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?