Normal People, Wearing Normal Clothes, Doing Normal Things

In a previous post I asked what is a cyclist and I identified one group of people who use a bicycle as a simple mode of transport. Former Olympian and professional cyclist Chris Boardman who is now a policy advisor for British Cycling regularly describes this group of cyclists in a country like the Netherlands as normal people, wearing normal clothes, doing normal things. Thanks to the misguided approach of promoting the bike as a mode of transport in this country, we have turned pretty much everyone who doesn’t use a bike against those who do. The level of animosity shown against cyclists borders on psychotic at times but how have we got here? Why are people who simply want to get from A to B on a bike despised so much? Aren’t these just normal people doing normal things?

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How we are advised to dress when commuting by bike.

Well not really, in this country at least (nor in the UK either who we tend to ape on a regular basis). Before anyone is encouraged to sit on a bike to take that short journey to the shop/school/work, they are usually met with the life-saving safety instructions to always wear a helmet and a hi-vis vest. Popping down to the shop? Wear a helmet and high-vis vest. Taking the 10-minute trip to work by bike? Wear a helmet and high-vis vest. By now, most reasonable people would rightly think that if you tell them they need a helmet and ‘safety’ clothing to do something, it must be dangerous. The non-stop repetition of this advice eventually leads to a general acceptance that cycling is dangerous. Who in their right mind would then consider a dangerous mode of transport (a bike) over a safe one (a car) to go anywhere?

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Danger danger! Helmets and hi-viz required!

The sad thing is that cycling is safe when you look at the statistics but people don’t really base their decision to cycle based on ‘actual’ safety levels. People are much more likely to base their decision on the ‘subjective’ safety level of cycling. If something appears unsafe then it’s natural to assume it is unsafe. Rather than the current cheap and lazy option preferred by successive governments and agencies that places the responsibility of improving cycle safety primarily on cyclists, their efforts should instead be focussed solely on the improvement of our shambolic cycle infrastructure. Any cyclist not wearing a helmet or high-vis clothing is now considered as being reckless, as someone almost looking for trouble and partially (if not fully) responsible for any collision with a motor vehicle, regardless of any other circumstances. That transference of responsibility for cycle safety away from motorists and infrastructure onto the cyclist is the biggest problem I have with the constant ‘high-vis and helmet’ promotion but there is another, more subtle, problem being caused based on human behaviour.

Everyone is probably familiar with the concepts of tribes and tribalism. I’m not a sociologist so I won’t try to give a lesson on the subject but at a very basic level, we as human beings are predisposed to forming and aligning with tribes. While we may no longer depend on tribes for survival as we would have in earlier times, that inherent behaviour to be part of a tribe remains with us today. Whether we are aware of it or not, we align ourselves to multiple tribes based on a multitude of identifiers, some more obvious than others – race, nationality, sex, age, interests, hairstyle, favourite sports team, etc. Subconsciously, tribalism affects our behaviour more than we would like to acknowledge. Tribalism creates a ‘them and us’ attitude. Look at how politics is affected by tribalism.  Civilised discourse has been abandoned in favour of simplistic, debilitating and antagonistic ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ style arguments. Tribalism enhances polarisation of views and reduces our ability to empathise with those who we consciously or subconsciously align with the other tribe, those who we consider different from us.

This is what’s happening on our streets between those on bikes and those in motor traffic. Many motorists have little or no empathy for those on bikes. They don’t see them as equals on the road. Cyclists are different to them. But what identifies them as different. Well the bike is the obvious thing but what about the helmet? What about the high-viz jacket? Combine these items with the bicycle and motorists can see little in common between themselves and those on a bike so is it any wonder there is little empathy between motorists and cyclists?

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When two tribes go to war. Image from road rage incident caught on camera.

Some researchers have claimed that motorists tend to leave more space when passing cyclists not wearing a helmet than those that do. The only explanations I’ve read for this is that motorists feel these cyclists are more vulnerable so want to give them more space but could it be that someone not wearing a helmet is someone they can identify with more easily? Someone they have more in common with than the cyclist wearing high-viz safety clothing and protective equipment? Someone possibly from their own tribe? Someone they have more empathy for? I don’t have any scientific research that backs up my theory so for now it’s just my opinion but let’s return to Chris Boardman’s description of bike users in the Netherlands – “normal people, wearing normal clothes, doing normal things”.

Around 35% of the people in the Netherlands use a bike as their primary mode of transport yet when you see a picture of people on bikes in any Dutch city, you won’t see helmets and you won’t see high-viz clothing – just normal people, wearing normal clothes. Of course, you won’t see cyclists sharing busy routes with motor traffic either but the focus there has always been on the infrastructure and not what the cyclist wears.

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Separating bikes from busy motor traffic is the only way to avoid conflict and improve safety.

That is why the Netherlands is one of the safest countries in the world to ride a bike in. As long as those charged with promoting cycling as a mode of transport in this country continue to harp on about helmets and high-viz clothing, they will continue to promote a ‘them and us’ divide between motorists and cyclists. They will continue to foster animosity between motorist and cyclists and they will continue to fail in their obligation to create a safe environment for those who simply wish to get from A to B by bike instead of car. People using bikes as a mode of transport should not be treated as some strange tribe that needs to be placated – just like motorists, they are normal people, dressed in normal clothes doing normal things.