Why do people think they can say what they like about cyclists?

A cyclist in front of a car
Victoria Hazael's picture

Why do people think they can say what they like about cyclists?

Anti-cycling rants in newspapers, on the TV or radio are nothing new, so why do people think they can say what they like about cyclists? CTC's Victoria Hazael looks at why personal anecdotes seem to win the emotional argument over facts and evidence.

As a former BBC producer, I know that two people disagreeing makes a great debate. Someone het up and ranting makes it even more fun and even though facts and evidence are important, they can sometimes be a bit dull and dry. If everyone is agreeing, then your debate isn't going very well. 

So, I am not saying that it was wrong for Broadcasting House on Radio 4 to discuss cyclists vs motorists. I just feel a head-to-head, battle it out, talk all over each other debate isn't inspiring and, as a cyclist, I've heard it all before. The two sides seem so entrenched that it fills me with despair. 

Angela Epstein and Ned Boulting's discussion about the perks and perils of weekend cycling was a polarised discussion about cyclists who think they own the road, jump red lights, have not passed any kind of test and do not have a licence plate. In fact, the same old arguments are raised so often in the media that CTC's Policy Team has compiled a comprehensive look at the 10 common questions about cycling

Angela Epstein, who writes for the Mail and Telegraph, is no stranger to the anti-cyclist rant, having written 'Cyclists think they own the roads. They don't' back in July and 'Why do cyclists think they can do anything they like?' this week. She is so sick of seeing bad behaviour from cyclists she wrote: "Call it having a kamikaze moment, but on Radio 4 this weekend, I stepped forward and decided to fight back." Does she really feel this way? Call me a cynic, but is she hamming it up a bit to get more publicity? After all, it's a columnist's job not to sit on the fence.

I'm not alone in bemoaning the same old arguments and assumptions being trotted out whenever the media in the UK covers cycling on the road. The blog 'As Easy as Riding a Bike' has written 'the terrible journalists guide to writing an article about cycling', a piece that made me chuckle because, in places, it is very close to reality.  

Anncedotal evidence

Angela's argument that all cyclists are in the way is based on her experience of driving. Her anecdotes are not based on evidence collected by reputable sources like universities, the Department for Transport, British Crime Survey, courts and the Census. If you want the hard facts, read CTC's views and briefing documents. My colleague Cherry Allan collects the latest data available on cycling, so that we can have an informed, not solely an emotional, debate. These are the facts that get in the way of a good story!

However, Angela's anecdotes probably get lots of motorists agreeing with her, as her assumptions tap into stereotypes of cyclists, i.e. as car-hating, rule-breaking outlaws, who are so very different to people who drive cars. In truth, 94% of adult CTC members hold a valid driving licence and just 18% of AA members cycle. 

The stereotypical cyclist and the stereotypical driver

A report from the Department for Transport in 2010 entitled 'Cycling Safety and Sharing the Road' highlights how the lack of empathy that motorists have towards cyclists stems from the fact they have little or no experience of cycling on the road. 
"There are much higher levels of empathy across all groups of road users for car drivers than there are for what we might call minority road users – such as cyclists, HGV drivers or bus drivers. Of course, this does not mean that there are no stereotypes attached to car drivers. For instance, the uninsured driver was a type discussed in a number of workshops. But there is no stereotype of car drivers in general. One does not become the object of working assumptions about one’s motivations and attitudes merely by getting in a car. By contrast, one does become the object of such working assumptions merely by getting on a bicycle." (Department for Transport, Cycling Safety and Sharing the Road, 2010).

Stereotypes are an easy way of explaining how drivers feel towards cyclists. Yet, the reality (which admittedly doesn't make such a lively radio programme or newspaper column) is that the majority of journeys made by bike on the UK's roads happen without aggression. 

Her argument relates to just a handful of incidents where her journey by car was delayed. But, those anecdotes have power: they reinforce stereotypes and do nothing but make motorists even less likely to empathise with someone riding a bike along the same stretch of road while they are driving. 

Don't get me wrong, cyclists are not all angels. As both a cyclist and a driver, I know there are cycling law-breakers just as there are motorists who drink, speed, talk and text on their mobiles. It is not as black and white as Angela would like.

Here at CTC we believe it is not ok for cyclists to break the law, jump red lights and cycle on pavements. We also say that education and investment in better infrastructure and roads would help everyone, whether they are on two wheels or four.

I think as cyclists we need to do more to win the emotional argument, as the facts and figures, although important, are not changing the stereotypes drivers have about cyclists."

Victoria Hazael, CTC Senior Communications Officer  

Car-centric culture

I believe Angela's assumptions about cycling come from something deep-rooted in the UK society that came in with popularity of driving and the boom in car sales in the 1950s, i.e. that roads are for cars and that bikes are not really a valid form of transport -  they are for sport, athletes or very poor people who can't afford a car.

Angela admits she cycles on off-road paths and doesn't use the road. I believe that if you don't cycle on the roads you have the potential to misinterpret most cyclists' behaviour as aggressive. Equally, I feel that there is a lot that drivers need to know about cyclists - otherwise drivers like Angela will keep on getting upset that we are not riding dangerously in the gutter out of her way. 

Look at places like Holland and Denmark where a large proportion of drivers also cycle regularly. There is more understanding there, and less of a polarisation of views. They also have much better infrastructure too, which no doubt helps. 

Campaigning for change

So, as someone who cycles regularly, what can you do about it? You can complain, you can get angry and you can campaign with us, but perhaps the most important thing you can do is to talk to any friend or member of your family who's ranting about  "bl**dy cyclists", and invite them out for a ride.

I think as cyclists we need to do more to win the emotional argument, as the facts and figures although important, are not changing the stereotypes drivers have about cyclists. 

Hopefully, Ned Boulting will go for a cycle ride with Angela Epstein, helping her to understand that the great majority of cyclists don't think they can do anything they like; and that it is important that, when she sees a 'bl**dy cyclist' on the road, to remember that s/he is probably a driver too and a real person, not just a stereotype. 

Sponsored Advert
Sponsored Advert
Sponsored Advert
Sponsored Advert
Sponsored Advert
Sponsored Advert


People read newspapers that relects their own prejudices and journalist produce articles for their audience. She implies in the R4 interview that motorists always get the blame for accidents resulting from cyclists breaking the law, e.g. jumping lights. I would like to understand where the evidence is for that. If you are stupid enough to jump lights and get hit by a car you probably would not be be in a condition to run off afterwards!

I am not so sure about Dutch drivers. Quite a few years ago, 10 or 12, I experienced a few incidents with especially caravans overtaking me far too closely, noticing NL license plates. I worked out that since the Netherlands have many cycle tracks, those drivers likely were not all that used to sharing the road with cyclists.

On the other hand, talking with some Dutch Audax cyclists, they hate the cycle paths in the same way I do, poor surfaces, idiotic junctions, give way signs for every minor road and driveway, and prefer to cycle in the road. However, Dutch drivers do not like that and blow horns. The outcome is that Audax routes avoid roads where there are cycle paths.

That is not quite the British view of cycling in Netherlands.

I would have to agree with roddalitz about Dutch drivers once one is cycling away from cycle provision, there are a substantial minority of drivers in the Netherlands who put cyclists at risk.

Another risk I have come across quite often and one we should bear in mind should we ever have decent infrastructure, concerns large groups of gaudily glad, mostly adrenalin pumping males, rushing about on cycle paths. They appear to be trying to emulate the drug crazed groups one occasionally sees on the likes of Murdoch TV, covered in advertisements of products of dubious value and beloved of flag waving nationalists who like to boast about, "how we won this or that". These people are bullies on cycle paths meant for the use of people of all abilities and ages. Two weeks ago I was cycling with my partner between Zeewolde and Almere. The path was delightful passing through a wooded glade. As we approached a blind bend, a gang of thirty of these anti social bullies came around the bend at speed towards us. Had we been any closer to the bend the leaders of the group would have certainly run us down. I would therefore have to disagree with roddalitz; cycle paths are not suitable for so called cycle sport of any kind, in the same way as I would not expect to see a group of formula1 cars racing about on the M25.

By the way it is the Netherlands and not Holland when referring to the nation as a whole.

Indeed, Holland is a province, rather like referring to the UK as "England."

I am not disagreeing! Cycle paths are no use at all for cycle sport, and they are extremely limited use for long-distance touring. When I cycled part of the North Sea Cycle Route from Harwich to Berwick, there were a few times when the NCN signs were a welcome guide through towns, but many more times like near Holy Island, where the European NSCR and British NCN-1 took a muddy track through a field full of sheep - and sheep droppings. There are too many places where NCN routes take 3km over wood chips to avoid 1km of road with motor vehicles