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Much of the recent nastiness is really a symptom of driver frustration with a changing environment.

The past couple of weeks have witnessed more than one high-profile instance of journalists demonizing cyclist behavior. In one case, NPR's Scott Simon tweeted that all city cyclists "think they're above the law" (though he subsequently toned down the venom). In the more severe case, Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy made the seemingly sociopathic suggestion that drivers annoyed by cyclists should consider hitting them and paying the $500 fine.

Driver rants against cyclists are of course nothing new. It's been pointed out in this space before, most skillfully by Sarah Goodyear last year, that cycling haters are actually a sign of cycling success. As major American cities embrace multimodal transportation and balanced mobility networks, cycling has shifted from an outsider enterprise to the mainstream. That shift, in turn, has produced a new psychological strain for drivers accustomed to the belief they own the road.

The most thoughtful response, in the current case, came from Carl Alviani, writing in Medium. Alviani traces the source of much driver contempt toward cyclists to a basic cognitive bias called the fundamental attribution error—basically, a tendency to attribute behavior to personality or disposition, rather than a situation or environment. So, 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.

Alviani cites a British study from 2002 on driver perceptions of cyclists. Going back to the work, we see that these perceptions are overwhelmingly negative. Drivers consider cyclists vulnerable, irresponsible, despised, dangerous, erratic and unpredictable, and arrogant. (There were only two positive perceptions, one of which—that cyclists are brave—is kind of a backhanded compliment.) The authors don't cite the fundamental attribution theory by name but do suggest it plays a key role:

[T]he 'out group' status of cyclists brings with it a tendency among drivers to impute the poor or incompetent behaviour of some cyclists to all cyclists. Thus, despite degrees of unpredictability, cyclists en masse are seen as less reliable than motorised road users. Moreover, this unpredictability seems to be considered inherent, i.e. 'dispositional', not a consequence of the influence of external environmental factors on the cycle user.

Getting back to the point: The idea that cyclists are part of the "out group" and unpredictable has shifted considerably even since this study was conducted in 2002. Cyclists may always make up a minority of city travelers (at least in U.S. metros), but the increased prevalence of bike lanes and bike-share systems, alongside steadily rising rates of ridership, means that every passing day makes them less an unpredictable "out group" and more an integral part of the urban transportation fabric.

This certainly doesn't excuse nasty generalities, but it does recommend—to Sarah Goodyear's point—that cyclists recognize the transportation sea change occurring around them. Because the fundamental attribution error here is a two-way street. If not all cyclists are scofflaws, then not all drivers are Courtland Milloy. So many Americans moved to the suburbs decades ago on the social promise of a swift car commute into the city, and now find themselves locked in terrible daily congestion and surrounded by an urban transport network (rightfully) placing greater emphasis on alternative modes.

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.

 

About the Author

Eric Jaffe
Eric Jaffe

Eric Jaffe is the former New York bureau chief for CityLab. He is the author of A Curious Madness and The King's Best Highway.

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