Why do people hate cyclists?

One of the reasons, of course, is because cyclists are deemed to be “free-riders”, and don’t pay their fair-share for use of the road. This erroneous belief is easily batted out of the park but it’s mentioned time and time again in newspaper letter pages, newspaper columns and on radio phone-in shows. The BBC is hosting just such a programme tonight and is asking “Why do people hate cyclists.” Mark Ames of ibikelondon is going up against Keith Peat, the former policeman who hates cyclists with all of his being (his multiple twitter feeds attest to this and he also writes to local newspapers, sometimes getting banned when making insensitive comments about cyclists killed by motorists). [[EDIT: After complaints on Twitter and elsewhere, the BBC has now amended Tom Stafford’s article: “13/02 UPDATE: We’ve changed a sentence in the third paragraph that readers said implied all cyclists break rules. This was not the intended implication of the original line, and we thank the readers who pointed this out.” Apparently, Stafford is a cyclist and didn’t mean some of the things he wrote.]]

{{A FURTHER UPDATE: Writers with platforms – such as blogs and columns hosted by the BBC – will always be scrutinised more closely than the loons who spout cyclist hate on Twitter or in local newspapers. Loose thinking is quickly pounced upon, and dissected to a degree that perhaps surprises the original author. This seems to be the case with Tom Stafford, author of the now-heavily-revised article which can be read below. To his credit he has penned a mea culpa on his own blog. “I screwed up,” he admits. “Unfortunately, I included some loose words in my article that implied things I don’t believe and wasn’t arguing.” Stafford added: “I should have been a lot clearer than I was…Lots of people thought I was a frustrated driver who hated cyclists. In fact, the bike is my main form of transport…For this article I was trying not to sound like the self-righteous cycling proto-fascist I feel like sometimes. I obviously succeeded. Perhaps too well.”}}


The first answer should be an easy one for Mark. If somebody hates a large group of human beings, that’s irrational and should be lumped in with racism and all the other -isms. The BBC wouldn’t air a programme titled ‘Why do people hate Muslims?’

Perhaps the programme is linked to a rather strange article on BBC Worldwide? It’s not available to UK viewers but I’ve cut-and-pasted a chunk of it here. [[Also now available, in full, here.]]

It shows that the BBC can commission an article from an otherwise sensible, sane academic who – one assumes – wouldn’t come out with this kind of loose thinking on other topics. Tom Stafford, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Sheffield, appears to be talking about prejudices held by others but it seems rather obvious that he shares the belief system he’s writing about.

Why you really hate cyclists

The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers. By Tom Stafford.

Something about cyclists seems to provoke fury in other road users. If you doubt this, try a search for the word “cyclist” on Twitter. As I write this one of the latest tweets is this: “Had enough of cyclists today! Just wanna ram them with my car.” This kind of sentiment would get people locked up if directed against an ethic minority or religion, but it seems to be fair game, in many people’s minds, when directed against cyclists. Why all the rage?

I’ve got a theory, of course. It’s not because cyclists are annoying. It isn’t even because we have a selective memory for that one stand-out annoying cyclist over the hundreds of boring, non-annoying ones (although that probably is a factor). No, my theory is that motorists hate cyclists because they think they offend the moral order.

Driving is a very moral activity – there are rules of the road, both legal and informal, and there are good and bad drivers. The whole intricate dance of the rush-hour junction only works because everybody knows the rules and follows them: keeping in lane; indicating properly; first her turn, now mine, now yours. Then along comes a cyclist, who seems to believe that the rules aren’t made for them, especially the ones that hop onto the pavement, run red lights, or go the wrong way down one-way streets.

You could argue that driving is like so much of social life, it’s a game of coordination where we have to rely on each other to do the right thing. And like all games, there’s an incentive to cheat. If everyone else is taking their turn, you can jump the queue. If everyone else is paying their taxes you can dodge them, and you’ll still get all the benefits of roads and police.

In economics and evolution this is known as the “free rider problem”; if you create a common benefit – like taxes or orderly roads – what’s to stop some people reaping the benefit without paying their dues?

So now we can see why there is an evolutionary pressure pushing motorists towards hatred of cyclists. Deep within the human psyche, fostered there because it helps us co-ordinate with strangers and so build the global society that is a hallmark of our species, is an anger at people who break the rules, who take the benefits without contributing to the cost. And cyclists trigger this anger when they use the roads but don’t follow the same rules as cars.

Now, cyclists reading this might think “but the rules aren’t made for us – we’re more vulnerable, discriminated against, we shouldn’t have to follow the rules.” Perhaps true, but irrelevant when other road-users perceive you as breaking rules they have to keep. Maybe the solution is to educate drivers that cyclists are playing an important role in a wider game of reducing traffic and pollution. Or maybe we should just all take it out on a more important class of free-riders, the tax-dodgers.

This piece is stuffed with half-baked untruths that you’d think a psychologist would spot from a mile away. It assumes all motorists are law-abiding and play by the rules (we know that’s not true) and that a majority of cyclists don’t play by the rules (stats show that it’s a minority who run reds etc, and let’s face it, when High Court judges run reds in their fast cars, doing 64mph in 30mph zones, there are no newspaper columnists readying ‘I hate all motorists’ pieces).

If the BBC wanted a psychologist to do a good piece on why *some* motorists hate cyclists, they should commission Ian Walker. In an interview in The Psychologist Prof Walker said:

For a long time I wondered if the outgroup status of cyclists was compounded by two other known social psychological factors: norms and majority vs. minority groups. Not only are cyclists an outgroup, they’re also a minority outgroup. Moreover, they are engaging in an activity that is deemed slightly inappropriate in a culture that views driving as normative and desirable and, arguably, views cycling as anti- conventional and possibly even infantile.
But even adding these factors into the mix does not explain all the anger that cyclists experience. It’s easy to identify other minority outgroups whose behaviour similarly challenges social norms but who do not get verbally and physically attacked like cyclists do: vegetarians, for example. So there’s clearly one or more important variables that we’ve not identified yet. Any social psychologists looking for a challenge are very welcome to wade into this.

The lack of understanding of the cyclist outgroup seems to produce measurable changes in other road users’ behaviour. A few years ago I did a study which showed that changing the appearance of a cyclist led to notable changes in how much space drivers left when passing the bicycle. The specific changes seen make sense given the small body of research on non-cyclists’ stereotypes of cyclists. The two extant studies – the Lynn Basford et al. one, and research by Birgitta Gatersleben and Hebba Haddad, in 2010 – both found that non-cyclists view bicycle helmets as an indicator of an experienced rider, and in my data we saw riskier behaviour from drivers when they passed a cyclist who was wearing a helmet, which fits the idea they saw the rider as more capable.

The positive lesson from this, I feel, is that drivers do adjust their behaviour to the perceived needs of the non-drivers they are interacting with. The problem is that they do not always understand how to read these other people and judge their needs.

It’s give and take out there, but some motorists are better at taking than giving. As we all have to share the road it would be nice to think common decency overrode these destructive feelings of hatred of one group.

Not all cyclists are angels, just as not all pedestrians (or motorists) are angels. But there’s zero room for hatred on the roads. And might is never right. Here, from another of my sites, is an illustration of why sharing a finite space (roads) sometimes makes people angry and full of irrational hatred:

"Get Off The Road!" Fougasse 1935


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Road tax doesn’t exist. The ironically-named iPayRoadTax.com helps spread this message on cycle jerseys.