JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

You're a cyclist, so it's your fault

Date

On Your Bike

After wearing out his knees with basketball and running, Michael O'Reilly became yet another MAMIL (Middle-Aged Man In Lycra).

View more entries from On Your Bike

Zoom in on this story. Explore all there is to know.

In the road: cars dominate, but often it's cyclists who are blamed for congestion.

In the road: cars dominate, but often it's cyclists who are blamed for congestion. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones

If you ride a bicycle, sometimes you’ll find that everything is your fault.

And I’m not just talking about the situations in which you find yourself while riding a bike. As a cyclist, you can find yourself being held accountable for all the behaviour of anyone who ever rode anywhere on two wheels.

The most popular spot for these accusations can be the office. If you’re known as “the cyclist” and someone wants to have a whinge about cycling ... ah yes, here they come, heading your way.

A few years ago I had a colleague who would regularly pop by my desk to tell me that someone on a bike had held her up on her drive into work.

“And then, once you got past the cyclist, it was an open, empty road?” I’d ask. Well, of course it wasn’t. There were traffic lights, buses, pedestrians and, dare we mention, tens of thousands of other cars forming kilometres-long queues to get into the CBD – but somehow, it was the occasional brief interaction with someone on a bicycle that made the journey worthy of a whinge – to me, because, as a cyclist, it was kinda also my fault.

A couple of terms often crop up in discussions about the curious public perceptions of cycling in countries such as Australia.

The first is “out-group”, sometimes defined as “a group of people excluded from or not belonging to one's own group, especially when viewed as subordinate or contemptibly different”.

Cyclists are different. They ride bikes instead of driving cars or taking public transport, like most people do in Australia. It doesn’t even matter that they may also drive cars or ride buses, or only ride the bike occasionally. When they are identified as a cyclist, they are part of “the other”.

A tendency is to then think that all cyclists are the same. I’ve often heard the phrase “you cyclists” or “you people”, as if anyone who gets on two wheels is part of a separate but absolutely homogeneous group.

The second term is “confirmation bias”. Once people start developing a prejudice against an out-group, they tend only to notice things about that group that confirms and solidifies those opinions. These are only intensified as they look for someone to blame for the increasing congestion on our roads.

The clichés start to form. Cyclists wear bright, funny clothing, and silly helmets (or don’t wear bright clothing and silly helmets, which is even sillier); they are the cause of major traffic congestion; they think they own the road; they break the law, all the time.

Delve into any comments section on an online story about cycling, and you’ll start to notice anecdotes along the lines of “a few weeks ago, I was driving along when I saw a cyclist do X ... and this is the reason all cyclists should get off the road”.

Another favourite is “cyclists need to earn the respect of other road users”, which is something you never hear about other transport modes. Pedestrians in cities regularly begin to cross against a flashing signal, holding up cars, but there’s never any suggestion that we should stop building footpaths until they collectively raise their game.

These prejudices don’t exist in parts of the world where cycling is the norm. Recent figures show that 12 per cent of people in the European Union ride a bicycle every day. An additional 17 per cent ride a few times a week, and another 20 per cent ride occasionally. It’s difficult to form an out-group from half the population.

In Britain, however, a recent cycling renaissance has led to conflicts similar to those experienced in Australia. It was interesting to note that the president of the UK Automobile Association, no less, described the vitriol directed at cyclists as “almost like racial discrimination”.

The long-term solution, of course, is to normalise cycling. Create better infrastructure. Limit motor vehicle access to cities. Implement shared bicycle schemes. Put more people on bikes, and turn the out-group into the in-crowd.

But in the meantime, how to counter these charges of communal guilt?

One morning, my colleague came over with the latest saga. Before she could get going, I walked her over to a colleague sitting nearby and said: “Mate, you drive a car to work, don’t you?”

He affirmed that he did.

“Well, a few weeks ago, I saw this car driver going through my suburb, he was texting as he was driving, and ran straight through an intersection long after the light had turned red. And that’s why all you motorists are a menace to society and shouldn’t be allowed on the roads.”

He blinked at both of us in bafflement. I haven’t had a cycling anecdote since.

Do you find yourself getting rebuked for the actions of other cyclists? How do you respond?

Follow Michael O'Reilly on Twitter or email him.

650 comments

  • Replace cyclist with '4wd owner/driver', or 'rugby league player' etc and you have a different story with exactly the same message. Sometimes life just ain't fair.........

    Commenter
    Lucas
    Date and time
    February 06, 2014, 8:24AM
    • Not true - if you read the article it says "These prejudices don’t exist in parts of the world where cycling is the norm."

      Commenter
      Jennifer
      Location
      Carlton
      Date and time
      February 06, 2014, 9:04AM
    • "These prejudices don’t exist in parts of the world where the use of 4WD vehicles is the norm."

      Commenter
      Lucas
      Date and time
      February 06, 2014, 9:19AM
    • Lucas
      However, statistics show that 4WDs are over represented in traffic accidents and deaths whereas bicycles are under represented.
      A lot of motorists though seem intent on lifting the representation of bicycles.

      Commenter
      Steve
      Date and time
      February 06, 2014, 9:30AM
    • Yes its about time all cyclists were treated like every other road user.

      ie.

      Be licensed.

      Display registration plates.

      And be required to have compulsory accident insurance.

      The truth is they've been free loading of motorists for years.

      Commenter
      SteveH.
      Date and time
      February 06, 2014, 9:38AM
    • Replace the word cyclist with asylum seeker, the pattern is eerily the same.

      Commenter
      bg2
      Date and time
      February 06, 2014, 9:39AM
    • I do think you could replace cyclist with motorcyclist and have experienced very similar patterns of behaviour on and off the road.

      If you observe closely you might even notice that despite being separated even by a wide median (e.g on the Hume Hwy) most motorcyclists will offer a polite nod of the helmet to each other as they ride past.

      Riding two wheels puts you in the Vulnerable Road User group. When you're in that group collective consideration of being physically injured does create a degree of camaraderie and empathy for anyone else perceived as vulnerable or in need of assistance.

      One tends to be consigned to the two wheeled group irrespective of whether you operate a myriad of other vehicle types. You also magically lose any previously acquired ability to empathise and dispassionately observe abberant behaviour of your two wheeled besties...even if they are meth heads and complete strangers.

      But no matter what others think when you're on two wheels any of the frustration simply melts away.

      Commenter
      MattG
      Date and time
      February 06, 2014, 9:43AM
    • Or replace 4wd driver/rugby player with 4wd owner transporting wheelchair for rugby player/bicycles, and you have a different picture altogether.

      Commenter
      Parttime Bicycle Gal
      Date and time
      February 06, 2014, 9:44AM
    • @Lucas is right here. I was in Oman for a month recently and most motorists drive a 4wd and aren't subject to the same prejudice that 4wd owners in Australia are. Mind you, the prejudice towards 4wd owners in Australia is usually justified as there is absolutely no need for anyone who lives in metropolitan Melbourne to own a 4wd. Rural 4wd owners are justified although I'm guessing they wish petrol was 40c/L as is the case in Oman. There is a need for 4wd vehicles in Oman because the terrain is different and police do not allow travel in certain areas if you are not driving a 4wd.

      Oh and as for cyclists, I'm a big fan of all of you with the exception of groups of men in lycra who arrogantly occupy outdoor areas of cafés for hours and treat the staff poorly for no reason given they only contribute $3 to the business to cover the cost of a soy latté. Rant complete!

      Commenter
      Andrew
      Date and time
      February 06, 2014, 9:50AM
    • Well said. I also regularly hear the excuse for hating cyclists and putting them all into one homogeneous group is 80%/90% break the law. A recent survey by NRMA (that's not the National Riding Mammals Association, but the motorists' representative boby) found 90% of driveres regularly text or read emails while driving. Why do you think the cops focus on this? Worth pointing out their hypocricy.
      And Bender - I was going along at less than 15km an hour this morong in a 70 zone. Only because of the thousands of cars, mostly single occupancy, crawling along in front.

      Commenter
      rwa
      Location
      Seaforth
      Date and time
      February 06, 2014, 10:00AM

More comments

Comments are now closed
Advertisement
Featured advertisers
Executive Style newsletter signup

Executive Style newsletter signup The latest news delivered to your inbox twice-weekly.

Sign up now

Advertisement