Why You Hate Cyclists
Partly because of jerks like me. But it’s mostly your own illogical mind.
By Jim Saksa
Monday, Sept. 24, 2012
Biking is my primary means of transportation, so when someone defames cyclists, I feel particularly bad. The fact is, unlike me, most bicyclists are courteous, safe, law-abiding citizens who are quite willing and able to share the road. The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia studied rider habits on some of Philly’s busier streets, using some rough metrics to measure the assholishness of bikers: counting the number of times they rode on sidewalks or went the wrong way on one-way streets. The citywide averages in 2010 were 13 percent for sidewalks and 1 percent for one-way streets at 12 locations where cyclists were observed, decreasing from 24 percent and 3 percent in 2006. There is no reason to believe that Philly has particularly respectful bicyclists—we’re not a city known for respectfulness, and our disdain for traffic laws is nationally renowned. Perhaps the simplest answer is also the right one: Cyclists are getting less aggressive.
A recent study by researchers at Rutgers and Virginia Tech supports that hypothesis. Data from nine major North American cities showed that, despite the total number of bike trips tripling between 1977 and 2009, fatalities per 10 million bike trips fell by 65 percent. While a number of factors contribute to lower accident rates, including increased helmet usage and more bike lanes, less aggressive bicyclists probably helped, too.
The affect heuristic explains how our minds take a difficult question (one that would require rigorous logic to answer) and substitutes it for an easier one. When our emotions get involved, we jump to pre-existing conclusions instead of exerting the mental effort to think of a bespoke answer. The affect heuristic helps explain why birthers still exist even though Obama released his birth certificate—it’s a powerful, negative emotional issue about which lots of people have already made up their minds. When it comes to cyclists, once some clown on two wheels almost kills himself with your car, you furiously decide that bicyclists are assholes, and that conclusion will be hard to shake regardless of countervailing facts, stats, or arguments.
Moreover, bicycling as a primary means of transportation—I’m not talking about occasional weekend riders here—is a foreign concept to many drivers, making them more sensitive to perceived differences between themselves and cyclists. People do this all the time, making false connections between distinguishing characteristics like geography, race, and religion and people’s qualities as human beings. Sometimes it is benign ("Mormons are really polite"), sometimes less so ("Republicans hate poor people"). But in this case, it’s a one-way street: Though most Americans don’t ride bikes, bikers are less likely to stereotype drivers because most of us also drive. The “otherness” of cyclists makes them stand out, and that helps drivers cement their negative conclusions. This is also why sentiments like “taxi drivers are awful” and “Jersey drivers are terrible” are common, but you don’t often hear someone say “all drivers suck.” People don’t like lumping themselves into whatever group they are making negative conclusions about, so we subconsciously seek out a distinguishing characteristic first.
Every time another bicyclist pulls some dickish stunt, the affect heuristic kicks in to reinforce the preconceived biases. The same isn’t true in reverse: The conviction that bicyclists are erratically moving hazards is not diminished by the repeated observance of safe and respectful riding. Facts and logical arguments that do not conform to the emotional conclusion are discounted or disregarded. But we’re not doomed to our initial prejudices: Once a person becomes aware of her biases, she is more able to engage rational thought processes to overcome the affect heuristic and dispel her inaccurate conclusions. So, study those stats bike haters!