A new report commissioned by the UK Department for Transport paints a bleak picture of how cyclists are perceived by motorists in the UK. ‘Cycling, Safety and Sharing the Road: Qualitative Research with Cyclists and Other Road Users’ was released to little fanfare yesterday. It’s a 75-page document consisting of condensed interviews with cyclists and motorists, which the report calls Other Road Users, ORUs.
In its own words, the report says…
The evidence suggests a failure in the culture of road sharing, with a lack of consensus about whether, and how, cyclists belong on the roads.
When it comes to encouraging cyclists to make themselves safer, it may be easier to promote visibility than helmet wearing. Promoting visibility could also be linked to the promotion of safer road-sharing.
There was higher empathy for car drivers across all types of road user than for minority road users such as cyclists. There was also evidence of a stereotype of cyclists, characterised by failures of attitude and competence.
Look-but-failed-to-see (LBFTS) did not seem to feature as an explanatory concept in the workshop. However, the correct interpretation of this finding is not clear: people may be insufficiently aware of the limitations of their own perceptual systems; LBFTS claims may be driven by the need to justify behaviour after making an error; and the finding may be an artefact of the research process.
There are higher levels of empathy for car drivers across all groups of road users than there are for minority road users – such as cyclists, heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers, or bus drivers. This reflects patterns of experience: most people can empathise with car drivers because they drive a car themselves.
Probably as a result, no stereotype of car drivers in general exists (although stereotypes of types of car driver do). By contrast, a stereotype of cyclists in general does appear to exist among ORUs. This stereotype is characterised by: serious failures of attitude, including a generalised disregard for the law and a more specific lack of concern for the needs of other drivers; and serious failures of competence and knowledge of the rules of the road.
This stereotype of cyclists is also linked to the fact that cyclists do not need to undertake training, are unlicensed and uninsured, and do not pay road taxes (at least not by virtue of the fact that they cycle). [The DfT report does not point out that roads are funded by all tax-payers, not simply ORUs and that ‘road tax’ was abolished in 1937. Nor does it point out that many cyclists are insured, via clubs and organisations.].
SHARING THE ROAD
There is evidence of a deeper failure in the culture of road sharing on English roads, which may have important implications for different road-users’ interpretations of, and responses to, each other’s behaviour and, hence, for road safety:
Whatever the law may say on the matter, the norms of road sharing, on roads with lane widths and speeds designed around cars, mean that cyclists are treated as anomalies.
There is a lack of consensus, even among cyclists, about whether and how cycling should be accommodated on the roads.
Some ORUs question whether cyclists belong on the roads at all.
From the perspective of ORUs, the principal benefit of cycling lanes is that they get cyclists out of their way. When cycle lanes are provided, then there is an expectation that cyclists should not be on the road.
There is concern among some ORUs about cycle facilities which make life harder for ORUs, for example by ‘taking away’ some of their space, or allowing cyclists already passed to get back in front again.
From the cyclist’s perspective, inadequate cycle facilities can diminish the legitimacy of bicycles on the road even further without actually providing a viable alternative.
Cyclists themselves have differing and potentially conflicting needs from infrastructure: cyclists opting for ‘Assertion’ want infrastructure that helps to establish their right to be on the road and that clarifies how the road is to be shared; and cyclists opting for ‘Avoidance’ want infrastructure that gives them more opportunities to avoid traffic.
Cyclists as well as drivers can be described as impatient, for instance when they filter, but, for obvious reasons, impatience was more often associated with drivers trying to get past cyclists. ORUs were more likely to accuse cyclists of what may be seen as the reverse form of selfishness: going too slowly and not getting out of the way.
These findings chime with work by Basford and Reid (2002), which showed that motorists perceive that there is a ‘social norm’ for motorists to pass cyclists even if they do not think it is safe to do so, presumably related to a pressure from motorists behind to ‘make progress’.
As a result of these failings, the stereotypical cyclist emerges as a character who breaks the fundamental rules of road sharing – by not looking before moving, by not signalling their intentions, and by not caring when they obstruct the flow of traffic. Indeed, on this account, the stereotypical cyclist emerges as a kind of lawless free-rider in the highly constrained and heavily taxed world of the driver.
“I have nothing against cyclists whatsoever, everyone has a right to the use of the road, but when you think of the amount of accidents they do cause, there’s no registration, they don’t pay anything at all to use the roads, they’ve not paid to have a cycle lane fitted, all the car drivers pay for that.” (M, 55, ORU, London)
ALL CYCLISTS ARE THE SAME
Participants in our workshops, even those with very negative views of cyclists, were quite sophisticated enough to recognise that cyclists are a diverse population, and not all the same.
On the last point, however, it was striking that, when asked how many cyclists did conform to this kind of negative characterisation, the percentages could be quite high. In London, for instance, a number of responses were in the 70–80% range.
Moreover, these qualitative findings mirror previous research, which has found negative attitudes toward cyclists among motorists, based on a resentment of cycles taking up space on the roads and blocking motorists’ progress. For example, Basford and Reid (2002) showed that motorists exhibit in-group and out-group biases in terms of their opinions of transgressions by other motorists and by cyclists. In short, motorist transgressions were more readily justified by motorists than cyclist transgressions.
“They don’t pay road tax, they block the road, they are inconsiderate, they overtake, they are bloody slow . . . I pay road tax, so I should have priority. (M, 50, ORU, Birmingham)
“The common complaint that I hear when I’m in a car with a driver is that because cyclists don’t pay any road tax, they feel that the cyclists have kind of less right to be on the road with them.” (F, 18, Cyclist, Bristol)
“I don’t think that drivers really accept cyclists on the road.” (F, 30, Cyclist, London)
ROAD SHARING. AGAIN.
It is worth pausing to spell out, albeit rather crudely, that [there’s] what we might call (at the risk of stereotyping drivers) a ‘driver logic’:
1. Bikes are anomalous and really do not belong on the road.
2. They should be given somewhere else to go.
3. Having been given somewhere else, they should not then be on the road.
4. Nothing should be taken away from drivers in the process.
A PDF of the report is available here. The pic above is from the US, where some motorists think ‘share the road’ means cyclists should give roadspace to cars.