Cycling: Not Strange, Not Unsafe

21:52 Tue 06 Oct 2009
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But rather, a very safe and rather normal, indeed innocuous and beneficial, activity. Via MetaFilter I came across a series of sociological essays on attitudes towards cycling, most of them concerned with the idea that cycling is a dangerous activity. The series, by Dave Horton, is titled “Fear of Cycling”:

They’re all worth reading, but I was most interested in “Making Cycling Strange” as it touches on the issue of why there’s so much hostility to cycling and cyclists. I’ve written about this before:

Another part, however, seems to stem from some weird dislike of otherness. I don’t know exactly what it is, but something about the vituperative comments reminds me of comments attacking other “minority” groups. It’s clearly not as bad as other forms of discrimination, but there is still some common thread between the anti-cyclist vitriol and prejudice I’ve encountered online against women, non-“white” races, non-“straight” sexuality, people of other or no religions, people who dress in non-mainstream ways, hippies, and anti-war (or other generally left-wing/counterculture) activists. There’s something about the completely vicious and over-the-top response some people have to anything that isn’t part of their idea of “normal”…

—Tadhg O’Higgins. “Animosity Towards Cyclists”. tadhg.com, 17 Sep 2007.

Horton addresses what underlies this, discussing the fact that cycling is predominantly seen as a stigmatized and marginalized activity, and noting that media representations of cycling are far from neutral:

Through representing the marginal practice of cycling as ‘deviant’, the dominant practice of car driving is reproduced and reaffirmed as ‘normal’. Representations of cycling as deviant and cyclists as outsiders both contribute to, and are facilitated by, low levels of cycling which mean that few people are able to take, and defend, the cyclist’s point of view.

—Dave Horton. “Making Cycling Strange”. Copenhagenize.com, 06 Oct 2009.

If that sounds like academic overanalysis to you, try reading it again and then reading my post on biased reporting of a clash between cyclists and motorists in SF in 2007. The script is clearly in place, and the media (especially in this country) love to follow it.

Cycling isn’t alien, or inherently dangerous, even in cities. Many, many people cycle in cities and never suffer serious injury—I’ve been doing it for about twenty years. Furthermore, any danger involved doesn’t really come from cycling—it comes from driving. While I’m not necessarily in favor of the “traffic calming” safety measures that Horton suggests, I am in favor of doing whatever it takes to make motorists (and society in general) realize that they do not and should not “own” the streets and roads, that cars are the dangerous element, and that they certainly have no reason to be angry at or afraid of cyclists or cycling.

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