Many motorists run red lights and habitually park with wheels on the pavement. Motor vehicles killed 359 pedestrians in 2011. In cities, cars that can accomodate three or more passengers tend to carry just the driver, leading to congestion and contributing to high levels of air pollution. Yet, for some people, cyclists are the real villains of the piece and the wrong-doings of the minority are projected on to the majority: "all cyclists run red lights" and "all cyclists ride on the pavement".
The sins of a few projected on to the many is one of factors that leads to an irrational hatred of cyclists. You really don’t have to go very far on the internet before finding this sort of stuff. Using search terms ‘cyclist’ and ‘road tax’ on Twitter, for instance, will bring up lots of unbidden hate, or follow @cyclehatred which is a collection of comments from Twitter users who feel it's socially acceptable to write "get off my road" threats against cyclists and joke about knocking into, and even killing, cyclists.
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 decent people.
The highly ingrained beliefs that “all cyclists run red lights” and “all cyclists ride on the pavement” - even though motorists do the same - are part of the problem but the hatred goes deeper than that. It's irrational prejudice, and that's why in The Times yesterday, Edmund King, president of the AA, said invective aimed at cyclists was a "road safety issue."
King has long argued that motorists and cyclists are often the same people and that the 'them and us' mentality must be eradicated. Animosity shown by cyclists to motorists, and by motorists to cyclists, needs to end. He said: "When we release our grip on the steering wheel or handlebars, the differences disappear."
He told The Times that motorist hatred of cyclists was "almost like racial discrimination, there is no good reason for it."
On Tuesday, King had shocked audience members at an annual road safety conference when he read out some of the hate tweets collected by @cyclehatred. For many people, the existence of such irrational hatred against a group of folks who choose to be self-propelled on two wheels came as a great surprise.
But the hatred isn't news to psychologists. In the latest issue of The Psychologist Bath University’s traffic specialist Dr Ian Walker said he believes the hatred shown towards cyclists 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 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.”
Hatred isn’t confined to social media, of course. Shockjocks and columnists in national and local newspapers also like to take potshots at cyclists.
All of the hatred on social media and in the press matters because it’s not marginal, it’s mainstream. Pro-cycling MPs say it’s incredibly tough to get any truly transformational cycling policies out of the powers-that-be because the hatred of cyclists runs deep. When local and national politicians suggest making roads safer for cyclists, some of their colleagues say this shouldn't happen until "cyclists stop running red lights and riding on pavements."
The same good behaviour is not expected of motorists before infrastructure is provided. In 2011, 47 percent of cars exceeded a 30mph speed limit, while 49 percent went faster than 70mph on a motorway. 71 percent of HGVs exceeded the single carriageway 40mph limit in 2011 yet instead of being vilified and chastised for such law breaking, the Government is to trial lifting single carriageway speed limits for HGVs.
Hatred against cyclists isn't a recent phenomenon. In 2009, long before Twitter, Peter Zanzottera, senior consultant at transport consultancy Steer Davies Gleave, told the Scottish Parliament’s Transport Committee:
“People love cycling but hate cyclists.”
It may be painful to talk about the hate shown to cyclists - and perhaps even off-putting for somebody considering starting to cycle, why open yourself to this sort of irrational abuse? - but it's important to uncover the hatred. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.