Friday 30 January 2009

The Outlaw Cyclist

Many years ago when I worked for a computer company on the Cambridge Science Park, a circular came around telling us that the then available informal cyclists entrance at the Western end of the site was being closed because undesirables came through it. This resulted in those of us who cycled to the Science Park having to make a considerable detour to use the always open car entrance at the Eastern end of the park.

Many years later the entrance in the photo above was built - joining up not with a road or cycle path but with some waste ground at the other side next to a disused railway. The photo shows how the cycle and pedestrian entrance to the Cambridge Science Park is closed during night-time hours for "security reasons".

Show larger map Initially, the parallel road for motor vehicles had no restrictions on it at all. When it gained a gate and restrictions, the hours were more generous. The front entrance still provides very generous 24 hour per day access for any size of motor vehicle including anonymous Ford Transit vans which were once used in 95% of all robberies. Logic would suggest that these vans are more likely to be used by criminals than bicycles, but the time restriction on the bicycle gate of the Science Park has nothing to do with logic.

How does one explain the need for cyclists to be kept out of the Science Park when it is possible to drive a truck along the roads into and through the Science Park at any time of day or night ? I am pretty sure that the majority of England's criminals, like the majority of other people in that country, are drivers. However, cyclists are painted as being "outlaws" and a greater threat - even though you'd be doing very well indeed to carry off as much swag in a bike basket as in a car or on a truck.

The answer to this mystery is to be found in sociology. In societies like the UK's, where only a small number of people cycle, cyclists are an out-group. Apart from cyclists being considered to be on the edges of society, and quite possibly criminal, cyclists also suffer from homogeneity bias. An example of this is the way in which newspapers in the UK often carry accusations of cyclists "all" being law-breakers.

Well intentioned campaigns to improve the position of cyclists in society by improving their behaviour, such as those to encourage cyclists to always stop at red traffic lights fail due to a mis-understanding of what causes cyclists to be disliked in the first place.

While many people in places with little cycling may express that they dislike cyclists because of such things as going through red lights, this is simply an expression of a dislike due to cyclists being cyclists. If it were not red lights that they commented on, it would be something else (as demonstrated by this letter, or this one). In some places, even providing sidewalks is thought to draw in undesirables (see comments here).

There is only one way to improve the public perception of cyclists, and that is to make cycling attractive enough that everyone becomes a cyclist. For this to be the case, cycling must be safe as well as direct and convenient.

Of course, some cyclists genuinely are outlaws. Here's a video of Great Train Robber Bruce Reynolds talking about cycling. But bear in mind that while some outlaws are cyclists, that does not imply that all cyclists are outlaws:

Read other posts about campaigning for more cycling when cyclists are an out-group.

To illustrate this phenomena I had to use a photo taken when we still lived in Cambridge and links to letters to the newspaper there as this sort of thing simply doesn't happen here. In this society, cycling is a normal thing. It is part of everyone's life. As a result, newspaper letters pages and editorials are free of complaints about "outlaw cyclists" even though the actual behaviour of cyclists here is quite similar to elsewhere, and there are no arbitrary restrictions against cyclists. Quite the reverse in fact.


cocosolis said...

Hang on a minute: your sociological analysis is fine, but bad cycling, like bad driving or indeed any inconsiderate use of the road (eg dangerous pedestrians!) is not to be condoned. And the law, in my view, is not to be broken except in exceptional circumnstances.

As for the letters you quote, one is definitely whacky (make us standarise lights location and height!) but... what's wrong with demanding that cyclists should have lights?

spiderleggreen said...

Sounds like America. Read the comments in this piece and you'd think we were resurrecting the USSR.

Yep, we're up against some stiff resistance.

Dave Feucht said...

I think this is probably pretty typical of anywhere in the U.S. as well - even in Portland where we tend to be a little less car-focused (we don't have people complaining about building sidewalks typically), when it snows, they only plow the roads, and the bike lanes and sidewalks end up all but completely impassable, even though it's still dangerous to drive.

A couple of things have happened recently that are encouraging - Oregon legislature is pushing to pass a law saying that cyclists can treat stop signs as yield signs - that is, they can approach them cautiously, and roll through them without stopping if there is nobody to yield to. This will help to quell the "cyclists always break the law by not stopping at stop signs" bit, while encouraging a perfectly safe behavior making it more convenient for cyclists.

A number of the city planners have been working on a big research project regarding transportation and are looking at starting some serious example projects related to making our infrastructure more bike/pedestrian friendly, and looking at ways to couple bicycle and pedestrian routes with our already very able public transit system in a real and meaningful way (not more bike lanes that terminate suddenly and dump you into automobile traffic).

We making small steps, and moving to slightly bigger steps - at least we're going the right direction.

David Hembrow said...

Coco, I don't condone breaking the law and I recommend lights also.

The point of the article is to point out disproportionality in the treatment of cyclists.

If the letter writers were truly interested in the safety of our roads, they would also complain about bad drivers as they leave a far greater trail of death and destruction. However, such complaints are comparatively rare.

These writers are really criticising cycling and cyclists, not errant behaviour. They also criticise legal behaviours that they don't like, such as not wearing bright enough clothing or riding two abreast or carrying a child on a bike (irresponsible parent) etc.

Because cars are "normal", the injury and death rate is considered to be an inevitable consequence of modern life. Nothing to complain about.

If you call the police after a driver runs into you, you may well find that they side with the errant driver despite any amount of evidence that they should not. A few years back when I lived in Cambridge (UK) I was assaulted by a driver who was incandescent with rage after he overtook a vehicle on his side of the road and hit me head-on. The police response to me was that "cyclists break all sorts of laws and ride through red lights" though it had no relevance to this case at all.

Drivers stick together. They are the in-group. They are "normal" people. Cyclists are out-laws.

People don't necessarily think very logically about their biases, but in the minds of many the roads have become the rightful domain of the car and driver, and of no others. In their minds, bikes don't belong. It's not the same here.

Here in NL it is different. Newspapers don't carry anti-cycling editorials or letters. I have yet to see a single line of criticism printed. We do, however, sometimes see complaints that things aren't getting better for cyclists quickly enough.

Dave Feucht said...

It's interesting to note that pretty much every traffic-related fatality is a result of a motor vehicle.

You don't hear about too many people dying in a single bike accident, or a bike-bike accident, or a bike-pedestrian accident.

Yet an automobile driver not paying attention and hitting a pedestrian or cyclist that they should have been yielding to barely makes the local media, and always with a "the cyclist wasn't wearing a helmet," even if the cyclist's head wasn't injured at all. So of course, the accident was really the cyclist's fault, because he wasn't wearing a helmet. Clearly it would have all been different otherwise.

Nearly every single person makes a habit of driving at least 5mph over the speed limit here, and it seems as though people only use their turn signals about 30% of the time, but yet a small percentage of cyclists not yielding at stop signs infuriates people.

At least now we have some verbage coming down from the federal government stating that a car-focused infrastructure is not ideal and we need to change it, specifically to *increase* our standard of living.

Here's hoping for better things to come...

Anonymous said...

I can't be bothered to correct wikipedia, but the term outgroup comes from Tajfel and Turner's Social Identity Theory, and it's social psychology, not sociology.

Sorry, these things matter to US. We wouldn't what THEM sociologists claiming credit.

It's a fascinating area of research (esp minimal group paradigm), and often used in crowd behaviour. I can't find an example of it applied to cyclists (like critical mass), but it's often applied to protests and rioters. Steve Reicher's work is interesting, particularly the Battle of Westminster, Italia 90 and the Bristol St Pauls riots.

David Hembrow said...

DrMekon, I am but an amateur, so I thank you for your correction. It is of course always vitally important in any human endeavour to make sure we can tell US from THEM.

David said...

Thanks for the commentary, David. There have been some nice pieces written lately debunking "outlaw cyclist" claims in the US. One often-cited is The Myth of the Scofflaw Cyclist, by WashCycle.

There is also a further element to the sociology/social psychology/anthropology (don't sue me if I got that wrong). That is, many people in the US, and increasingly in other countries, are taking up bicycling BECAUSE it is outside the dominant cultural paradigm (typified by "car-culture"). If you have a culture, you're likely to have a counter-culture, and in between some boarderline, or liminal, culture. The outsider is the hero of the postmodern age.

There's a lot to talk about here, because cycling exists, I believe, not as much in the counter-culture as in the liminal space. Cyclists is the US have for the most part been invisible. Though this is changing, it is still commonplace, and many cyclist like it this way. It is what allows them to disregard laws that are designed for motorists but, according to statue at least, apply to bicyclists as well.

Groups of cyclists, mostly young people, identifying with the cultural characteristics of self-proclaimed "outlaw cyclists" are blossoming in cities around the world (or perhaps just making themselves visible through new media technology). These cultural referenceshe provide sense of identity to individuals who feel dispossessed by corporatized and comodified culture.

I know I'm making huge generalizations here, and I have to process these ideas some more.

In anycase, you can see the bleed into mainstream culture through the usual entry points: the arts, political activism, and fashion. Messenger-chic is ubiquitous, the phrase "messenger bag" is often applied to anything that doesn't qualify as a backpack. These things used to be called "breifcases" or "shoulder-bags." For further evidence, take a look at the recent spread in Teen Vogue, or wherever, of the frightfully skinny model in the weird semi-bikey getup astride a fixed-gear bike. Even better, a recent display in Macy's featuring an odd cross-over cultural item, here. I suspect the designers in this case were influenced by bicycle culture without even knowing it.

I've gone on too long.

David said...

One more comment, to DrMekon:

Re: social psychology and cycling

There is an identified phenomenon that occurs when cyclists are riding in groups of two or more, most often with one behind the other. Basically, a cyclist will cede responsibility for traffic decisions to the cyclist in front of him, simply following along unaware of traffic lights, stop signs etc. It's as if the following cyclist is in the passenger seat of a car being driven by the person in front of him.

It's most obvious in urban environments, where traffic decisions are more critical and frequent, but it occurs in other environments as well.

It does not occur as often among "incidental groups," formed by individual riders who happen to be riding near each other, as it does in groups of people intensionally riding together for transportation or recreation.

I think this phenomenon deserves some academic study.

David Hembrow said...

David, thanks for your well thought through reply. Not too long at all.

I can't say I see cycling being "counter cultural" as a particularly good thing. The problem is that it then tends to be filled by groups who are even smaller cliques and that helps to push even further away the chance of it ever becoming a mass means of transport.

Cycling has to become a part of the mainstream if it is to become popular - just as driving is part of the mainstream and is considered to be a normal means of transport, so must cycling be "normal". That is how it is here. For someone not to be a cyclist is perhaps worthy of a comment. For them to be a cyclist is not.

Cycle training is provided for immigrants to this country specifically because it helps them to fit into normal Dutch society.

It doesn't of course mean that all cycling has to be mainstream.

As for the Macy's marketing: Unbelievably crass and stupid.

David said...

Right. In order to cycling in The States to become mainstream, it will, to some degree, have to surrender it's counter-culture elements.

Part of this will be learning not to antagonize the un-biked among us, to have compassion for folks trapped in cars, not hatred, fear, or pity. As Dr. Bronner says, we're all one or none.

I like to say that American cycling is perhaps starting to grow out of its adolescence - learn to control its emotions, take on responsibilities, grow up, get a job, have kids. Myself, I still have trouble with some of these ;-)

David said...

Oh, and...

Macy's display wouldn't be so crass if they had fliers telling shoppers about the meaning of ghost bikes, and donated 1% of profits to the cause. Sometimes we can all win. Sometimes.

Ray said...

If everyone becomes a cyclist, then I'd be cycling with everyone, and frankly in this country, I'd much rather not. I'd rather not be identified as a normal American, preferring to be an outlier, as I find many normal American behaviors not to my liking.

David got it right. Many do take up cycling these days as it has been recognized as an outsider culture. I don't necessarily want to be an outsider at middle age (much like aging rockers, it's a bit pathetic) but by now I'm comfortable with it because I've been using a bike and public transit for transportation 30 years now and can find no wrong with it despite it falling outside normal behavior and many people cannot accept it.

The fixie trend of the past few years is ticking off some older cyclists precisely because of the trendiness and seemingly gullible following it has developed and the lack of adopting or respecting the existing cyclist lore and culture.

I'm often irritated by youth trends, but I'm pleased by it because I know many will become lifelong cyclists.

I didn't start riding with any great familiarity of the bicycling culture, in fact I didn't know there was one. I just rode to get places and for personal enjoyment.

It may not be so bad really if cycling in the U.S. normalizes. For example, within the rock-n-roll culture there is plenty of diversity among a restricted genre. Counter-culture exists within subcultures.
Mainstream successful groups are seen as "past it" and sell-outs by many fans of the genre.

And as cycling seems mostly associated with competitive sport and fitness in the USA, instead of practicality, growth in cycling would be welcomed. I guess I'll just have to accept that I won't be as special. I gotta admit, I REALLY like seeing regular families using cargo bikes and trailers.

David H: wrote

"Cycle training is provided for immigrants..."

Wow. We can't even get that for schoolchildren in safety classes, never mind for adults.