Friday, 26 July 2013

Cycling vs. Cyclists - How to Do Things With Words

Following on from last week's post on how we report those killed and maimed by motorists on our roads, I'd like to talk today about cycling vs. cyclists. Essentially, it is almost always better to use the term cycling when you have a choice between the two. Here's why:

Is this a cyclist? or a kid on a bike?
Is this an anti-social law-breaker? or a child who doesn't want to be crushed to death when a motorist makes a mistake?
One of the big problems with the term 'cyclists', is that it implicitly reinforces the idea that cycling is a niche mode of transport that can only be undertaken by a hardcore, committed group of 'cyclists'; you have to know Chris Froome's body weight in order to be able to cycle to the shops to pick up some milk.

This is, of course, absolute rubbish. Using a bike to get around should be as normal as taking the bus or hopping on the tube. We don't use the term 'tube-ist', 'bus-taker', or 'train-er'. We just take a tube, bus or train when it is convenient to do so. Cycling should be equally normalised. Just a method of transport that we take when it is convenient, cheap, and safe to do so. Using the user-specific term, 'cyclist', makes cycling seem far less inclusive that it actually is, and as such, the term should be avoided.

Indeed, when local councils and governments talk about making things safer for 'cyclists', this can actually be quite unhelpful. This is because it makes it seem like the creation of cycle lanes or slower speed limits are benefits only to that very small proportion of UK that currently make journeys by bike. In fact, safety improvements are primarily of benefit to people that don't already cycle. It is precisely these 'non-cyclists' that are far more likely to take up cycling if a continuous, fully segregated cycle track is built that enables them to get where they want without worrying about dying. Therefore, the government would be making 'cycling' safer, not making it safer for 'cyclists'.

Crossrail or HS2 are not big projects that are being sold to the voting public as making travel easier for 'train-ers'. They are big projects that will make travel easier for everyone in the UK, since anyone can get on a train. It's the same with cycling. A 'Crossrail for bikes' will make travelling by bike safer for everyone in London, not just cyclists. Therefore, we should always think of it as an improvement for cycling.

We do use the term 'motorist', but there are important differences between this word and 'cyclist'. 'Motorist' is useful because the word encapsulates how difficult it is to drive in the UK. It's not like just jumping on a train or bus. You need to learn your theory, then get an expensive theory test booked well in advance and pass it. Then you need to learn to drive (more expensive) and get a driving test booked (more expense) and then pass that (not always first time). Then you need to buy a car, buy fuel, buy insurance, pay emissions tax, (pay congestion charge), and find a resident's or off-road parking space to store your vehicle. Then you need to work out where you're going, maybe buy a sat-nav, and find out where you can park near your destination (often expensive).

Compare cycling: you need to learn to cycle (free), buy a bike (cheap) and a lock (needs to be good). Then you need to work out where you're going and leave your bike at your destination or nearby.

Clearly, our government is not doing even 10% of what it needs to be doing in order make travelling by bike as safe, easy, and hassle-free as it could be (and is in Holland or Denmark, for instance). But jumping on your bike has far more in common with jumping on the tube (buy oyster card, work out route) then jumping in a car (go through all the hoops listed above). The term 'motorist' is, therefore, helpful for encapsulating the exclusive nature of motor travel by a select group. On the other hand, 'cyclist' is extremely unhelpful because it implies that travelling by a bike is similarly exclusive. It isn't. In much of Europe travelling by bike is as normal as taking the bus, and it should be here in the UK too. Using the term 'cyclist' works against this process of normalisation.

The other important difference between 'motorist' and 'cyclist' is that both terms are heavily culturally loaded; in opposite ways. 'Motorist' is a term that includes 33 million Britons. It is a term of family, allowing one to belong to a large, welcoming group. Most importantly, it is a term essential to the 'War on the Motorist' myth. This is the fatuous idea that 'motorists' are somehow persecuted in our society, a political lie manufactured by successive Conservative parties in an attempt to seduce voterssince the cost of travelling by car has actually continually decreased in real terms since 1990s). The word 'motorist' is, therefore, an extremely weighted term. The persecuted majority of good Brits just trying to do right by their friends and families.

By contrast, 'cyclists' are widely seen as an aberrant tribe. They are freaks that despite paying no road tax rudely insist on clogging up our roads. They run down old women and the blind with impunity, and often enjoyment. They are the persecuting minority, Saddam Hussein's Sunni elite, who are ruining modern Britain and deserve zero recognition from Clegg or Cameron, and still less from the irresponsibly obese Eric Pickles.

The amazing thing is that these stereotypes stick, despite the fact that motorists killed 1,901 Brits in road accidents in 2011 alone, and last year 118 Brits were killed by drivers while on their bikes in this country.

The best case scenario would be if we could transform the word 'cyclist' from a word with largely negative to connotations, to a positive one. As well as from the 'persecuting', to the 'persecuted'. However, ultimately that isn't going to happen until we have significantly more than one journey in 50 being made in London by bike. If history shows us anything, it is that minorities are consistently persecuted, ignored, and vilified. It's no different with cyclists.

In this situation it's much better to change the conversation than to try and convince the obstinate of the simple truth that one mile on a bike is a $.42 gain to society, one mile driving is a $.20 loss.

We should therefore be making the case for 'cycling', not 'cyclists',

After 78 Spaniards were killed in a recent train crash, the Spanish Government will not be improving safety for 'train-goers'. They will be making it safer for all Spaniards to travel by train. Similarly, since 69 Londoners have been killed by motorists while cycling since Boris Johnson took office in 2008, we must demand the Mayor and TfL make things safer for all Londoners who might, and could, choose to travel by bike.


As an aside, please put Monday 2nd September in your diaries: the London Cycling Campaign are organising another #space4cycling Protest Ride. Meet at Jubilee Gardens at 6pm (for a 6.30pm start).


  1. "and still less from the irresponsibly obese Eric Pickles.". Less of the "fattist" comments please. As an "obese" person on a bike (for over 50 years) I can vouch for the fact that cycling does not endow you with an Adonis physique or indeed that you need to be skinny to get on a bike. Comments like yours are unnecessary and insulting. Would you call a Muslim "irresponsibly Islamist"?

    1. In the same way that it would be irresponsible of me to cycle home drunk, because it would shorten my life expectancy, Eric Pickles is irresponsibly obese.

      Cycling home drunk would expose me to much greater dangers of being hit by a car or falling off myself. It is, therefore, an irresponsible action.

      Similarly, being as obese as Eric Pickles exposes one to much greater dangers of heart disease, getting diabetes, arthritis, a stroke etc. It is therefore, irresponsible in the same way that cycling home drunk is.

    2. But why single out his size for a snide comment? Much of what he says is foolish enough without commenting on his appearance, it does nothing for your argument - which I actually agree with! However, you alienate people who may not fit your stereotype of ideal body size by calling Pickles "irresponsibly obese". You are doing to obese people exactly what you don't want to happen to cyclists. (And thanks for the link - I am well aware of the dangers of obesity but these also assume a level of sedentary behaviour which not all obese people follow.). Essentially just as to the average Daily Mail reader, all cyclists are RLJs, and pavement riding lycra louts, you are suggesting that all obese people are irresponsible.

  2. I fully agree with you. 'Cyclists' is a tainted term which suggests that cycling is the reserve of a tiny minority, when in fact it should be practised by the majority of the population for the many advantages it brings to society. (less pollution, less congestion, keeps people fitter, etc.).

    How about we use "bicycle people", or "bicycle user" or "bike rider"? I certainly refrain from using the word 'cyclists' whenever possible.

    1. Yep, I completely agree. 'Person on a bike' is probably my preferred.

  3. Great blog. It's something I've been pondering myself as UK road users seem to become more and more polarised into tribes.

    Even though 'cyclist' is the grammatically correct term I fully agree that we need to move away from it. I hate committee-speak, and sadly 'sustainable road user' and the like are in danger of sounding like that.

    May I propose: 'people on bikes', and whenever possible, even stronger is: 'children on bikes'.

    1. Thank you, TheClangers.

      I agree, 'people on bikes', is very good, and 'children on bikes', where applicably, is even better!

  4. Florida, USA had 125 cycling deaths, population 19,320,000 thats over three times as many as you and they are doing very little to change the numbers. If you decide to visit Florida bike at your own risk.

    1. 125! Jeez... They need to seriously slow down the motor traffic there and build some bloody cycle lanes.

  5. I did a post on cycling semantics here:

    1. Dear lichwheeld

      I like your post, but I would seriously stay away from the verb 'ride'. Saying 'I ride' implies that you are the member of some sub-culture, because the verb 'ride' is not automatically associated with bikes in English. What do you 'ride'? The bus? The train? The tube? A bike?

      It's much better to say 'I'm not a cyclist I just choose to cycle from A to B or recreationally'. Makes it clear that cycling is an activity anyone can choose to do, even if they don't know that the verb 'ride' can be used to refer specifically to bikes.

  6. I firmly agree with your suggestion. I think the term cyclist is too emotive for a lot of people and suggests a constituency rather than an open activity. It seems so obvious now you have mentioned it.

    I also agree with your analysis of 'motorist' being a different term — unlike 'cyclist' you never see it being applied to an individual in the media, but only for the vocal constituency.

    My concern with passing your advice around however is that this blog post argues against using such emotive language and then at length employs some rather emotive language to make the point. By using both bold and italic emphasis, repeating the point, and invoking Saddam Hussein and the Spanish rail crash, you make it difficult to point someone that doesn't consider themselves a 'cyclist' to this reasoned advice.

    1. I don't feel that it benefits cycling advocates to avoid emotive language where suitable. Often it makes one's argument stronger. What I object to is people, without realising it, using an emotive or suggestive language that biases against cycling as a form of transport, even when used by those trying to promote cycling.

      There is a huge body of evidence showing why increasing cycling is a good thing; and a huge number of dead bodies showing why cycle safety in this country is appalling. If emotive language makes the general public more aware of these things then I'm all for it.

      I'm not in favour of language which implies that 90% of all people of bikes are rabid red light jumpers...

      If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.