Why do people hate cyclists?

Irrational, unbidden hate. Why?

Bradley Wiggins. Victoria Pendleton. Yellow jerseys. Olympic golds. Britain is meant to have fallen in love with cycling. If so, the honeymoon is over, and the hatred is back.

On 26th September I shall be giving a presentation to architects and town planner types at the be2talks in London – “a celebration of technology, social media and the built environment” – and will spend 12 minutes discussing some of the many positives about urban cycling. However, first I will spend three minutes on the irrational hatred directed at cyclists on social media. You really don’t have to go very far before finding this sort of stuff. Using search terms ‘cyclist’ and ‘road tax’ will bring up lots of unbidden hate.

Sometimes the hatred is spouted by incoherent dunderheads but there’s also plenty spouted by what appear to be, from reading their Twitter timelines, otherwise reasonable people.

Thing is, both the dunderheads, and the otherwise sane and sensible, have cars, and don’t appear to like sharing roadspace with cyclists. These people are driving around on public roads with an amazing amount of hatred bubbling under the surface. How many unthinking near-misses are actually ‘I’ll teach that cyclist a lesson’ near-misses? How many cyclist deaths have been caused by these sort of ‘roads were built for cars’ attitude?

The highly ingrained beliefs that “all cyclists run red lights” and “all cyclists ride on the pavement” are part of the problem (and, yes, motorists habitually break traffic laws and routinely park on the pavements cyclists are supposed to hog) but the hatred goes deeper than that.

In this month’s issue of The Psychologist Bath University’s traffic specialist Dr Ian Walker believes this hatred is a manifestation of more than just hatred against an “out group”:

“A report from the Transport Research Laboratory and University of Strathclyde a few years ago led by Lynn Basford suggested that there’s some classic social psychology at work here – cyclists represent an outgroup such that the usual outgroup effects are seen, particularly overgeneralisation of negative behaviour and attributes – ‘They all ride through red lights all the time’. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that something of this sort is going on.

“However, there has to be more to it than just this. For a long time I wondered if the outgroup status of cyclists was compounded by two other known social psychological factors: norms and majority vs. minority groups. Not only are cyclists an outgroup, they’re also a minority outgroup. Moreover, they are engaging in an activity that is deemed slightly inappropriate in a culture that views driving as normative and desirable and, arguably, views cycling as anti- conventional and possibly even infantile.

“But even adding these factors into the mix does not explain all the anger that cyclists experience. It’s easy to identify other minority outgroups whose behaviour similarly challenges social norms but who do not get verbally and physically attacked like cyclists do: vegetarians, for example. So there’s clearly one or more important variables that we’ve not identified yet. Any social psychologists looking for a challenge are very welcome to wade into this.”

Hatred isn’t confined to social media, of course. Shockjocks and columnists in national newspapers also like to take potshots at cyclists. There’s a huge number of such diatribes and columns, way too many to list here but here’s a fresh one, from today. It’s by Helen Martin in The Scotsman. It’s a “I’m not a racist but…” piece.

Sweetly, she claims: “Whatever ardent cyclists believe, no driver wants to cause them harm or sets out to make their two-wheeled journey more treacherous than it need be.” [She needs to hang out a bit more on Twitter and YouTube…]

But then comes the sugar-coated invective:

“Now whole swathes of our roads are marked for cycles only. And even more funding is going on further development and maintenance. There is no point in any of us shelling out this money if cyclists refuse to use the lanes specifically created and marked for them.

“Watch out for the number of cyclists who reject their own lanes in favour of the rest of the road (car lanes, if you will) and you might be amazed by the day’s total.

“This is extremely dangerous behaviour that poses a threat to themselves and drivers. If we have cycle lanes we expect cyclists to be in them, not dodging traffic in the rest of the road and popping up where we least expect them. Is it really so outrageous to suggest that, where there is a cycle lane, cyclists should be fined for not using it?”

This is the columnist who started her article by saying: “I admire cyclists. I really do.” With friends like this etc. etc.

Ms Martin doesn’t want to share roads with cyclists, they should be on cycle paths provided for them and if they stray, fine ’em! Ms Martin has clearly never been on a UK cycle path, she isn’t aware most of them are poorly designed, don’t link up and are rarely maintained. Some facilities!

All of the hatred on social media and in the press matters because it’s not marginal, it’s mainstream. I’ve had many long discussions with pro-cycling MPs who say it’s incredibly tough to get any truly transformational cycling policies out of the powers-that-be because the hatred runs too deep. We know cycling is benign and of benefit to society but that’s far from being a common view in the corridors of local and national power. And, genuinely, how much of a vote winner would it be, in such a car obsessed country, to openly commit to reining back motor-centric policies in favour of cyclists?

Perhaps Britain will become a more cycling-friendly nation in time, until then I’ll leave you with a quote from Peter Zanzottera, senior consultant at transport consultancy Steer Davies Gleave. In 2009 he told the Scottish Parliament’s Transport Committee:

“People love cycling but hate cyclists.”