(image via road.cc)

This was the heading of an opinion piece in The Age yesterday:

Dear drivers, why so much hate for cyclists?

Curiously, the story doesn’t even try to answer the question; it’s mainly an anecdote about the writer’s encounter with an abusive motorist while cycling in inner-city Melbourne. I suspect a sub-editor invented the headline to bait more readers and clickers.

And it is indeed an interesting question. However I don’t think the key issue is motorists “hating” cyclists. Of course a very small minority get enraged, but they’re the sort of people who’d be dangerous to others in all sorts of contexts i.e. their “hatred” isn’t particular to cycling.

I think the more important question is: why do some (perhaps many) motorists see cyclists as lacking a legitimate right to use the roads?

Most of these “non-believers” aren’t prone to abusing other road-users and there are many more of them than there are nasty “haters”. The attitude of the unconvinced is important because they’re likely to oppose, or at least be uninterested, in initiatives that support cycling.

The ostensible reason is cyclists are slower than motorists and hold them up. But so do buses, trucks and caravans, yet they don’t seem to be regarded as illegitimate to anything like the extent cyclists are.

Here are some hypotheses (not in any order). Some motorists see cycling:

  • as an extension of walking and therefore feel cyclists shouldn’t be on busy roads. The existence of on-road cycling lanes, segregated paths and off-road trails probably reinforces this perception, as do cyclists who are seen to “flout” road rules.
  • as the preserve of society’s winners i.e. an indulgence of well-educated, inner suburban elites, who now want to take over the roads. This view accords with some basic facts i.e. cycling is heavily concentrated in inner suburban, Greens-voting electorates.
  • as a form of recreation, not a form of transport, and hence not important enough to be on roads. This is reinforced by the high visibility of Lycra. A related perception is that cycling is an activity for children and hence it should be confined to footpaths, off-road trails, or quiet residential streets.
  • as contributing directly to traffic congestion, both because cyclists are slower than cars and because bicycle lanes reduce road space.
  • as invalid because cyclists aren’t licensed and bicycles aren’t registered.
  • as a potential cause of personal and/or legal stress for the motorist, who’s fearful what would probably otherwise be a routine “bingle” if it were a collision between vehicles might, if it’s a collision with a cyclist, result in serious legal ramifications for the driver and possibly severe personal stress e.g. PTSD.

 

I think these sorts of views are exacerbated by the widespread perception that traffic congestion, whatever the underlying causes might be, is rapidly deteriorating in cities. The growth of cycling on roads in Australian cities is also likely a contributing factor; it’s a relatively new phenomenon. There’s a weak tradition of cycling as a means of transport (as distinct from recreation) in Australian cities compared to many European and Asian cities, so it’s seen as an interloper (see How big was cycling in Australia in the past?).

How can motorists be encouraged to see cycling as a legitimate, perhaps even a more sensible, use of roads?

Governments could – and should – minimise conflict between cyclists and motorists by prioritising construction of segregated infrastructure. Cycleways have a much higher benefit-cost ratio than conventional transport projects. The availability of reliable battery-powered bicycles and small electric Vespa-style scooters greatly expands the potential market for two-wheel travel (see Could powered two-wheelers be a game-changer for urban travel?).

Nevertheless, cyclists and motorists will share a lot of road space for decades yet. While there’s no short-term silver bullet, government action to reinforce the legitimacy of two-wheel travel on roads is likely to help. That should include regulations to make vehicles slower and to require drivers to cede priority to cyclists (and pedestrians).

The largest pay-off, though, would likely come from making driving less competitive and other modes therefore relatively more attractive. That might be done by pricing access to road space, but simply reducing the speed difference between motoring and cycling could have a big impact on motorist’s attitudes.