Stigmatising cyclists? As easy as riding a bike - RSA

Stigmatising cyclists? As easy as riding a bike

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  • 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

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  • Thanks for that Dave - interesting angle. I hadn't thought about cycling being seen as childish, or as that being an explanation for 'macho' cycling behaviour.

    I think you're on the right lines with some sort of campaign to increase public sympathy towards cyclists and cycling - which needs to be combined with work to help and encourage more people to cycle as well as improving the infrastructure.

  • I liked this, Emma. Another possible reason for stigmatising cyclists is that cycling is seen as a child's activity - when we 'grow up' we pass our test and drive a car - so adults who cycle are seen as childish. Hence the 'macho' cyclists who ride around with no lights, use no bell, are generally aggressive to pedestrians and other road users - maybe trying to prove that they are not childish!

    How to change the public's view of cyclists? One way would be to have more public information broadcasts - remember the 'Think Bike' adverts (aimed at 4-wheel drivers to improve motorcycle awareness)? I have a feeling that worked. Imagine a 'Think Bicycle' campaign which increased public sympathy for cyclists - by stressing their vulnerability - and maybe also their eco-kindness. One person pedalling along is no less a road-user than one person driving along in a ton of metal and plastic, burning up fossil fuel - and the cyclist gets fitter at the same time! What's not to like?

  • It's a bit of a chicken & egg scenario. Cycling is a minority thing, and the stigma of cycling makes this mutually reinforcing. So, getting more people to cycle is part of the solution, but how to do that isn't easy...

  • I agree that there is most definitely a stigma associated with cycling. I get abuse and dirty looks on my bike all the time but how do we tackle it thought? Its easy to create an us vs them culture.

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