Projection bias, highway hegemony, and why cyclists rent the road, they don’t own it

Bloody cyclists. Don't pay road tax blah de blah

“They think they own the road”: This is a common criticism of cyclists from a large minority of motorists, a gripe seen on forum postings and letters to newspapers the world over.

It would be laughable if it wasn’t meant so seriously. Do you really think you, a cyclist, own the road? A highway, let’s face it, dominated by speeding hulks of steel, glass and angst?

What the kvetchers mean is this: cyclists get in the way of the real owners of the road, motorists.

Cyclists do get in the way at times, and usually for good reason. Sometimes we have to assert our (equal) right to be on the road, a road knowingly shared with motorised vehicles. This assertion normally takes the form of ‘taking the lane’, such as claiming a bit more roadspace when coming towards a pinch-point like one of those small islands with a couple of bollards on. You know, the sort of road furniture that was installed to slow down drivers but which is often seen as a finishing line, to be reached before the soft, squishy cyclist up ahead.

When we dare to grab, for a few seconds, a little bit of real estate for protection, some motorists view that as an act of implied ownership.

How dare we delay them for two seconds? Their time is worth more than our breath.

Grabbing that real estate isn’t a cyclist demonstrating ownership of the road, it’s more like a fleeting rental. As soon as we’re past the pinch-point, back to near the gutter we go, letting the car speed past (until we catch up with them at the next traffic lights).

We have no exoskeletons, we know our place. Why? Because cars and trucks are bigger than us, we’re really in no position to pick fights with vehicles many times our mass and many times faster than us (in the sales brochures, if not always in urban reality) and many times more bruising and crushing than us. A car roof may get the odd slap now and again, from cyclists who may have just had their life threatened, but, in the grand scheme of things, puny flesh and blood can do little against armoured speed.

Of course, we’re fleet of foot and can jiggle through gaps cars can’t, so is this why it’s said we own the roads, because we can percolate? Probably not. That’s just an irritation for the driver who has been sold a dream of ‘the freedom of the road’ but never gets it because there are too many other road-dreamers out there too, the tragedy of the commons.

Some motorists suffer from entitlement issues and project those feelings on to others, including cyclists. According to psychologists, projection bias is a defence mechanism whereby one ‘projects’ one’s own thoughts, motivations, desires, and feelings onto someone else. And it’s not just cyclists who get tarred with this Freudian brush, anybody not the motorist risks being an offender.

A motorist will often say they are stuck in traffic, no inkling that they’re an intrinsic part of the blockage. Motorists in front of them are “road hogs”. Motorists going faster than them are “speed-demons” and hence dangerous. Motorists going slower than them are “slow-coaches” and hence dangerous.

Now, not all motorists are this neurotic, this confused. There are some angelic drivers out there, always ceding the right of way, bending to the weak, happy to go slow near schools, never flooring it at the first opportunity, never to be seen with a phone clamped to their collective ear. It’s the minority of bad drivers who have the chip on the shoulder, the need to project the they think they own the road thing on to cyclists.

Scofflaw Driver License Plate USA

Talking about bad drivers, it’s been a while since Nigel Havers has been featured on a cycling blog. As he thinks all of us – all of us, mind – are “bastards”, it’s always good to wheel him out as a bogeyman now and again.

Naturally, he’s said the projection phrase, and on a number of occasions and in a number of places. Hand in hand with the they think they own the roads schtick, is the they don’t pay road tax gibe.

“Why is it that cyclists think the long and winding road was built specifically and only for them? What gives cyclists the right to flout the rules of the road (which, incidentally, I pay for)?”
Sunday Times, 2007

“They think they are all green and motorists are all ungreen. It’s that holier than thou attitude I hate…I was asked what annoys me most. I said cyclists, because they are all bastards…”
The Sunday Times, June 2006

“Unlike motorists, who individually pay hundreds, even thousands, of pounds a year in road tax and petrol duty, sustaining the upkeep of the network, cyclists get free use of our streets. Just as they pay no tax but use the roads freely, so cyclists are subject to absolutely no parking restrictions. Cyclists have certainly changed in recent years. They think the rest of us are idiots and that they are the gods of the road.”

But here’s the kicker:

“Moral superiority does not lie in boasting of green awareness while marauding around the streets. It really belongs to those who are aware of the needs of others and of wider society, even if they are seated behind the wheel of a car.”
Daily Mail, June 2006

So, there you have it. Motorists are morally superior and are aware of the needs of others.

What colour is the sky in Nigel Havers’ world?

He suffers from motormyopia, a blindness fused with a touch of me-myself-I bigotry.

And because motormyopians believe they’ve paid for the road, anybody who they perceive to be freeloaders on “their” roads must be accused of the very trait being complained about.

And Nigel Havers isn’t alone. Far from it. There’s a Facebook group called i hate cyclists who think they own the road (2289 people have liked it) and a poster to the forum said:

“Every cyclist that I see thinks they own the road and can do what they like to hold up motorists even though they don’t pay road tax, if a car is paying road tax to use the roads surely cyclists should pay road tax too given the amount of nuisance they cause.

“Cyclists, horses etc have a legal right to the roads but they should not inconvenience cars, car drivers paying tax get priority on the road IMHO.” is a site is all about how motorists do not directly pay for roads.

A motorist has equal rights on the road, not superior rights.

But, for some thinkers, this right to equal space is not carried through to its logical conclusion. Enrique Peñalosa, the former Mayor of Bogata, and creator of that city’s bike path network, recently said:

“If all citizens are equal before the law, a bus with a hundred passengers has a right to a hundred times more road space than a car with one person. This is not communism, this is basic democracy. A child with a tricycle has the same right to road space as a car driver. Equality!”

The ‘they think they own the roads’ projection bias isn’t just a psychological funny, it can have real world consequences. Drivers have been known to target cyclists, aiming their cars at bones that break.

University of Alberta associate professor of Public Health J. Peter Rothe researched projection bias and the tragedy of the commons for his book Driven to Kill: Vehicles As Weapons.

He wrote:

“Self-interest in traffic, from a psychoanalyst’s view, stems from the fact that people are the centre of their own worlds, seeking what they believe is in their best interest and avoiding that which is not in their interest. The search for personal best interest beyond all other goals leads us into competitive situations with others who also seek what is best for them. This is nowhere more evident than on public roadways.”

But there’s light at the end of the tunnel. The increase in hate comments against cyclists – facilitated and fuelled by the internet – perhaps indicates we’re being noticed. To some motorists we’re still an out-group, but a growing one. This threatens their hegemony of the highways. Expect much more projection bias down the road.

++++++++++ is an ironically-named campaign supporting the road rights of cyclists. The message that cyclists have equal rights on the roads is carried on iPayRoadTax t-shirts and jerseys.

  • Jack Thurston

    The Mayor of Bogotu00e1 sounds like my kind of mayor. And quite right too. Transport planners should be trained to think about moving people, not moving vehicles.

  • carltonreid

    He had big balls, for sure. The Bogota bike path network is an inspirational example of what can be done by individual politicians who genuinely believe in the greater good.nnSadly, I see no such figure in the UK, not on the Right, not on the Left, not even from the Greens.

  • A V Lowe

    Carlton we did have such thinking from David Begg in his early years as convenor of Lothian Region’s Transport in a double act with George Hazel – then director of Transportation – the tellngly different choice of departmental name for what most Councils called their ‘Roads’ department nnIn creating Edinburgh’s Greenway bus network he faced the challenge from motorists by pointing out the in the head count stakes the Edinburgh bus services were carrying 50% of the people moving along in motor vehicles so giving the buses 50% of the space (2 lanes on the 4-lane arterial roads) was so logical even a Mr Spock would be happy. In London where around 25% of traffic crossing the Thames is cyclists, and some streets have cycles hitting the level of 50% of the moving traffic, we have strong arguments to call for appropriate percentages of road width to move that traffic.nnBy the same arguments he reasoned that had the M9 been a railway line and not a motorway the poor levels of use would have seen it closed and ripped up. By preference, when I drive South, I tend to leave Glasgow between 00.00 and 02.00 and some nights I’ve seen fewer than 20 other vehicles traveling South between Glasgow and Carlisle – hardly justifies the massive expanse of tarmac and cost of the M74, contrasting immensely with the near silent progress of ’000′s of tons of freight on the adjacent rail line at the same time.

  • carltonreid

    All excellent points, Dave.

  • B C Cletts

    Depending on your definition of ownership Might I suggest that if you own a house it is quite possible that you do actually own the road – or at least you own the land on which that road sits. I own 22 ft 6″ of road about 24 ft wide at the front of my house, and should there be no reasonable case to make that it is essential to let the public pass between 2 places I’d be delighted to apply under s79 (I think that is right for this part of the world) to relieve the roads authority of the burden of maintaining something which is surplus to their requirements (and help them make a dent in that big repairs bill they have at present.nnBy observation I do see that when cars are parked, as they often are, ony about 35% 0f the road width is actually required to deliver the required functionality, so in the absence of relieving the authority of the entire cost of maintaining the road I would be happy for the remaining 65% of road width to revert to me as land-owner, as this will provide a wonderful opportunity to plant a fine display of spring bulbs and evergreen shrubs to provide a pleasing view from the front windows.nnI urge all roads authorities to consider this great opportunity in most towns, to significantly cut their bill for road repairs – examples here in the very recent past include the Local University as owner of all properties on one cul de sac, taking the road back as a staff car park, and the head office of a major National Newspaper incorporating several streets into their the city centre complex. Sadly one development has created more of a problem, as the shopping centre built over 2 very significant routes to bus and rail stations, closes its doors at the very times you want to get quickly to catch a bus or train. nnIncidentally I do pay handsomely for my local roads – around u00a3600/year of the Council Tax goes on Roads & Transportation – probably more than some car owners pay….

  • carltonreid

    Good luck with that, Mr Frontager!

  • Steven Fleming

    Well researched! As some kind of protest, we cyclists could all make a point of reverse parking :)

  • skippy mc carthy

    THose that strap themselves into their vehicle and charge around the road system with little care for V unerable R oad U sers are demonstrating their “inferiority” as human beings ! They should be “pitied” since they have this defect of character that may not be visible to their friends and family but is all too apparent to other road users . nPerhaps they had a deprived childhood when others “bullied ” them or took their toys ?nnDriving licenses are a “privelege” not a “right” so those that choose to behave so carelessly around V R U should not expect any sympathy WHEN the authorities decide that their behaviour is no longer to be tolerated .nnSince it has been a while that i have seen a “ipayroadtax” post , i wonder if the road users around Manchester have been somewhat better behaved ?nnConsidering that road traffic generally moves at a slower pace than cyclists do in the “rush hours” perhaps speed limits should be reduced and then more motorists will be relieved of the impetus to accelerate from one stoppage to the next ?nn

  • carltonreid

    I wouldn’t know, it’s been a while since I was in Manchester. But I wouldn’t have thought anything has changed for the better.

  • Shadyade

    Why call this site IPAYROADTAX? Why not just call it Ridiculously Biased Whining About How Maligned Cyclists Are? Your stereotyping and generalisations fit nicely with your hypocritical rantings. Another site to add to the ‘If you want to a laugh, then visit this site to listen to the whingers and moaners’ bookmark list. Seriously, do you think this site does us (yes, I’m a cyclist) any favours or just adds weight to the cost-minimised-transportation drivers argument?

  • carltonreid

    You’re entitled to your opinion.nnRead what the Economist said about the site yesterday:

  • Karla Jordan

    So, you respond by whinging and whining?nnIn answer to your question; if one single belligerent blinkered hater stops using the term “road tax” and understands that everyone, regardless of their mode of transportation, has a right to use the road unmaligned, unmolested and uninjured, then yes, it will have done every cyclist a favour.

  • Karla Jordan

    (and I’m a car driver AND a cyclist).