Mistaken Identity?

by Dr Ian Walker   September 13, 2010  

serious cyclist

For the past few years, when I find myself discussing transport with people, I have been playing a little a game for my own amusement. At some point in a conversation with a typical British person - that is, one who drives everywhere - I like casually to ask, "Could you ever see yourself riding a motorbike?"

 

In most cases, the response has been a brief gaze at the ceiling, as the person tries to imagine themselves in that situation, before they laugh, shake their heads in a slightly bemused fashion and say something like, "Goodness me, no! No way."

Now, it's always a mistake to generalize, but for those of you who don't spend much time hanging around motorcyclists I should explain that they can basically be broken down into four types:

  1. Harley-Davidson riders. In the popular imagination these are rebellious, hairy and violent; clad in beards, leather and torn denim, they live fast and ride hard, resplendently bearded outcasts from a society they reject. In reality, of course, that's just the lingering influence of Easy Rider: Harley owners tend actually to be middle-aged finance workers who enjoy polishing chrome in their garages far more than they enjoy their annual ride of fifteen wobbly miles to a pub.
  2. Speed daemons. Think race tracks, precision engineering and the heady scent of burnt petrol. Or, more accurately, think monstrously uncomfortable one-piece leather suits, visors so heavily tinted that you could weld with them, and a sorry end wrapped around a road-side tree.
  3. BMW riders. Universally disdained by other bikers for having more money than sense, particularly if they bought their bikes only after watching Euan McGregor in Long Way Round.
  4. The rest.

Where am I going with this, other than making lazy jibes about groups with which I don't identify? My point is that when I've asked people to see themselves on a motorcycle, I can't help suspecting that the reason people reject the idea quite so firmly is that one of these images immediately pops into their mind - most likely the first one: the giant hog, the torn denim and, above all, the beard. It is, I suspect, the huge gulf between this mental image, and how people see themselves, which causes them to look quite so bemused and to reject quite so resoundingly the idea that they would ever get on a motorcycle. Riding a motorcycle is, to most people, something that other people do - people whom they do not resemble.

Of course, what I'm really interested in when I carry out this exercise is bicycles. Might the images of cycling that people have in their minds prevent them from cycling more often? After all, we know that there are millions of bicycles sitting in people's shed and garages, unused. Could this partly be because when cycling is suggested, people mentally look back and forth between themselves and 'A Cyclist' and see two very different people?

The problem is that we can't simply ask people whether they could see themselves on a bicycle because in a sense they can - most people have at some stage ridden one. This is why in my informal studies I've looked at the issue using motorcycles, which most people have never ridden. But might there be some way in which we could get at people's ideas of what 'cyclists' look like whilst definitely talking about cycling? 

This question was asked not too long ago by Birgitta Gatersleben at Surrey University and, particularly, her student Hebba Haddad. They took a fairly large group of people, which included cyclists and non-cyclists, and gave them a set of statements about cyclists. Some of these statements were about cycling behaviours ("The typical cyclist that I see cycles on the pavement", for example); others were about cyclists' motivations for cycling ("The typical cyclist that I see cycles for fun"). The people in the study could agree or disagree with each statement to various degrees.

The researchers then used a statistical technique (principal components analysis, for fellow geeks), which let them see which of these statements tended to go together. For example, let's say everybody agreed that "The typical cyclist cycles for fun" and everybody disagreed that "The typical cyclist cycles on the pavement". In this case, we would know that cycling for fun and avoiding pavements are both parts of a single cycling 'stereotype' in people's minds.

Of course, this being the real world, there wasn't total agreement on anything. But nevertheless some pretty clear stereotypes emerged. Visitors to road.cc won't be at all surprised to learn that cyclists recognized more different types of cyclist than non-cyclists, so I won't go into that. What was more interesting was that for the non-cyclists, one cycling stereotype dominated all the others: an image the researchers called the 'die-hard' stereotype. The die-hard cyclist, as revealed by this study, is a person who wears Lycra, clip-in shoes and a helmet; who rides an expensive bike as fast as possible and who doesn't cycle for practical purposes like shopping. Now, I'm not saying these cyclists exist, you understand; I'm simply saying that this image appears to exist in people's minds - particularly people who don't cycle.

Could this hard-core image really be what pops into many people's minds when they hear the word 'cyclist'? If so, it wouldn't be very surprising if people who currently don't cycle find it to be an image they don't relate to. Sure enough, the non-cyclists in Haddad and Gatersleben's study didn't feel any affinity at all with this image when tested. In fact, the only image of cycling they could personally relate to was the 'necessity' cyclist - the person who commutes to work on their bike, in all weathers, because they have no other choice.

It would be wonderful if we could now do a similar study in a culture where cycling is much more normal - Denmark or the Netherlands being the obvious candidates - to see whether the popular images of 'cyclists' differ. If we did, the outcome could go in various directions. It might be that the non-cyclists in these countries see an even larger gulf between themselves and cyclists - after all, they are essentially refuseniks, and may have a stronger sense of 'not being cyclists' to support this. Perhaps most interesting of all would be if no clear stereotypes of cyclists emerged at all in countries where cycling is commonplace, and we found that stereotypes of cycling only exist in places like the UK where it is a minority activity. Not only would this help us understand why people don't cycle in the UK, but it would also give us a way of measuring changes in attitudes about cycling over time.

Of course, it's possible I'm overthinking this. Perhaps the real conclusion is that, if we want to encourage more cycling, we just really need to think twice before putting on bib-shorts to visit the supermarket.

11 user comments

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… or helmet mirrors. Always used to bump into a fella in the local Sainsbury's mirrored up in the cake aisle, or be more accurate I didn't cos he always saw me coming first

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posted by Tony Farrelly [4132 posts]
13th September 2010 - 17:51

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I ride a motorcycle and abicycle and am pretty keen on both. Basically I prefer being on two wheels to four. I have a moderately quick red Italian sportsbike but I use it mainly for commuting and I'm not a speed daemon. I have three mountain bikes and a BMX bike, with the last being the only two wheeler that I actually compete on.

I'm not sure which category I'm in.

I've played a similar game. Most people are too lazy to cycle any distance I find. This has changed to a degree, but not so much. People would rather it in a tin box that keeps them warm while waiting in a jam rather than using two wheels.

OldRidgeback

posted by OldRidgeback [2132 posts]
13th September 2010 - 22:31

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"if we want to encourage more cycling, we just really need to think twice before putting on bib-shorts to visit the supermarket". Absolutely right. There's a time and a place for everything; bib-shorts included! If you haven't already seen it here's the Copenhagen Cycle Chic manifesto. Their approach to cycling may be slightly different to the approach of many of road.cc's readers, but their's remains a valid (and I should say rather pleasing) attitude!

- I choose to cycle chic and, at every opportunity, I will choose Style over Speed.

- I embrace my responsibility to contribute visually to a more aesthetically pleasing urban landscape.

- I am aware that my mere prescence in said urban landscape will inspire others without me being labelled as a 'bicycle activist'.

- I will ride with grace, elegance and dignity.

- I will choose a bicycle that reflects my personality and style.

- I will, however, regard my bicycle as transport and as a mere supplement to my own personal style. Allowing my bike to upstage me is unacceptable.

- I will endeavour to ensure that the total value of my clothes always exceeds that of my bicycle.

- I will accessorize in accordance with the standards of a bicycle culture and acquire, where possible, a chain guard, kickstand, skirt guard, fenders, bell and basket.

- I will respect the traffic laws.

- I will refrain from wearing and owning any form of 'cycle wear'. The only exception being a bicycle helmet - if I choose to exercise my freedom of personal choice and wear one.

They are at www.copenhagencyclechic.com

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posted by simonmb [360 posts]
14th September 2010 - 11:22

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i suspect if you asked the same questions in some european country's, say Holland or Italy you may find 'utility' cycling was the dominate view of a cyclist.

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posted by Fringe [1081 posts]
14th September 2010 - 12:33

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I think they would shrug. It's like asking to profile car drivers. Where everybody drives a car, the question fails to make much sense.

posted by ozzage [4 posts]
14th September 2010 - 12:48

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Thanks for all the interesting comments.

@ozzage: it's interesting you should say that. I tried to get some questions about identity added to a national travel survey recently. Questions like "It would feel weird if I didn't [cycle/motorcycle/drive]" and "People think of me as somebody who [cycles/motorcycles/drives]".

The organization that commissioned the survey decided in the end not to use these questions as, in their testing, drivers just didn't understand them. I think that's just like what you suggest.

posted by Dr Ian Walker [6 posts]
14th September 2010 - 14:30

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I cycle. Light hybrid, helmet, aero bars, bib shorts, etc etc.. you get the picture.

Thing is though, I don't hugely identify as a "cyclist" - except perhaps when on the bike or thinking/talking about it.

I'm a person who cycles. Yet I imagine that, in the eyes of non-cycling colleagues, I'm a "cyclist". And the bib shorts probably have something to do with that.

Normal clothes, town bike, panniers - that stuff can change minds, I hope! If only it was as fast and comfy as lycra...

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posted by PJ McNally [580 posts]
14th September 2010 - 16:43

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I'm mostly a utility cyclist. I mostly wear 'normal' clothes. I use my commuting equipped comfort bike for going places, it's more like a Dutch bike without the chainguard. I often tow a Y-frame Large trailer (plus extension arm) which I've used for hauling three 3.6 metre wooden hand rails, a 2.4 metre fence post; compost; a mountain bike on a carrier; and various loads of wood; crates of concrete (too heavy to lift); scrap metal; garden waste; electrical goods for recycling at the local dump, some 5 miles away.

I've found that my trailer acts as a powerful deterrent to motorists, so far, they keep well away.

posted by Recumbenteer [142 posts]
15th September 2010 - 8:37

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"Resplendently bearded outcasts"... I thought I'd stumbled upon another Audax blog.

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posted by abudhabiChris [499 posts]
15th September 2010 - 9:33

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Interesting point about motorists not understanding a similar question regarding driving, because it's so prevalent that driving has become for many people in Britain part of the normal human condition - it's something you just do, like breathing.

Reminded of this again this morning listening to a discussion on R4 about the case of the Lincolnshire girl whose parents were threatened with child protection proceedings (a threat later rescinded) by Lincolnshire County Council for letting their 7-year old daughter walk 20m to and from the villiage bus stop unaccompanied – cue much ballyhoo about the nanny state, followed by earnest discussion on parents right to parent etc etc.

Turns out the whole thing started because the school bus driver was concerned when dropping the girl off because of an incident with some speeding cars over-taking the bus as she was getting off it & trying to cross the road. Strangely no-where in any of the media coverage that I've seen (certainly not on R4 this morning) has anyone suggested that this story is not about parenting & the state, it's about making drivers slow down when driving through villages or overtaking school buses it's as if doing that would be like trying to tell the wind not to blow or the tide not to come in - driving is like some natural phenomena that "just happens" nothing you can do about it, so let's just blame the parents

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posted by Tony Farrelly [4132 posts]
15th September 2010 - 10:10

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Obviously this is further hijacking the discussion, but Tony has hit the nail on the head: the overwhelming presumption is that it is everyone's right to drive, and we should be doing what we can to facilitate that: pedestrians need to take more care, junctions need to be better designed, blah, blah. And yet we carry on slaughtering people on our roads - speeding is still a matter of personal choice rather than something that is widely accepted to be dangerous and wrong. (Folds up soapbox and wanders off, shaking head.)

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posted by timlennon [226 posts]
15th September 2010 - 12:12

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