the first question that comes to mind after reading the original article (I’m almost afraid to know what the answer was). As the writer put it, “OK. If those hooligans had bowled over a bunch of grannies going to church, would readers be having their say on whether senior citizens are responsible road users?” A more contextually appropriate question to vote on, in my opinion, would have been: Should drivers who commit what is essentially aggravated assault with a deadly weapon have their driving rights permanently revoked? (uh, yeah)

The writer went on to coin the word “bikeism” to describe the dynamics he thought were at work — tarring an entire class of people with the extreme acts committed by a few (or a stereotypical image of that behavior). “Unfortunately, many motorists who don’t ride bikes and don’t understand cycling seem to think that all cyclists are ego-driven menaces who run red lights.”

Reading the article, I couldn’t help but think of the best report I’ve seen on this issue (it came out a few years ago and I’d be curious to know what more recent work has been done on this); namely, TRL report 549, “Drivers Perceptions of Cyclists,” by L. Basford, S. Reid, et al., prepared by the U.K.’s Transport Research Laboratory, and others.

The report describes a number of problems, ranging from driver’s poor understanding of the rights cyclists have to the roads, or the fact that drivers rank cyclists at the bottom of the “road user hierarchy,” to the idea that people who don’t cycle are less likely to view cyclists in a positive light, to the idea that drivers, essentially, tend to freak out a bit around cyclists (poor training, among other things).

But there are a few points in the report that speak most directly to the concept of “bikeism” (understood in a vein similar to ‘racism’ or ‘sexism’). So just to revisit TRL 549, and as you’re reading these bits, it’s not hard to substitute “cyclists” or “drivers” with the names of other groups that have been marginalized in, for example, a racist context.

“The underlying unpredictability of cyclists’ behaviour was seen by drivers as stemming from the attitudes and limited competence of the cyclists themselves, rather than from the difficulty of the situations that cyclists are often forced to face on the road (i.e. drivers made a dispositional rather than a situational attribution). Despite their own evident difficulties in knowing how to respond, drivers never attributed these difficulties to their own attitudes or competencies, nor did they do so in relation to other drivers (i.e. they made a situational attribution about their own and other drivers’ behaviour). This pattern of assignment of responsibility is characteristic of how people perceive the behaviour of those they consider to be part of the same social group as themselves, versus those seen as part of a different social group. In other words, drivers saw cyclists as an ‘out group,’ and blamed them accordingly for what was seen as negative behaviour, whilst exonerating members of the ‘in group’, namely themselves and other drivers.”

“Non-cyclists, on the other hand, were generally guilty of linking all cyclists to the same (usually negative) behaviour by association. This phenomenon is typical of the psychological tendency to regard members of a group as more similar to each other than is actually the case.”

On the “out group” notion, I’ve often wondered if the hostility and marginality cyclists often feel — I speak from experience — actually encourages some to adopt a certain “outlaw” stance, which then only feeds the cycle of behavior.

I won’t pursue the ‘bikeism’ metaphor any further, but I’d be curious to hear any opinions elaborations — does it exist? How can it be stopped? Is ‘segration,’ via sharrows and the like, the answer, or is “separate but equal” a better response?

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 28th, 2008 at 3:35 pm and is filed under Bicycles, Traffic Psychology, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

12 Responses to “Word of the Day: Bikeism”

  1. Alex Thompson Says:

    Excellent synopsis. Thank you for covering this.

  2. Colin Says:

    On bikeism…yes I believe it exists (and I’m also from Australia).

    I’ve often thought that many road users have a hierarchical rather than a rule-based view of using the road. They defer to people using bigger and/or faster vehicles, and expect people using smaller and/or slower vehicles to defer to them.

    So the thing that infuriates them – that appears contrary to the natural order – is a cyclist asserting an equal right to the road. Giving the cyclist a scare, or even running them over, serves to “teach the cyclist a lesson” and reaffirms the motorist’s sense of the natural, hierarchical order.

    It’s a feedback mechanism, like other forms of road rage, as you describe in your book.

  3. Quinn Says:

    Oh please, give me a freaking break. Bikeism? Really? Bikers don’t assert an “equal” right to the road. They somehow think their reduced carbon footprint gives them license to do whatever the heck they want. Like running red lights or weaving in and out of traffic. Pure poppycock if you ask me.

  4. Adrian Says:

    Thanks for posting on this.

    I think Quinn makes the point perfectly. Some cyclists run red lights… and some drivers drink drive, speed, forget to indicate and have been known to crash killing 1.2 million each year. The problem is cyclists misdemeanours are perceived as an attribution of the ‘renegade’ character of anyone on two wheels whereas many driving misdemeanours are merely called ‘accidents’. A strong perception of cyclists as ‘renegades’ is sometimes used to justify some drivers aggression. This is a kind of perverse vigilante justice, to “teach them a lesson” as Colin has identifed.

    In relation to your question… does marginality actually encourage some to adopt a certain “outlaw” stance? I think a flip side of being an ‘out group’ can create its own ‘in group’ narcissism in which some people may be attracted to the idea of cycling because of this edgy, radical-chic, rule breaking appearance. Why would all those hipster fixie cyclists ride without brakes if there wasn’t some appeal in being a bit deviant? However, I think most cyclists just want to get around without feeling endagered by fast moving cars. The problem is that the laws, culture, and design of roads socially devalue cyclists (just like what Jan Gehl was saying about the pedestrian waiting in your book). Cyclists get around the best they can within a society geared for motorcars. Theoretically they are “equal” road users but they are not really taken seriously as road users in terms of law enforcement, education, training or traffic design and management. I don’t think the cars vs bikes blame game will end until the broader culture shifts to value and recognise cycling as a much more normal and positive way of getting around. Of course, redesigning more spaces for cycling would be a major step in creating such a shift.

  5. anonymous Says:

    I think part of the problem is just that cyclists and motorists perceive a given situation differently, because of their different modes of transportation. Something that a driver might see as a small mistake the cyclists might see as something that almost killed them. And fear of death is a powerful force, so that tends to exacerbate any conflicts that arise.

  6. Trey Says:

    I didn’t think that drivers had any attitude at all toward me (on a bike) until I had a conversation with a nice, kind, gentle mother (Volvo driver) of two lovely children. She passed me on a busy road whilst I was cycling home without a helmet. I noticed her car and waived hello.

    The next day in casual conversation she told me she thought it was dangerous for me to be riding on that road, especially not wearing a helmet. She went on to say, rather casually, that if I got hit by a car it would be what I deserved, for not wearing a helmet. Another woman who was part of this conversation agreed.

    I was flabbergasted. I sure if pressed on the issue, which I did not, she would attempt to disassociate herself with the comments. I can only assume that there is some really scary stuff buried in our subconscious mind.

  7. andy padre Says:

    I would love to find the peace within on this issue. i bike almost daily in NYC and yes, i break the laws and have rec’d several moving violations/tickets. I have yet to see peds ticketed for jaywalking or walking in the bike lanes. It’s just accepted that this is acceptable.
    Bikes are the last to have use of what should be their space (marked/unmarked “bike” lanes. If a car/pedestrian/runners/skater/street vendor (street meat carts, etc) wants to use the space they do and often without yielding/ticketing. this applies to both marked bike lanes, along streets/parked cars and even to jaywalkers crossing mid street. then there is the double and triple parkers…
    A driver also was nice enough to teach me a lesson while i was biking on the Wside bike path a few years ago. I did not yield to the stop signs (later ruled to be illegal as there were also stoplights)so the driver deliberately stopped in my path at the last second. my front tire ended up under his wheel, I was left standing above my bike. no apology, he just backed up after explaining this was my lesson for the day!

  8. Michael Says:

    “They somehow think their reduced carbon footprint gives them license to do whatever the heck they want. Like running red lights or weaving in and out of traffic. Pure poppycock if you ask me.”

    Bikes aren’t cars. “weaving in and out” of traffic usually happens when the cars are standing still, and why not? There is more than enough room for me to roll by, if drivers would actually stay in their lane in a consistant way no weaving would be required.

    As for “running red lights”, I don’t see that very often (and I do bike every day), I do see cars passing too close, cutting of pedestrians or making “the yellow” on a daily basis.

    The problem most car drivers seem to have is that they just don’t like the idea that someone is faster than them or dares to take up a lane on the road when THEY could just be so much fast at the red light if that darn bike wouldn’t be in the way.

    My bike for me is transportation, that it is “green” is coincidence but yes I smirk when I see the faces of drivers filling up a tank and realizing how much they just spent (yet) again to essentially do the same thing I can do for free.

  9. Scott Says:

    “Bikeism,” huh? Thanks for putting a word to the problem. New York City recently announced that bike commuting is up by 35 percent over a year ago, which is a great thing. But as one of those new bike commuters, I’ve already seen my share of backlash, and I wonder if more cyclists on the road makes it better — because drivers are more used to seeing us — or worse, because there’s more opportunity for conflict. I fear the latter.

  10. timmy_pete Says:

    This piece had particular poignancy for myself as a Melbourne driver and road cyclist. I participated in the event, and observed the vitriol that was being freely meted out. Just a fortnight after this event, on a commute a fist-sized rock was thrown at the cyclist in front of me on a 70km/h road (with divider lane) which ended up hitting me on the bike. The thrower of the rock, had started an altercation with the other cyclist, and subjected him to considerable horn beeping and swearing whilst stopped at lights, despite the other cyclist having positioned himself in a way to allow car drivers to pass when the lights turned green. Three kilometres later, in seeming response to this altercation the said ambush occurred, and hit my bike instead. Unprovoked, irrational, and potentially deadly all spring to mind in characterising this, and despite missing the seeming-target of the attack, the other cyclist seemed to be subjected to the attack merely because of being on a bike. In this sense, ‘bikeism’ appears all too appropriate.

    Colin – your hierarchy comments are sadly too true – I’m sure as an aussie you are all too aware of the abuse (sometimes rightfully) directed to truck drivers who are seen as a menace to cars. Regardless of the fact that truck drivers are professionals whose qualifications to operate a vehicle, and licence restrictions are more rigidly enforced than car licences, the fear of a considerably larger vehicle’s ability to catastrophically damage smaller vehicles and their occupants– it is after all only physics – is in many senses similar to the threat that cars of all sizes pose to cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians.

    Quinn – your comments seem self-fulfilling, in stereotypically characterising all cyclists as being ‘environmentalists’, I cycle for fitness, because the parking is more convenient, and also drive a car on most other occasions. This in no way gives me ‘licence to do whatever the hell I want’, and nor should it. I stop at red lights, and think that we should target rule transgressions, regardless of whether you are a pedestrian, bike, car or B-triple. It is exactly this kind of characterisation that leads to the ugly incidents listed above.

  11. Norman Phillips Says:

    You must be familiar with John Forester’s hypothesis about “cyclist inferiority syndrome”, Yes? Much like bikeism.

    There’s something to look into there, that’s for sure.

    But seriously… in my neck of the woods, doing counts at lights when I wait for someone or riding among friends, the majority of cyclists run reds and stop signs. The level of knowledge obout proper roadways cycling among both drivers and cyclists is extremely low in the U.S.

    It’s not surprising as for at least 30 years education has been incorrect or absent. It’s primarily cultural than anything else in my opinion, and that involves many cultural attitudes about different aspects/expectations/beliefs regarding cycling and those regarding motoring. PhD theses await writing.

  12. Mikael Says:

    As long as ‘cyclists’ are a sub-cultural fringe group consisting of ‘enthusiasts’ – as they are in many countries – bikeism will exist. In countries where dedicated and separated bicycle infrastructure has been implemented and regular citizens who do not identify themselves as ‘cyclists’ but rather merely people who are transporting themselves from A to B on a bicycle are allowed and encouraged to cycle, this nasty and counterproductive bikeism fades away.

    ‘Cyclists’ are sub-cultural and I completely understand how motorists in countries without any real, established bicycle culture are wary and suspicious of them.

    The key is mainstreaming cycling and removing it from the sub-cultural category. When more regular citizens start cycling – as we’re seeing all over the world – there is less animosity in traffic. Paris – a hell’s kitchen of traffic only three years ago – has been transformed into a – relatively – bicycle friendly city. Not because the hard-core enthusiasts have increased their numbers but because regular citizens have embraced the bicycle.

    The key to developing a healthy bicycle culture is not to swell the numbers of bicycle clubs. It is making it possible and feasible for citizens to choose a bicycle instead of a car.

    We have 500,000 daily cyclists in Copenhagen and very few of them are ‘cyclists’. The vast majority doesn’t see themselves as ‘cyclists’. They are just using the fastest and easiest way to get around the city.

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