Should we stop using the word ‘cyclist’?

As the repair man rummaged around in my gas oven, I tried to explain something to him about cyclists.

“We ‘cyclists’ are no more a homogenous group than you ‘vannists,’” I said.

I had accepted the role of personal myth-buster, including the falsehood that cycle lanes cause congestion and pollution (thanks Robert Winston, Unblock the Embankment and the London assembly member David Kurten among others for repeating those canards). To his credit, the repair man eventually saw my point.

Admittedly, I am often asked to defend the name of all cyclists, simply because I happen to get around by bike. Never mind that on my daily bike route are a range of humans, from parents with child seats on their bicycles to wobbly hire bike riders, fashionably attired creatives, elderly chaps with heels on pedals and knees out – and yes, men and women in Lycra.

Stopping using the term “cyclist” has been up for debate since an Australian study last week found 31% of respondents viewed cyclists as less than human. The research also found that the dehumanisation of people who cycle is linked to self-reported aggression towards them: if you see a person as less than fully human, you are more likely to deliberately drive at them, block them with your vehicle or throw something at them, the study found.

It is easy to dehumanise people who cycle, the authors say, because they often dress differently and move in a mechanical way, and drivers cannot see their faces.

I’d add that thanks to decades of car-centric planning, drivers can whizz through a neighbourhood and turn into wide-mouthed junctions at speed while rarely having to face another human being, in or out of a car.

The outcome of this problem is all too real. UK cyclists experience deliberate harassment, on average, every month. The study authors note that public references to violence against cyclists are not uncommon, and rarely given the same condemnation as, for example, violence towards women or bullying.

Too often, comment pieces on cycling play this role online, in papers and on TV; clickbait by misguided news and views outlets with real-world consequences. Just read the comments on articles about those injured and killed cycling, blaming the victim and even implying they deserved their fate somehow.

Dehumanising people is a dangerous business. Those who saw people on bikes as less than 90% human were found to display 1.87 times more direct aggression towards them than those above that mark.

Meanwhile, news articles often remove the driver from the equation, referring to vans crushing cyclists and cars mounting pavements and running over children as though human agency played no part. It is perhaps no mental leap to conclude the only person such pieces mention, the “cyclist”, is to blame.

We are all human, using the roads to go somewhere, trying to live our lives. Even as a competent and confident cyclist, the everyday aggression and carelessness of some drivers hurts over time. I’ve been reduced to tears, numb shock, terror, and occasional crossed fingers that someone driving dangerously doesn’t hit me.

The authors say experiences like this can start a vicious cycle of behaviour. “If cyclists feel dehumanised by other road users, they may be more likely to act out against motorists, feeding into a self-fulfilling prophecy that further fuels dehumanisation against them,” they say.

Perhaps one small step could be to think carefully about the language we use. We could do as Sarah Storey suggests in her new role as Sheffield’s cycling and walking commissioner: have one word for people who cycle for transport, another for people who cycle for sport – and remember that we are all people, no matter how we use the roads.

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