Slate Examines the Irrational Biases That Underlie Cyclist Hatred

Not surprisingly, everybody’s talking about the Slate article that attempts to explain “Why You [presumably a motorist] Hate Cyclists.”

Writer Jim Saksa basically concludes that motorist haterade is based mostly on logical fallacies that stem from the marginalization of cyclists, and our predilection to use anecdotes to confirm our own deeply held biases.

If this sight makes you angry, it might have more to do with you than the person on the bike. Photo: ## Bike Portland##

Here’s a sampling from Slate, if you haven’t had a chance to read it yet:

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.

Network blogger Jonathan Maus at Bike Portland calls the article “important” and a “must-read.”

Saksa correctly (in my opinion) states that much of the hate we hear about on talk radio shows, in and local TV station blog comments, has more to do with emotion than reality. This is something I’ve tried to explain to people (in a much less eloquent way) for a long time, and it’s why we can’t let people’s personal anecdotes become the basis for policy.

I’ve found that much of the divisiveness and anger present in our discussions about transportation projects and policies has to do with a simple lack of perspective. Most of the people I debate issues with simply haven’t spent time riding a bicycle in an urban environment. On the flip side, I have driven around this city in a car plenty of times

One thing Saksa doesn’t mention, but that I feel plays a large role in peoples’ tendency to “hate cyclists” is that people on bikes are not anonymous. Because bike riders are out in the open, they are very easy to judge and attach anger to. People in cars, on the other hand, can barely be seen inside their vehicles and they are, in effect, shielded from hateful and emotional psychological scapegoating.

Elsewhere on the Network today: offers a handy map for determining whether your state is above or below average on bike commuting. Some of the results are pretty surprising. Market Urbanism wonders why more governors don’t seize on zoning reform as a way to jump start their states’ economies. And Transit in Utah celebrates the opening of Portland’s newest streetcar line.

0 thoughts on Slate Examines the Irrational Biases That Underlie Cyclist Hatred

  1. A few thoughts on the article:

    1) I think there is quite a bit of subconscious stuff going on in drivers.  When I drive, I notice how incredibly vulnerable bicyclists are.  I know I can easily wipe them out with a careless flick of my wrist. This makes me uncomfortable, but rather than making me sympathetic to them, my kneejerk response is to feel indignant (why are they putting themselves at so much risk?!?  Why don’t they wrap themselves in 3000lbs of steel like any sensible person does?) There is no doubt that bicyclists in traffic put more responsibility on drivers. However, I don’t think automatically think–why doesn’t the city give them their own lane away from car traffic and not so susceptible to me making a careless mistake? *My impulse is to blame the bicyclist for being vulnerable and putting additional responsibility on me.* Now I am a bicyclist myself. I bicycle far more these days than I drive so in no way should any bicyclists be *the other* to me.  When I come behind a bicyclist, I do slow down and wait until I can safely give them three feet of passing space, telling myself they are only delaying me a few seconds, it’s all the *cars* in front of me that are really delaying me. (which is true)  But even so, I still recognize and am astonished by what biases and thoughts go through my head just driving down the street.

    2) I think drivers subconsciously know how damaging and destructive every trip they take in a car is even if they are nowhere near to consciously admitting it. This creates guilt and discomfort. Guilt and discomfort are projected on cyclists, the newest kid on the block and the group they don’t belong to. Everyone is a pedestrian at some time or another, and (as the article suggests) it’s easiest to be angry with a subgroup you don’t belong to.

    3) Drivers in San Francisco, at least, have improved their civility levels towards cyclists the last three years or so. (Though there are still some horrific jerks out there.) On the whole most drivers are nice to me while I cycle. I would say this is because 1) I am female, 2) I am 50 years old, 3) I wear street clothes (no lycra) 4) I ride an upright bicycle with a wicker basket and 5) I have flowers on my basket.  (I am not kidding–the flowers help.) It is my hypothesis that being upright makes a cyclist more visible to cars, more in their line of sight. It is also my hypothesis that helmets make cyclists more anonymous and decrease car driver sympathy. (Note: I am not advocating not wearing a helmet for this reason.)  I noticed while in Amsterdam this summer–where absolutely no one wears a helmet–that bicyclists looked more individual and like real people. Helmeted, duded-up-in-lycra bicyclists tend to look like space aliens.  (Note: I’m not saying the space alien look for any reason justifies bad driver behavior.)
    I have a fluorescent yellow cycling jacket.  Last winter on a drizzling day I pulled it out because I don’t have a lot of waterproof gear.  But wearing it, I got more harassment in 30 minutes of cycling than I had in the thirty days before.  I have no doubt the neon yellow made me more visible, but for some reason it was a cue for car drivers to become jerks.  Of course, this is just an anecdote–I’m waiting for someone graduate student to do some nice scholarly study on triggers of driver jerkiness.

  2. >The “otherness” of cyclists makes them stand out
    Precisely what I’ve been saying (and writing on a blog of mine) for years. Cyclists dressed in weird spandex gear with ads, helmeted and rushing around, give cycling a bad name.

    We need to make cycling a ‘normal’ activity; we need to look like everyone else, not to stand out. And ride slowly, of course, without yelling at peds and rushing through red lights.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with the idea of dressing in regular street clothes. I rarely have issues with motorists. I suspect it’s because I don’t wear a helmet and don’t wear cycling gear. This is despite the fact that I ride a sporty machine (including a rear disk wheel sometimes) and am usually moving faster than most of the guys in lycra I see. I also think having lights on the bike helps. Motorists just see me as another vehicle on the road, not something “other”.

  4. There’s no need to ride slowly all the time, but rather to ride at a speed appropriate for the conditions. You don’t go 30 mph when there’s lots of peds around, but on nearly empty roads those kinds of speeds are just fine. I also think just being predictable helps more than anything else. For example, I don’t go through lights until the crosswalk is clear of peds, and I never yell at them.

  5. If I ride my typical commute in cotton, I will ruin the clothing and smell really bad at my destination. My commute is 12 miles, if I had to double the duration I would have to not cycle. There are no peds on the roads I ride.

  6. cmu, that’s kind of ignorant. Street clothes are impractical for anything beyond the easiest of bike commutes. They’ll give you horrible saddle sores if you’re not careful and will make you stink because they don’t wick sweat. There are VERY good reasons why specialized cycling clothing exists, and almost all of them have to do with visibility and comfort. Those cyclists you see in ‘weird spandex gear with ads’ are probably racers on sponsored teams that are out on training rides. The sponsors are underwriting some of the team’s costs and thus they’re obligated to wear it.

    For those of us commuting beyond 5 miles in varied weather, on varied terrain, and at varied levels of intensity, street clothes are not a viable option. I don’t give a damn what motorists think of my appearance while I’m riding as long as they don’t hit me.

    Disqus is being weird, so apologies if this double posts.

  7. magicmike, I don’t want your respect.  I just want you not to kill me.  And, if by “respect” you actually mean “not kill”, how long will you observe my riding before you decide whether or not to “respect” me? 

  8. JamesR.  I’ll have to disagree that street clothes are only good for <5 mile and easy (not entirely sure what you mean by that:  topography, weather, type of bicycle, etc?) bike commutes.  I don't own any of the sporty apparel and so, I only bike in regular street clothing.  One year, my commute was just over 5 miles one way to work and was a complete non-issue. Often on weekends I would do recreational riding (on paved paths) and easily go 20-40 miles, with 60 being the most.  Obvious the clothing I wore to do the riding is sweaty and needs washing afterwards, but it didn't feel so uncomfortable or impractical that I was ever compelled to buy cycling gear.  

    Now, would it have felt better to have had special gear that is designed for longer-distance riding?  Perhaps.  At the least, there would be less aerodynamic drag.  But I'm perfectly happy wearing what I do and whatever others choose to wear, all the power to them.  

  9. I fully agree here. I regularly do 25 to 30+ mile rides in normal street clothes (T-shirt, sneakers, cotton work pants) at average speeds usually in the 15.5 to 17 mph range. That average is inclusive of stops/slowdowns, which means I’m usually cruising in the 18 to 23 mph area. I’ve never found wearing the clothing I wear to be a major issue, even in warm, humid NYC summers. In fact, here I would think it wouldn’t matter if the clothing wicks sweat or not because sweat just doesn’t evaporate with the humidity. You’ll come home soaked regardless. About the only area where cycling apparel might be a plus is aerodynamics. To me it’s just not worth it to bother changing into cycling clothing whenever I feel like riding for a slight gain in speed. If others enjoy riding in cycling apparel, that’s fine by me. Just don’t tell me that it’s impractical to do long, fast rides in regular street clothes because I’ve been doing exactly that for over 34 years.

  10. Interesting how so many of us pick up on the otherness aspect of this article. I think we all agree that there is an otherness about riding when so many others don’t, and we instinctively try to minimize it.

    But I think there is another factor here: people on bicycles are threatening to a system in which people have invested a lot — both monetarily and emotionally. If they have any insecurity about their transportation choice (like knowing that it is draining their finances, or making them less healthy) the appearance of a viable alternative creates real dissonance. And anger.

  11. For drivers, cyclists are like a fly: , they fly under your nose and around your car, they are smaller, they can go places you can’t, they are faster, they seem to be mocking you….

    For pedestrians, only those cyclists that do not respect the laws are upsetting: they startle you , they thumb up their nose at you, they disrespect you ..and it is more disappointing because you thought they were more like you, they were in your camp..

  12. I don’t respect drivers who don’t respect the law, which is like 90% of the drivers. The remaining 10% likely ride bikes too.

  13. Maybe people don’t say “All drivers suck,” but I have often heard people say, “Cars suck.”  Bikers don’t hate drivers, they hate cars. 

    Drivers, on the other hand, don’t hate bikes, they hate bikers.  This is an interesting difference that is related both to the “otherness” issue and to the “bike riders are out in the open” issue.  A person on a bike is obviously a person, whereas a person in a car has his personhood shielded and hidden…

  14. Would you look at that guy on the bike.  Look at his clothes who can see someone dressed the same color as asphalt, and he isn’t even wearing a helmet.  Does he know whats good for him?  I bet he tries to run that stop sign up ahead, unless of course I speed up and hang a right.

  15. I agree.  That extra flexibility is something many drivers probably wish they had.  I don’t think it’s so much of a “cyclists are mocking drivers,” but rather they are simply deviating from the norm-the norm which most Americans have come to know as roads are meant for (fast and direct) motor vehicle transport and nothing else.  This attitude is especially obvious in the suburbs.  I would love to see the reaction of impatient American drivers take a trip to Holland and try to drive around the cities there, with all the limited-access roads, no-thru ways for cars only, slower speeds and priority for other modal users.  

    But I think speed is also another important factor.  Cyclists are just not physically able to accelerate or reach speeds the way motor vehicles are able to.  Some people may be able to go 30, 35, 40 mph (or more) on a road bike, but most people are not able or interested in riding at those speeds.  That’s probably why you don’t hear the same complaints about motorcycles.  While I’m sure there are drivers who are resentful about them, at least they can’t use slowness as an excuse for feeling that way.  

    Fortunately this is slowly changing in some cities, but the fact that most Americans aren’t cyclists (particularly commuters), don’t see many of them around, aren’t taught how to deal with them or that they also belong on the road, and are just generally impatient all contribute to the negative attitudes about cycling in our driving culture.  Growing up as a surburbanite, I never viewed or thought about cycling as a legitimate mode of transport until I took a trip to Denmark and saw what is possible.   

  16. Like I stated before, the advantages of the cycling specific clothing are comfort, moisture wicking, and yes, aerodynamics. If I’m not fighting wind as much, I can lower my intensity level and arrive at work that much less fatigued. 60 miles in street clothes sounds like it would turn your rear end to hamburger.

    I think there is a a cultural difference at play here. My commute takes me from the Bronx into the Westchester suburbs.That means that I’m able to ride the 9 mile commute at full-tilt for significant periods of time without having to stop, versus a stop and go bike commute within city limits.

    And JoeR, it sounds like you’ve never actually done a ride in full cycling kit during hot, humid weather. Lycra makes a HUGE difference shedding moisture and dries much more rapidly. Who wants to put nasty, still-wet cotton based clothed back on for the commute home, when you can clean your cycling-specific clothing in the sink at work, hang it up to dry in an inconspicuous location for 8 hours, and have clean, dry clothes to ride home with?

    My point is that there are real and valid reasons to wear cycling-specific clothing during a bike commute and that to ostracize those of us who do so – who likely have longer, tougher commutes than you do – is counterproductive.

  17. @0725e26de8afcbf0a72ccf98de3fb783:disqus I won’t argue that cycling clothing has advantages over street clothes. My larger point was that with the humidity typical here in eastern Queens, sweat just doesn’t evaporate, period, no matter what you’re wearing. Sure, the Lycra may dry out faster once you get to an air-conditioned environment, but I’ll be just as soaked when I arrive. And there’s one piece of cycling-specific gear I could never wear-namely a helmet. I put on a friend’s helmet and felt myself overheating just standing still. I couldn’t imagine riding with that thing. I would be sweating 3 times as much.

    I’m hardly ostracizing those who choose to wear cycling-specific clothing here. I’m just saying it’s possible to do long, fast rides without undue discomfort in street clothes, at least for some of us. Maybe my butt is harder than normal, I don’t know. I often joke with friends that I could probably ride a bike with just a seat post.

    The biggest problem I see with cycling specific clothing (besides the extra cost) is that it seems to set certain groups over the edge. I don’t need that kind of negative attention even if it means a little more aerodynamic drag. For example, in Central Park the police were mostly ticketing the spandexed riders at red lights.

    Just out of curiosity, exactly how much advantage does cycling clothing offer over street clothing in terms of drag reduction? Can I go 5 mph faster for the same effort? If it’s much less than that, it’s just not worth it to me. BTW, I work at home and ride solely for recreation. If I really did wish to bike commute long distances, I suspect I would eventually invest in a Quest velomobile. Besides its all-weather versatility, it would give me a ~10 mph speed boost (or conversely I could ride at 20 mph without breaking a sweat) and I could still wear street clothes without worrying about increased drag. Sure, a Quest is a big investment, but I figure in a few years of commuting it’ll pay for itself over paying for the subway. Anyway, I respect your choices, I just wish you could respect mine.

  18. What does wearing a helmet have to do with anything? Helmets are close to useless in car-bike collisions, the kind which kills/injures many cyclists

  19. @bebbbee600e2c8453d4deafbadcc390a:disqus Actually, if we wanted to get really serious about human-powered transportation, then we have the technology to allow even average riders to maintain at least 30 mph, perhaps even 40+ mph with some R&D. The same tech would allow strong rider to cruise at highway speeds. Of course, these highly aerodynamic HPVs still wouldn’t be able to accelerate as fast as motor vehicles, although you can probably solve that issue by using a small battery to store energy for quick, infrequent bursts of acceleration. Down the road, if there were enough of these types of HPVs, they could get their own superhighways which would render their poor acceleration moot. I really feel if we threw a few million dollars at solving the issues of maintaining laminar flow, we could get scary fast HPVs with the potential to match or even better motor vehicle travel times. That in turn would spark a revolution in how we get around. The classic bicycle may be fine as is for relatively short distances of perhaps up to 15 or 20 miles, but only hardy souls will take bikes on 100+ mile trips. A human-powered vehicle which could make those trips in well under 2 hours could change everything.

  20. Joe R.  That’s an interesting idea I haven’t thought about.  But I can certainly see it’s place in the larger transportation picture.  For longer distance trips, I was thinking to rely more on transit, and for the medium or “out to nature” type trips, be able to rent a car or perhaps use carshare (like Zipcar, for instance), if the bicycle was not a practical option.  None of these options (or any combination of them) are really viable in my current city for the out-of-town type plans.    

    Preferably, I would not want to own anything beyond the basic bicycle, without any kind of batteries or add-ons that will ramp up the types of possible maintenance and service work needed.  It may be a worthwhile investment, with some careful planning.  There would have to be some speed regulation depending on the situation.  For instance, I wouldn’t want to be enjoying a scenic ride on paved trail with people going by me at 40-50 mph, even if only on bicycles.  

  21. I find it hard to respect any human being who is disrespectful towards others.  Notice how I explicitly point out humanity because people are people.  Someone who is genuinely an a**hole is going to be one whether he/she is riding a bike, walking, flying a plane, skiing, driving a car, riding a bus, sitting on the porch (mentally and/or verbally judging everyone else), rollerblading, interacting with others, etc.  

    Now that all being said, when any human being is put in a position of some power, there’s always temptations to abuse and impose harm on others, whether intentional or not.  Cars give people a lot more “power” than bicycles.  It takes almost no effort to accelerate to speeds >100 mph on many cars and you have that wonderfully-loud honker at your disposal to scare others with.  Not to mention that metal shield and 4000 lb + armor.  How often do you hear of drivers or passengers dying or suffering serious injuries from the act of the car hitting a pedestrian?  

  22.  Interesting. I have coworkers who bike to the office on a regular basis and reject the NYC transit system for the most part. And to reject a deal like $2.25 to get anywhere you want in the five boroughs, 24/7 – to reject that convenience, especially in bad weather – is probably unthinkable to most. Sad how human nature can be so resistant to change sometimes.

  23. I’ll be paying for six years on a 30,000 dollar product that promised me freedom and power — you’ve seen the ads, right? — and all I got was this lousy frickin’ commute. No wonder I’m angry. Either I’ve been duped or else that jamoke on the bike ahead of me is all that stands between me and the ecstasy I deserve.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Slate Examines the Irrational Biases That Underlie Cyclist Hatred

Not surprisingly, everybody’s talking about the Slate article that attempts to explain “Why You [presumably a motorist] Hate Cyclists.” Writer Jim Saksa basically concludes that motorist haterade is based mostly on logical fallacies that stem from the marginalization of cyclists, and our predilection to use anecdotes to confirm our own deeply held biases. Here’s a […]

Boston’s Over-the-Top “Bike Safety” Campaign

You’ve probably seen the anti-smoking ads that show a man exhaling through a hole in his windpipe. Not pretty, eh? Well, the Boston Public Health Commission seems to have borrowed a page from that campaign in a new appeal to cyclists regarding helmet use. Check out the ad they’re using to promote protective headwear: a […]
When people who bike get behind the wheel of a car, Photo: John Luton/Flickr

What Do Drivers Really Think of Cyclists?

There's ample research out there backing up the safety benefits of streets with protected bikeways and slow car speeds. But what about the critically important yet less tangible factor of individual attitudes -- how does the mind of the person behind the wheel affect driver behavior toward cyclists? A new report from Portland State University looks at the question.

How Much Do Bicyclists Really Slow Down Drivers?

What’s really slowing these cars down? Probably not bikes. Photo by richardmasoner via Flickr. What is it about bicycles that drives some motorists so crazy? Anyone who’s ever ridden a bike more than a handful of times in this country has experienced it. The honking, the rude remarks, the vehicles speeding past with drivers shouting […]