Stigmatising cyclists? As easy as riding a bike - RSA

Stigmatising cyclists? As easy as riding a bike

Blog 9 Comments

  • Social brain
  • Health & wellbeing

I recently outed myself as something of an evangelist for cycling. If everyone took to their bikes instead of cars and buses for short, local journeys, we really could make a massive dent in our carbon emissions.  We’d be fitter, healthier, more energised.

Cycling could even save your life: according to statistics out yesterday, almost 37,000 deaths UK deaths a year are directly caused by physical inactivity. Cycle to the local shops every now and then, and you could avoid being one of them.

In my previous blog post, I wrote about some of the attitudinal barriers to cycling – our perception of danger, of inconvenience, the need to wear special clothing and thereby become part of an in-group clique. The consensus is that these things are relatively minor and that the real hurdle is the lack of a proper infrastructure for cycling, and this is something I’m largely convinced of.

But it occurred to me that there might be something else going on as well. In the past, I’ve carried out detailed research looking at stigma, and I started thinking that maybe cycling, like mental illness (the topic of my doctoral research), is stigmatised.

How have I arrived at this idea? Well, stigma, according to Erving Goffman is a special kind of relationship between attribute and stereotype. Traditionally, stigma is associated with a discrediting characteristic, a taint or mark that prevents an individual from being regarded as normal. Stereotypes about that discrediting characteristic are then applied, wholesale, to anyone who has the attribute, and those people are then ‘othered’ or shunned.

cyclists are viewed as deviant by motorists in particular, but also by wider society

Can this really apply to cyclists? I think so. Cycling is both a minority mode of transport and a marginal activity. Research conducted by the DfT in 2010 showed that cyclists are viewed as deviant by motorists in particular, but also by wider society. If cycling is a minority pursuit, then anyone who engages in it is, by definition, outside the mainstream.

When it comes to imagining what stereotypes might be associated with cyclists the sorts of things that spring to mind include: irresponsible road use (jumping red lights, cycling on pavements, not using lights at night) and green, liberal politics, perhaps more radical than your average Guardian reader.

The DfT paper found that the most commonly held stereotype of cyclists amongst other road users is characterised by two things:

  • A serious failure of attitude including a generalised disregard for the law, combined with a more specific lack of concern for other road users
  • Serious failures of competence and knowledge of the rules of the road

The paper reported that this stereotype of cycling is linked to the fact that cyclists don’t need to undertake training, are unlicensed and uninsured, do not pay road tax* and bikes do not need to pass a test of roadworthiness.

This paints a pretty damning picture, and if these stereotypes really hold true, it’s no wonder that cyclists are so easily ‘othered’ and stigmatised by car users, pedestrians, bus drivers, and people in general.

There are other stigmatising factors at play as well. I have observed that cycling in cities is often regarded as being both dangerous and unpleasant. It follows that anyone choosing to voluntarily take part in an activity that is unsafe and unenjoyable must be a little bit weird. Combine that with the DfT's findings about reckless disregard for the law and a dangerous lack of competence, and you've got a pretty strong set of reasons why someone contemplating taking up cycling would choose not to. Who would want to start doing something that was going to give them that sort of image?

If I'm right, and there is a social stigma attached to cycling and cyclists, perhaps a different sort of approach to encouraging cycling needs to be taken. Sure, infrastructural improvements are definitely needed. But perhaps, in addition to trying to convince people to try riding a bike, we also need to focus on the wider social structures and stigma that make it unappealing.

Time to Change is a campaign to end mental health discrimination. Would it be an absurd idea to launch a comparable campaign to end the stigmatisation of cyclists?

* It is a common misconception that such a thing as road tax exists. Cars are taxed based on CO2 emissions: see for more details

Join the discussion


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

  • It's clear to me there's a stigma around cycling and cyclists. I suppose the difficult issue for those of us who want to see those attitudes change is the relation that it has has to people's actual behaviour.

    I remember a few months back on my way home, I stopped at a red light where a motorist was parked well over the advanced stop line - the box at the front of some junctions that's reserved for cyclists. I gestured to the driver (not in an obscene way!) to point this out. He wasn't happy about this, and wound his window down to berate me. One of the (many) things he shouted was: "why are you even stopping? Why don't you just run the lights like everyone else?"

    I replied curtly that I stop for red lights, and was in fact doing so at that very moment. On cue, a guy in Lycra on an expensive racing bike flew past and straight across the junction. You can imagine what he said next.

    I don't believe for a second that the way cyclists are stigmatised reflects most people's behaviour - but there is a difficult truth that a minority of people do behave in ways that reinforce it. And it's not just running red lights: when I moved to London, I took one of the many free cycle training courses that councils offer. I'd been riding a bike on the road for years on and off, and was alarmed to realise that I'd been getting some pretty basic things wrong.

    I think making cycling widespread needs both talk and action. We should loudly challenge prejudice against cyclists where we find it, and I think a campaign along the lines that you and Dave suggest is a sound idea that I'd happily sign up to. However, it's also important to make that statement through our actions, by cycling responsibly and encouraging others to do the same.

    In that spirit, TFL have a good service for referrals to cycling training in London - - and I'm sure that similar schemes exist elsewhere. It's well worth doing, often free, and (at least in my case) not at all the dull or patronising experience you might expect.

  • Myself and a few others have created what we call Anti-Cycling Bingo. Everytime a negative connotation is raised we try to create a line or a house...


    Its a fun way to highlight how silly people sometimes get towards cyclists.

    I've been riding for many years. I go out of my way to try and be considerate to others, as well as follow the law, but you still get idiots who see you as the enemy. I think this this idiocy is indoctrinated in much the same way as racism or homophobia.

  • There are also a number of self-defined groups within cycling itself that can make access into them difficult and confusing for the new. I was bombarded with info and tech speak at my local bike shop when asking about what type of road bike I should buy. I was left feeling like i didn't know what I was getting myself into.

Related articles