Are you a cyclist?

Most (70%) people who ride bikes in West Australia answer „no“. The term cyclist is used in the WA press […]

Most (70%) people who ride bikes in West Australia answer „no“.

The term cyclist is used in the WA press to describe anyone who rides a bicycle, but many people who ride bicycles are weary of the term. The general public sees a cyclist as someone in Lycra and kitted out with sunglasses, gloves, helmet and of course an expensive bike. And yes, most of the 1.7% of trips to work that are done by bicycle are done by people who are kitted out in clothing that makes their commutes more comfortable and safer. But what about the other people on bicycles, the 22% of West Australians who used a bicycle last week?

In survey done in 2009 (with the results written up Russell Greig of DoT) West Australians who had cycled in the last six months were asked if they considered themselves “cyclists” – and only 20% said yes.

The question of the language around cycling has resulted in a discussion on Linked-in.

A few years earlier Glen Koorey, a lecturer in transportation in Christchurch, cautioned about referring to people who cycle as “cyclists”.

“When it comes to cycle planning and policy, all parties involved (politicians, policy-makers, practitioners, advocates, etc) should remember that they are providing for “cycling”, not “cyclists”. The former term is an activity that virtually anyone can do under the right circumstances (and hence should be planned for), whereas the latter often gives connotations of a relatively small bunch of “weird” people who only ever cycle (and wear fluoro Lycra and are all tree-hugging greenies, etc…).

 

He goes on: ““Providing for cycling” is not the same as “providing cycle facilities”, although the latter is often assumed as equating to the first. There are many treatments that greatly benefit cyclists (and usually road users in general), yet involve no dedicated cycle facilities. UK’s Institution of Highways and Transportation (IHT 1996) proposed a “five-step hierarchy” of physical measures for cyclists. In order of priority they are:

1. Reduce traffic volumes, e.g. street closures/diversions or traffic restrictions

2. Reduce traffic speeds, e.g. traffic calming, lower speed limits

3. Traffic management treatments, e.g. intersection improvements, removal of “pinch points”

4. Reallocation of carriageway/corridor space, e.g. removal/re-marking of traffic/parking lanes

5. Separate cycle facilities, e.g. cycle lanes and off-road paths

It appears that in New Zealand the term “vulnerable road user” is mainly applied to people who ride bicycles and pedestrians. Koorey suggests that this implies that these people engage in a dangerous activity that makes them vulnerable, and proposes that the term “active transport users” should be used.

In Perth, and we have a group called “Vulnerable road user action group (VRUAG). In this group the vulnerable road users represented are motorcyclists, people of mobility carts (gopher cars), people with disabilities and of course pedestrians and people on bicycles. The group also has a representative each from police, local government association, the office of road safety (which I call the office of car safety) and the Royal Automobile Club (who are the host). People using public transport are not part of it, except if they walk at either side of the trip. In this case changing the name would mean changing the composition of the group, with a sharper and more relevant focus.

Jonathan Maus (BikePortland.org) has also commented on the above papers: “

Koorey’s paper is full of other important thinking about the words we use and why we should consider using other ones. “Vulnerable road user”, a common term here in Oregon because we have a law named after it, perpetuates what Koorey calls the “dangerisation” of cycling. Instead, he prefers “active transportation user”. In my opinion, Koorey’s paper touches on just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to re-thinking our language use. I am constantly learning and understanding more about this topic each day as I try to communicate about cycling and its role in our society and the transportation debates we often find ourselves in.

One of my pet peeves is when people refer to a “bicycle community”, “cyclists”, or “bike advocates” as one, homogenous, definable block of people. As if we are all friends and we hang out in some basement plotting our next move.

 

There is little doubt that the way we use language influences the way people think about what we want to convey.

About Heinrich

Promoting everyday cycling