‘Cockroaches on wheels’: How cyclists are being dehumanised and why that matters

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“Don’t read the comments.” It’s a phrase cyclists have become all too familiar with. We all know that whenever the mainstream media goes anywhere near the subject of cycling, the online commentary will almost certainly turn nasty.

Many commenters leap at the opportunity to vent their frustration, sharing anecdotes of law-flouting cyclists that, they opine, shouldn’t be on the road anyway. Others go further, threatening real-world violence to cyclists that get in their way.

It was this poor treatment of cyclists online that got Monash University researcher Dr Alexa Delbosc thinking. Could it be that cyclists aren’t just treated poorly but that they are, in fact, “dehumanised”? If the results of Dr Delbosc’s latest study are anything to go by, she could well be onto something.

Dehumanising cyclists

Dr Delbosc is a transport studies researcher with a background in social psychology. It was the intersection of these seemingly disparate interests that helped prompt her study on the dehumanisation of cyclists.

“Why do people feel comfortable making jokes or pretty frank comments about hurting, maiming cyclists and think that’s OK when with other groups … you wouldn’t make the same comments about women or minorities?,” Dr Delbosc posed to CyclingTips. “What is it about cyclists that people think is fair game? We know there’s a lot of conflict between cyclists and other road users but is there something more sinister behind this very dark edge that can sometimes emerge?”

Examples of anti-cycling commentary on Facebook.

Dr Delbosc’s study, published last month in the journal Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, builds upon a solid research foundation — for roughly two decades researchers have been investigating whether certain groups of people are dehumanised by others.

At first blush, “dehumanisation” sounds extreme — the sort of thing that would only happen in the context of horrific events such as war or genocide. But what does it actually mean to “dehumanise” someone?

“It’s viewing another group of people as less evolved or less fully human than yourself,” Dr Delbosc said. “It’s been around for a little while now as a research concept in social psychology but it’s usually looking at racial and ethnic groups or women or workers. It has been looked at a bit more widely but never with a road user group as far as we’re aware.”

The survey

To determine whether cyclists are indeed being dehumanised, Dr Delbosc and her colleagues devised a four-part survey; a survey that was eventually completed by more than 400 Australians (half of which were from Victoria).

Part one of the survey asked respondents to rate how closely they thought eight statements applied to cyclists, on a scale of 1 (“not at all”) to 7 (“extremely so”). These statements ranged from “I feel like cyclists are emotional, like they are responsive and warm” to “I feel like cyclists lack self-restraint, like an animal.”

Part two asked respondents to indicate on a chart how “evolved” they thought the average cyclist was. Half of the respondents were presented with a chart that’s been used extensively in psychology research, showing the “ascent of man” from ape to human. The other half of respondents were presented with a modified version of this scale which replaced primates with insects — a nod to the fact that cyclists are sometimes likened to cockroaches.

Image: Transportation Research Part F

Part three of the survey, the “Attitudes to Cyclists Scale”, asked respondents to rate whether they agreed or disagreed with 10 statements about cyclists and their place on the road. The statements ranged from “Motorists need to be educated to give cyclists a fair go on the road” to “Many cyclists take no notice of road rules.”

The fourth and final part asked participants to report whether they had ever acted aggressively towards cyclists in the past. Had they ever deliberately driven a car close to a cyclist, for example, or made a rude gesture towards a cyclist?

After parsing all the data and checking for internal consistency among the results, the authors arrived at a striking finding: “I would sum it up by saying that half of non-cyclists view cyclists as less evolved than themselves,” said Dr Delbosc.

As troubling as the finding is, Dr Delbosc wasn’t terribly surprised — it seemed clear to her from the outset that cyclists were being dehumanised, it was just a case of quantifying it.

Perhaps more surprising was the fact that 17% of cyclists displayed dehumanising attitudes towards cyclists. And strangely enough, that finding is not without precedent. For instance, previous studies have found that some Americans rate the average American as less than human.

Dr Delbosc has an explanation for why some cyclists seem to dehumanise their own. As she writes in her Transportation Research paper, “Perhaps these ‘dehumanising cyclists’ are imagining a different sub-group of cyclists who behave more animalistically than themselves.” In some ways this explanation makes sense — it’s not hard to imagine a conscientious, law-abiding cyclist viewing other red-light-running or overly aggressive cyclists as somehow inferior.

Context is king

There’s a satisfying simplicity to Dr Delbosc’s main finding: that half of non-cyclists see cyclists as less than human. Indeed, the study has attracted plenty of media attention around the world as a result of its simplicity. (And, no doubt, because one of Dr Delbosc’s co-authors, Dr Narelle Haworth, suggested publicly that the term “cyclist” has become pejorative and should be retired. The tabloid media pounced upon that suggestion with great delight.)

But it’s not quite as simple as saying that 50% of non-cyclists see cyclists as less than human. As the authors note, only 442 people were surveyed for this research, making this more of a “pilot” study than research that can be applied population-wide.

Image: Eduardo Enrietti/Unsplash

Besides the relatively small sample size, there’s the issue of representation to consider — young, wealthy, employed, white men were overly represented in this survey group. For the findings to hold at population level, the study would need to be repeated with a larger, more representative sample.

“In the sample it’s 50% [of non-cyclists that dehumanise cyclists], so people seem to love to run with that number because it’s there and it’s easy,” Dr Delbosc said. “I would be cautious without doing a proper representative sample. I don’t know if that’s going to be in the end 30% or if it’s going to be 70% but I think we can safely say it’s there.”

And the fact that it’s there at all is of great concern.

Why it matters

As Dr Delbosc notes, it’s not just that some proportion of the population views cyclists as less than human. It’s the fact that people who view cyclists as less than human are also more likely to have acted aggressively towards cyclists on the road. Dr Delbosc and co showed this by comparing people’s responses to part four of the survey (whether they had shown aggression toward a cyclist) with their responses to the rest of the survey.

“That to me is the clincher because it’s one thing to say ‘Oh you know, maybe people were just joking [with their survey responses]’,” she said. “‘You know, the [evolution] scale was kind of funny. They were just having a laugh’, as people do online with online comments. ‘Oh, I’m just joking. I wouldn’t actually run over a cyclist.’ But the fact that it is associated with aggression tells us it’s more than just a joke.

“[Such jokes] should not be seen as ok, any more than you would joke about running over a woman or a minority because they annoy you. Everybody does annoying things on the road; that doesn’t justify aggression or violence.

“We should be having a serious conversation about the legitimacy of cycling in the future of our cities. I don’t ride a bike but I want more people to ride bikes so that there’s healthier society and less cars on the road.”

Image: Transportation Research Part F

And there’s a knock-on effect to the dehumanisation of cyclists, one that only serves to reinforce the divide between cyclists and non-cyclists.

“When groups believe that others are dehumanising them, this can set up an escalating cycle of resentment,” Dr Delbosc wrote in her Transportation Research paper. “If cyclists feel dehumanised by other road users, they may be more likely to act out against motorists, feeding into a self-fulfilling prophecy that further fuels dehumanisation against them.”

It’s the very definition of a vicious cycle.

The road ahead

Dr Delbosc is hopeful that there’s plenty more research to come in this space. But it’s not as simple as just going out and sampling a wider sub-section of the population.

“We’ve been trying hard to find some research partners so that we can actually have a budget to do this properly. So far no luck,” she said. “We really want to keep working in this area. We get a lot of questions about ‘What about this? What about that?’ and we’re like ‘I know! We want to know too!’ But that needs research money.”

There’s a wealth of angles that are ripe for follow-up research. Do dehumanising attitudes vary depending on education levels? Are people in rural areas more likely to dehumanise cyclists? What impact does employment status have? And what about age and gender?

For now, Dr Delbosc says, there’s work to be done. Cyclists need to be treated with more respect and cycling needs to be made safer.

“The number one step to have a safer cycling environment is to have safer cycling infrastructure,” Dr Delbosc said. “But in a place like Australia it’s going to be a long time until we have proper safe cycling infrastructure so in the meantime just anything that can de-escalate [tensions] and re-humanise people on the roads I think is a good thing.”

Do bike helmets make it hard to see cyclists as human and therefore contribute to dehumanisation of riders? (Image: Max Bender/Unsplash)

Dr Delbosc’s paper doesn’t go into great detail about how to re-humanise cyclists, but she does have some ideas.

“Whether that’s … I hate to say ad campaigns but if you’re going to have an ad campaign maybe one — and they do exist — that talks about how ‘I’m somebody’s brother’, ‘I’m somebody’s mother’ …” she told CyclingTips.

Or, as Dr Delbosc suggests somewhat reluctantly, perhaps it’s even worth examining whether helmets could be contributing to the dehumanisation of cyclists.

“I don’t like to wade into the helmets debate but that has been raised by others — that if you’re sitting upright on a Dutch-style bike with no helmet you look much more human than if you’re hunched over in lycra with sunglasses and a streamlined helmet,” she said. “That looks very mechanical and it’s hard to make eye contact and see that person as a person.”

Regardless of why some people see cyclists as less than human, the fact remains that they do. Dr Delbosc’s research might only have investigated a small subset of the community, but its findings will ring true for anyone that’s read the comments on an online cycling article, or been the target of aggression from an impatient road user.

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