In a recent episode of CBC’s The 180 Ian Walker, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Bath in the UK talked about his research into the animosity between drivers and cyclists.
Dr. Walker pointed out there’s something more than the fact that bicyclists are a minority among a majority of car drivers that leads to the conflict between the two. He contrasted cyclists with vegetarians saying that although vegetarians are also a minority among meat eaters, it is unusual for vegetarians to receive death threats, while cyclists receive death threats all the time from irate drivers. He postulated that the ire of car drivers might be due to the competition for roadspace.
He had once felt cyclists have a perfectly good transportation network called roads, he said, but he’s changed his opinion. He now feels separated bike routes are needed. Cyclists perhaps should not be treated as just another road user because the threat is so unequal.
Perhaps most importantly Dr. Walker described his research results which made plain the fact that many drivers just don’t understand what it is like to be a cyclist. Whereas they can imagine themselves as a pedestrian – they’ve been pedestrians – they usually haven’t experienced the fear of a cyclist as a vehicle roars by too close or too fast; there is a lack of empathy.
Many motorists, he found, can’t quite imagine why a cyclist would even be on the road in the first place. Though cyclists explain their choice of ride based on convenience, exercise and a joy in the activity, Dr. Walker said in one study he found that bus drivers considered cyclists as people too cheap to pay bus fare.
So what does this tell us about how to end the war between cars and bikes? Certainly it supports the continued expansion of bike lanes and especially segregated bike lanes. But building hard infrastructure is expensive and in some cases it even stirs up more anger among drivers.
Perhaps in addition a cost-effective approach might be a long term public information effort. Getting non-cyclists to understand why cyclists cycle, and to understand what it feels like to be a cyclist might make a difference.
Understanding that cyclists are not competing for road space, but in fact, increasing road space by not driving might help too.
The Ontario Driver’s Handbook helps people prepare for their driver’s test. It does instruct prospective drivers on sharing the road with cyclists.
Imagine though if understanding why people bike and what it feels like to be a cyclist were part of the requirement.