Why do people hate cyclists?

The question posed in the headline has probably flitted through the mind of many a cyclist after an encounter with an angry driver, who saw the cyclist as simply a pesky impediment to speed.
Jim Saksa, writing this week in the online magazine Slate, has an interesting take on the question.
The animosity, he says, is partly due to cyclists like him.
He writes that he has frequently been a jerk on his bike while riding in his hometown of Philadelphia – “weaving in and out of traffic, going the wrong way down a one-way street, and making a left on red.”
But even if most cyclists are cautious, respectful and obedient to the rules of the road, many motorists view them the same way they would the jerks on two wheels.
The reason, Saksa writes, is what behavioral economists call the affect heuristic, a “fancy way of saying that people make judgments by consulting their emotions instead of logic.”
Here’s a key passage from Saksa’s essay:
[B]icycling as a primary means of transportation — I’m not talking about occasional weekend riders here — is a foreign concept to many drivers, making them more sensitive to perceived differences between themselves and cyclists.
People do this all the time, making false connections between distinguishing characteristics like geography, race, and religion and people’s qualities as human beings. Sometimes it is benign (“Mormons are really polite”), sometimes less so (“Republicans hate poor people”).

Photo/illustration by Robert Parkison

But in this case, it’s a one-way street: Though most Americans don’t ride bikes, bikers are less likely to stereotype drivers because most of us also drive. The “otherness” of cyclists makes them stand out, and that helps drivers cement their negative conclusions.
This is also why sentiments like “taxi drivers are awful” and “Jersey drivers are terrible” are common, but you don’t often hear someone say “all drivers suck.” People don’t like lumping themselves into whatever group they are making negative conclusions about, so we subconsciously seek out a distinguishing characteristic first.




Filed under Americana, Politics, Urban cycling

3 responses to “Why do people hate cyclists?

  1. John Vandevelde

    There is no justification for the driver who hits, and too often kills, a cyclist because the driver is in a rush, or is inattentive (cellphone, texting, adjusting the car stereo, drinking coffee. etc.), or thinks bicycle riders are jerks. As my favorite blogger knows, a year ago I lost a wonderful nephew to a speeding, cellphone-using driver. My repeated suggestion, before and since the tragic loss of my nephew, has been that drivers should imagine that bicycle riders are their kids or grandkids, and give them the kind of leeway and protection they would want a stranger to give to their own kids or grandkids. They should recognize the vulnerability of a bike rider and be “responsible” drivers.

    The flip side is that bicycle riders should not be jerks. We should not ride double when the road is narrow and there is traffic. We should stop at every light red light and stop sign. We should wave and say “Thank you” when a driver goes out of his or her way to let us by. We should resist saying or gesturing “F— you” when a driver honks in a “get out of my way” fashion, cuts us off, hooks us, or doors us. A loud “Hey!” or a “Please be careful” is much more effective. I ride what I think of as a relatively serious road bike, and in my own way I imagine my colorful spandex makes me look like someone in the pelaton in the “Tour de France” (except for the extra years and pounds), but I decided a few years ago that it sent the wrong message when I acted like a racer, running red lights and stop signs. With rare exceptions, we don’t ride on public roads that have been closed for an event. We are usually on a public road and so we have an obligation to obey the law. But much more than that, if we want to promote respect for the law from the drivers of cars, we first have to show respect for the law as riders of bikes. In other words, when we are on the road, we should do everything we can to be “responsible” riders.

    We bicycle riders need to be willing to take the lead on being responsible, and in order to educate drivers and have them follow our lead we need some kind of easily understood slogan–a kind of “Golden Rule” approach to the relationship between drivers of motor vehicles and riders of bicycles. Your readers might come up with something that catches on.

    Maybe something like–“Shared Responsibilty=Spared Tragedy.” But I bet one of your readers can come up with something much better.


  2. cyclephant

    Hi Jim,

    I have often wondered this myself, why so many motorists don’t respect bicycles on the road. The only thing that I can come up with is, we have lived in a country that has been built around cars for so many years. America builds elaborate highway systems to accommodate the cars but forgets about inner city commuting. The majority of our roads are car friendly, not bike friendly. And they have been for so long that the mindset has been created for roads to be “property of cars and trucks”. There is a certain sense of ownership and entitlement that has occurred. And it really is a two way street. Motorists should respect the bicyclists, and vice versa. There almost seems to be a respect struggle going on here.
    But until the cities acknowledge the importance and use of bike commuters and make the roads as bike-friendly as they are car-friendly, the motorists will not recognize bike riders just as privileged to ride on the roads as cars are. We live in a society, although it’s changing rapidly, where bicyclists are not recognized as real commuters, but rather, nuisances and road hazards. It is an ignorance that will hopefully be changing rapidly. Having lived in Dallas, I know full well how dangerous it can be to ride your bike on those roads. But having spent some time in Europe and now here in Denver, I have seen that it is very possible to have a community that shares the road respectfully.
    Excellent blog. Thank you for sharing your life with all of us.

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