Bicycling and the “Cyclist Identity”: Understanding the “Bikelash”

The recent “bikelash” from commentators like Courtland Milloy, who equates bicyclists with bullies and terrorists, has precipitated some thoughtful analyses of the broader trends evoking such strong responses. Eric Jaffe’s Strange As It Seems, Cycling Haters Are a Sign of Cycling Success does an excellent job of pointing out some of the more intelligent analysis, such as Why Bikes Make Smart People Say Dumb Things by Carl Alviani and last year’s Cyclists Aren’t ‘Special,’ and They Shouldn’t Play by Their Own Rules by Sarah Goodyear.

The gist of these arguments is that times are changing and when confronted with change people tend to create in-groups (those doing things as they’ve always done them, i.e., drive cars) and out-groups (those responsible for the change, i.e., bicyclists), failing to see that many occupy both groups. As Jaffe says,

You can try to argue it’s the personality of all drivers to hate cyclists. Or you can realize that much of the hate is really a symptom of frustration with a changing environment.

For as long as we can remember, roads have been engineered for, and almost exclusively the domain of, automobiles. In this autonormative world, bicyclists were virtually invisible because in the car-dominated streetscape one simply did not expect to encounter cyclists. As a result, bicyclists have been written out of the vision of drivers. “Taking the lane,” in which a cyclist moves fully into the lane of automobile traffic (usually when to ride on the shoulder or next to parked cars would be unsafe), is an example of a strategy that cyclists employ in order to make themselves visible.

Our invisibility, and the fear of what it means for our safety, shapes behaviors like taking the lane and even rolling red lights. Surely there are “scofflaws” (in cars and on bikes) who violate traffic laws for expediency, out of brashness, or for other reasons. But rolling stop signs and red lights, in many cases, is a risk management strategy. While waiting unprotected in a left turn lane for a green arrow, for example, a cyclist might observe that there is no oncoming or cross-traffic and make the left turn rather than sit vulnerably while cars charge up from behind.


Vehicles create hazards for bicyclists…


…even in bike lanes










It’s this very action that magically makes the invisible cyclist suddenly visible. Meanwhile, the law abiding cyclist remains invisible. The motorist sees only the lawbreaker in what Alviano notes is a classic case of fundamental attribution error. Fundamental attribution error leads drivers, as Jaffe explains, to conclude that “cyclists think they’re above the law because that’s how they are; not, cyclists occasionally make poor riding decisions because the road network wasn’t designed with them in mind.”

What Alviani, Jaffe, and Goodyear are describing is a change in which bicyclists are becoming more visible. Goodyear’s main point, however, unpacks the complexity a bit more by introducing a form of identity politics. “Riding a bike in the United States has long been perceived as a statement,” writes Goodyear. “Being a bicyclist has been an identity…The cyclist as renegade, outsider, maverick, or outlaw.”

Dave Horton has been studying the “cyclist identity” for quite some time Many of his observations of the cyclist identity in the UK apply in the U.S. context as well. Horton’s work on the cyclist identity is documented in a number of posts on his blog Thinking About Cycling (see Towards a Revolution in CyclingAn Ethnography of Everyday CyclingFear of Cycling). In Cycling Struggles, 9 he lays out a two-step process by which individuals adopt a cycling identity: “The first step in developing a cyclist identity is in merely tolerating and learning to negotiate what to most people are intolerable cycling conditions…The second step in developing a cyclist identity is in continuing to cycle despite experiencing dangerous incidents” (which “become almost ‘rites of passage’ and ‘badges of honor,’” according to Horton).

The emergence of a cyclist identity occurs in a sort of mashup of cognitive dissonance and a reverse self-fulfilling prophecy. Cognitive dissonance theory posits that humans strive for internal consistency when confronted with simultaneously held contradictory ideas, beliefs or values. The self-fulfilling prophecy, formalized by sociological theorist Robert K. Merton, maintains that when a situation is falsely defined a person’s behavior may adapt in such a way as to make the original, but false, conception of the situation come true.

For the cyclist, cognitive dissonance occurs when a normally law-abiding person finds himself violating traffic laws in order to gain some protection in a dangerous traffic environment (and we use the masculine pronoun here because it is, more often than not, a male cyclist in question). To resolve the dissonance, he can either change the behavior or change the value (respect for laws). Embracing a new identity as renegade cyclist makes more palatable his lawbreaking behavior. Whereas the self-fulfilling prophecy begins with a false understanding of a situation and results in behavior that makes the false understanding true, in this reverse self-fulfilling prophecy a correct understanding of the situation (motorists pose a safety hazard for bicyclists) results in behavior (violating traffic laws) that creates dissonance with a person’s actual identity (law-abiding citizen) which the person resolves or mitigates by adopting a new identity (maverick cyclist).


Not all drivers block bike lanes. But does this create a safe situation for a cyclist? Not if one of those car doors opens.

It’s precisely this identity that Goodyear insists cyclists must shed. Horton is also concerned with the implications of such an identity:

…assertive male cyclists…have the strongest influence on cycling discourses. It’s their identities I want to…problematize. I’m silencing women…as well as other ‘cyclists of difference’ (non-white and non-middle class), but it’s the more general silence of these voices within (supposedly) pro-cycling discourses which produces a style of cycling promotion I’d call ‘male’ (and white, middle-class), which keeps British cycling gendered ‘male’ (and white, middle-class).

This is all very important for understanding how to shape a movement that makes it easier for people to choose the bicycle as a means of transportation rather than choosing to become a cyclist. And one way to facilitate the choice to use a bicycle is to deal with the barrier created by the perception that all motorists see all people on bikes as occupying the “assertive male cyclist.”

This is certainly Milloy’s perception when he writes that “it’s a $500 fine for a motorist to hit a bicyclist in the District, but some behaviors are so egregious that some drivers might think it’s worth paying the fine.” The perception that violence against bicyclists might be justified creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. As long as one perceives Milloy’s as the dominant attitude of motorists, the only individuals who will choose to bicycle are the “assertive males” willing to embrace the identity of maverick cyclist.

This is what it looks like when a car hits a cyclist

The scene after a car struck a bicyclist in San Francisco

So how do we escape this counterproductive loop of fundamental attribution error, cognitive dissonance and self-fulfilling prophecies? Alviani seems to advocate “talking it out,” but also points out a major problem with this approach: Civil dialogue about the rights and experiences of bicyclists on our streets, as well as users of other transportation modes more generally, is hamstrung by the fact that “most of us still aren’t very multi-modal.” Constructive conversation requires “overcoming all this fear and anger and bias” (on both sides). And the best way to do that, explains Alviani, “is simply to get more people on bikes, and show them not only the joys and concerns of urban riding, but also its humanity and diversity.”

The assumption is that drivers won’t understand the behavior of cyclists until they’ve “walked a mile in their shoes.” But do we really need the kind of “empathic perspective taking” that is a cornerstone of certain approaches to multicultural education? If we aim to nurture dialogue where participants’s identities are defined by their mode choice–or perhaps mode choice(s) since many of us are drivers/walkers/bicyclists/transit riders–what do we gain and what might we lose?

While new infrastructure may finally be making many cyclists visible, many other cyclists are not using the infrastructure, as we argued in Lessons from the Green Lanes? Listen to Communities of Color, and there’s a pretty good chance that their identities are defined less by mode choices than by cultural, ethnic, parental, occupational or other social roles. So when Goodyear exhorts cyclists to begin “playing by the rules,” cautioning that “it may mean that you’re going to have to give up your identity as a special person who does some special activity known as cycling,” she’s confusing those who cycle as an identity with those who simply cycle.

In confusing these two we potentially miss a whole segment of the “people-using-bikes-as-transportation” demographic. This is problematic given that people of color are the fastest growing segment of the biking population. Yet they are so invisible that they aren’t even part of the “scofflaw” conversation. When Milloy throws out examples of people riding on sidewalks, he’s probably not imagining the immigrant day laborer trying to get to a job site but rather the assertive white male hopping a curb to get to a hipster cafe.

Which brings us to the following question: As the infrastructure develops, and as more people bicycle, and as more misperceptions and conflicts ensue, if we try to “talk it out” we need to ask “Who is part of the conversation and who, exactly, are we talking about? Obviously the ultimate goal should be to “provide an infrastructure in which anyone can cycle, rather than just those whose social identities are commensurate with being ‘a cyclist’” (Steinbach et al. (2011, 1130). But the reality is that the infrastructure being introduced–whether protected bike lanes, bike-specific traffic lights, or bike share programs–allows only certain people to shed the their cyclist identities and become, as Goodyear describes, “just another regular part of the urban landscape.” Admittedly, and importantly, it also removes barriers for people who never had the cyclist identity, allowing the bike to become a mere transportation choice rather than a talisman of the urban warrior. But as people on bikes become more visible, we need to ask who remains invisible and how all the new infrastructure might be keeping them invisible.

Strangely, we share this equity concern with Goodyear and Milloy. Describing her feelings about people who ride against traffic on one-way streets, Goodyear exclaims:

If every single one of those people got a ticket every time they tried this nonsense, I would be thrilled. (My one caveat is that I’m concerned about enforcement being disproportionately aimed at young men of color and becoming part of the stop and frisk problem.)

And, if we can get past his vitriol, Milloy may have a legitimate concern:

I recall in the not-so-distant past when the city’s bikers weren’t newly arrived, mostly white millennials but black juveniles whom D.C. police frequently stopped — at least in neighborhoods that were being gentrified. Stopped for riding on sidewalks. Stopped for riding in parking lots.

Now that kids like them are being moved to the outskirts of the city, if not out altogether, the District government is bending over backward to make Washington a more “biker-friendly” city.

The short of it is that it’s all too easy to assume that when we’re working for safe, accessible, affordable (and, ideally, efficient) options for moving ourselves, everyone benefits. That’s not necessarily the case. Concerns about equity, privilege, discrimination, inclusion and exclusion are voiced in different places, by different people, and in different ways.

In our book Incomplete Streets (due out next month), we’ve compiled chapters from a range of authors each of whom challenges the assumption that everyone benefits when making streets more bike-friendly. The book examines the assumption not just for bicycle infrastructure, but for the Complete Streets movement more broadly. The Complete Streets movement is a rapidly growing and increasingly dominant form of rhetoric and practice in urban planning and policy. According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, “a Complete Streets policy ensures that transportation planners and engineers consistently design and operate the entire roadway with all users in mind–including bicyclists, public transportation vehicles and riders, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities.”

As we write in the book’s introduction, “Streets, the movement implies, are incomplete when they are designed, constructed and maintained with the primary objective of moving automobiles efficiently.” Incomplete Streets accepts the imperative to challenge our society’s auto-normativity, but challenges the limited definition of incomplete streets as streets where non-motorized mobility is missing. The book explores the ways that streets might continue to be incomplete, even after they have been made bike-, pedestrian-, and transit-friendly, by suggesting that streets should not be thought of as merely physical spaces, but as symbolic and social spaces. When important social and symbolic narratives are missing from the discourse and practice of Complete Streets, we argue, what actually results are incomplete streets.

Beginning with our next post we’ll be launching a series in which we’ll share excerpts from some of the book’s chapters, usually with a bit of commentary on our part to connect them to the kinds of things we’ve been discussing here at Invisible Cyclist. Although the series is still in development, you can expect to see posts on Do Lee’s concept of “cumulative irresponsibility,” which he employs to explain our acceptance of the automobile’s role in extraordinary rates of death and damage. Lee demonstrates how a streetscape of “cumulative irresponsibility” arises when an absence of collective responsibility turns the harm caused by cars into a naturalized burden of everyday life. We’ll also unpack Sig Langegger’s concept of the “rights rift,” a disconnect between rights attached to people and the regulation of people’s behavior through control of built environments like streets. Langegger employs the concept in examining the regulation of Latino “cruising” on the streets of North Denver, but it has relevance as well to claims of “rights to the street,” and the denial of those claims, in the bikelash rhetoric.

If you’ve looked at the Table of Contents and there are other chapters that look intriguing or you have other questions about our use of the phrase “incomplete streets,” let us know and we’ll try to address them as part of the series.

Steinbach, R., Green, J., Datta, J., and Edwards, P. (2011) ‘Cycling and the city: a case study of how gendered, ethnic and class identities can shape healthy transport choices’. Social Science & Medicine 72(7): 1123–30.


One thought on “Bicycling and the “Cyclist Identity”: Understanding the “Bikelash”

  1. Pingback: Can Incomplete Streets Bridge Diversity and Sustainability Studies? | Stephen Zavestoski

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