Generally speaking, there is a commonly held perception that practical cycling and recreational cycling are different things. One is for a utilitarian purpose, and the other is just for fun. When I say “just for fun”, I am referring to what I take as the general public’s perception of recreational cyclists. They’re just out for a play. Like children.
I spend many hours a week cycling “for fun”, but I know, like many others, that it isn’t a pointless or frivolous endeavor at all. Even though I am not going to work, or to the shops, or meeting someone for an appointment (though I am usually doing that when cycling “for fun”), I am doing a very many great things, and no less for my own purposes than anyone in a car. I am maintaining my level of physical health, mental health, relationships, community, and supporting local business, for example, so, in fact, merely riding my bike “for fun” is as important an act as most for maintaining a healthy and functioning society.
I have noticed over the many years that I have been using a bike to get around town on that, in broad terms, utilitarian cyclists don’t get anywhere near the consistent level of flack from people in vehicles that recreational cyclists do. One of the contributory reasons for this is, of course, Lycra. It visually distinguishes recreational (or sport) cyclists from everyone else and makes it exceptionally easy for anyone wishing to take their frustrations with life out at. I find it a little ironic that it’s completely commonplace now for everyone to be walking around in activewear for such athletic activities such as grabbing a coffee with a friend, getting the groceries, or even being at work (“activewear xxxday” is a real thing now in workplaces). In practical terms, the one’s who it would make far more sense to be made fun or for wearing tight-fitting, moisture-wicking, breathable “activewear” are certainly not cyclists.
In any case, aside from Lycra, which is merely low-hanging fruit, what I thought about this morning is this: perhaps people fly into a rage when they see cyclists because they don’t believe that they have a good reason to be there.
Given that I’ve noticed that utility cyclists, in normal clothes, on “normal” bikes, with a backpack or panniers, don’t get as much flack from people in vehicles as “sport” cyclists, I think that there may be something to the idea that because motorists don’t generally like driving, want to get it over and done with as soon as possible, hate delay, and often believe that cyclists make all of this more difficult, that where they may tolerate (to a point) people trying to get to work on a bike, they really get extra frustrated with people who they believe are in their way, holding them up, on their roads, merely because they want to go out for a play on their bicycles.
Case in point. This morning a bunch of us went out for a ride on one of the most beautiful mornings you could ask for. It’s Sunday (as I’m writing this), it’s early, and traffic is virtually non-existent. We’re climbing a long, sinuous road, and coming down in the opposite direction, to be clear, a guy in a car is glaring at us, mouthing something, and shaking his head as he passes.
At the time I just thought, “what an idiot”, but when I thought about it at home, I wondered why someone would be at all put out by a cyclist who is on the other side of the road, not having any involvement in their life whatsoever? The mere sight of someone out for a bike ride being enough to make them upset?
The only thing I can think of is that they feel strongly enough about someone using their roads just to play on. We weren’t in his way at all, but on another day, or even around the next bend, someone could be, and that is enough. What’s more, if we were in his way, it would be for no good reason. Just a bunch of guys in tight-fitting clothing playing on bikes and holding him up. The madness. The injustice.
Again, this is to completely ignore the fact that people use cars to do all sorts of things they don’t need to , including many, many people who just go out for a drive for the sake of going out for a drive. Or to hang out with friends. Or to go to the gym. Or to a movie. Or even to for tasks more commonly considered to be “legitimate”, like driving to work, but when work is 2km away and the car is just parked for the entire day.
I mean, yes, of course part of the tension between motorists and cyclists is that fundamentally some motorists don’t believe that cyclists should be on the road full-stop, and in response to this, in addition to the fact that most cyclists feel (and actually are) physically endangered by people in vehicles, they have a certain attitude towards motorists, and the cycle (pardon the pun) just goes round and round.
Specifically, though, in instances like this morning, where the mere sight of a cyclist at play on the roads sends people in cars into a rage, I think that aspect of their behaviour is influenced by the idea that the cyclist’s reason for being there isn’t good enough. The roads are for serious business, not for play (unless you’re in a car).
Can we address this? Is there a way to educate the general public to accept that cyclists and motorists use the roads for less than urgent reasons, but also that the reasons that we deem to be less than urgent, like health, happiness, and community, are no less important?
Well, segregated cycling infrastructure solves for not only the physical danger of mixing motorists and cyclists, but also for the attitude that they don’t belong. You can’t build good cycling infrastructure everywhere, though, so this problem will remain in many places.
These are areas where educational media campaigns are extremely useful, as long as they aren’t merely “let’s share the road” type messages. They need to hit at the heart of the matter. Run a spot on TV that highlights this similarity. Print an article in the paper that makes this case. Put up some signs on popular cyclist routes that say something along the line of, “Cyclists entitled to use road” (or better, people on bikes, but that’s a bit long for a sign). Show people the irrationality of their thinking and promote the fact that you are no different than I, and I am no different than you. No one’s reasons are better than anyone elses for using the roads, as we are all entitled to. Work or play. Practical or recreational. It makes no difference.
But, I think one of the more powerful campaigns could be one that really lays bare the fact that a staggering percentage of journeys undertaken by motorists aren’t necessary, and that they are exactly like the cyclists they get so worked up about. Hypocrisy can be a pretty reasonable motivator.
As usual, what do you think? Am I barking up the wrong tree? Do you agree? Can you suggest any practical steps for addressing this imbalance?
Header image: The Sticky Bidon