Guest Article: 3 bits of undeserved bad publicity that cycling keeps getting

Our friend Andreas of the excellent site London Cyclist submitted the following article — we’re all very eager to hear your thoughts on this issue:

They say any publicity is good publicity. However, for cycling there are three frequently heard news pieces that frustrate those of us who are already cyclists and discourage those of us who want to become cyclists. You’ve probably seen these in some newspapers before but feel free to add any in the comments.

Cyclists are a menace
In the UK there was recently a debate around the subject: “cyclists are a menace�. The opposition discussed how cyclists speed through red lights, cause danger to pedestrians and slow down traffic.

Of course the statistics show that cyclists only cause a tiny number of injuries to pedestrians compared to the injuries caused by cars. For example of the 204 people killed on London’s roads last year none were caused by a cyclist.

Based on personal experiences of cycling I would say the amount of anti-social cyclists is small. I would think there were far greater problems to tackle than a cyclist bumping up and down a pavement on a rare occasion.

Cycling is unsafe
This is another highly favoured angle in news articles. Of course with newspapers doing their best to constantly remind us about the dangers of cycling people start to believe it. The truth is there is a lot a cyclist can do to make it safer for themselves such as keeping a prominent position on the road. Training can help make cycling even safer. If you couple this with good cycling infrastructure then the dangers are slim to none.

The chances are more likely that by cycling you will prolong your life rather than end it short. Of course this angle is not quite as thrilling for many newspapers.

A bike was involved in an accident with a car
Generally this sentence should read a car hit a cyclist. Recent research has shown that in the vast majority of cases (93%) the cyclist is not to blame for the accident. Yet, in newspapers it is a rarity for the article to hint towards blaming the motorist. Often instead it is reported a mutual role had to be played by the motorist and cyclist in the accident.

In some cycle friendly countries such as the Netherlands in an accident involving a car and a cyclist the blame is automatically placed on the car unless proved otherwise. This doesn’t mean cyclists end up cycling around like crazy it means cars are extra careful because they know they don’t have the law on their side.

Could 2010 be the end of it?
I know that cyclists are not angels floating around with haloes circling their heads — which I realise is how I may have come across in this article. We too are guilty of bad cycling, not showing enough courtesy to other road users and skipping red lights. The major difference is that when cyclists do it the negative effects on those around us are far smaller than those caused when motorists are irresponsible.

With that in mind I’m hoping the bad press cyclists get decreases because it is discouraging new cyclists from getting involved. Maybe it can be a new years resolution for newspapers?

I would really like to hear what everyone else thinks. Do you agree / disagree? Is there any other negative publicity you wouldn’t mind seeing the back of?

Thanks, Andreas…now let’s hear what YOU think about this undeserved negative publicity.


14 Comments

  1. Andy December 31, 2009 12:38 am 

    Here’s some more:

    – “Cycling in winter is a death wish.” Like any other sport, with a little bit of practice or training, it’s no where near as bad as most people imagine. Many people commute year round in all climates and live to tell about it, because frankly it’s not a big deal. Just because I’m not in a warm bubble doesn’t mean I can’t handle riding somewhere. It’s called weather, and we’ve evolved to cope with it.

    – If a cyclist is involved in a collision but wasn’t wearing a helmet, it must have been their fault. You see it in every article; the first paragraph always has to mention whether or not they wore a helmet. Considering studies show that a driver is more like to get a head injury, why is helmet use such a hot topic for cyclists? Why is it that a non-helmeted cyclist seems to carry more fault in these articles?

    – “Cyclists aren’t paying their share of the road.” Considering a bike plus rider weighs somewhere around 200 pounds and a typical light car starts at 3,500 pounds, I don’t think cyclists are to blame for road repairs. Many people want to see bikes licensed and taxed like cars are, but considering that for many people bikes are just a toy, and for the rest bikes are not causing several thousand dollar accidents like a car is, it’s just not an equal game. To tax a cyclist their fare share would be such a pittance that more money would be wasted running such a program. To charge a higher amount discourages a clean, safe mode of travel that cities should be promoting, not discouraging.

    – “Bikes belong on the sidewalk.” Many commuters ride 15-25mph, which is an insanely dangerous speed for a sidewalk given that it’s used by pedestrians at 3mph, occasionally with children, strollers, and wheelchairs. It’s also illegal most everywhere to ride a bike on a sidewalk. Some of the most frequent bike collisions occur from riding on sidewalks too, because no one is expecting a 15mph object to come rolling to an intersection from a sidewalk, and cars backing out of driveways often can’t see something moving quickly on a sidewalk until it’s just a few feet away. At 15mph, a few feet is a split second.

    2010 will only be the beginning of it. Gas prices will rise, car sales will drop, and biking will gain even more popularity this summer like it did when gas hit $4. Most cities don’t have (enough) roads designed for cycling, especially if there are to be larger numbers of bikes. Bike boulevards and bike lanes will become more popular in these cases, displacing cars and making drivers angry. Plus with new commuters, the roads will be filled with cyclists with little experience, and drivers unwilling to cooperate with them.

    Simply put, we have no compassion on the roads. We each have our own way to get from A to B, and anything to slow that down or annoy us along the way is a threat to our cookie-cutter lives. Fortunately cyclists tend to get over that quickly, but the drivers only get angrier, and since they are in the 2 ton steel cages, they sometimes decide that their investment justifies taking over the road regardless of who they are sharing it with.

    -Andy

  2. dukiebiddle December 31, 2009 4:57 am 

    I think the portrayal of cycling as being unsafe is the one that drives me the most batty, followed by the portrayal of cycling being stoic. It seems to me that cyclists are equally responsible for spreading these myths as everybody else. I’ve often heard bike commuters impressing their coworkers with tales of danger, hardship and woe – and it’s usually guys trying to impress women. The unintentional consequence is all those women the cyclist is trying to impress by flexing his cycling biceps will NEVER EVER ride a bicycle again, as cycling is only for the awesome. I guess it’s a lot tougher to impress the ladies at the water cooler by showing them safety statistics and admitting how much easier and less of a hassle it is than urban driving.

    Andrew, on the newspaper articles that always, ALWAYS mention whether or not the cyclist was wearing a helmet in the first paragraph, YES! A couple of news stories in my state come to mind: one where a cyclist 67 year old cyclist was run over and dragged by a box truck for 50 feet, and another where a 40something commuter was hit head on by a car driving over 50 miles per hour, but the articles took special car in both instances to assure the readers that both riders were wearing helmets by the 3rd sentence. The presumption being that had they not been wearing helmets their deaths would have been their own damn faults.

  3. bikebike December 31, 2009 7:36 am 

    I think its important to remember that over the last 50+ years, our road system (and cities) have all been built around the automobile and as a result, the majority of the population is simply not aware that bikes have the same rights as other road users.

    There is something you can do, in your own community – make an effort to check your local newspapers/magazines/blogs/etc often for news articles on bike-related issues and MAKE SURE YOU POST A COMMENT to support cycling! This one thing can make a huge difference.

    I’ll give you an example – I live in Calgary Alberta, Canada’s Car Capital Par Excellence (3.2 cars/family). We are lucky in that we have a local bike-advocacy group here http://www.bikecalgary.org and whenever an article shows up in the local media it is mentioned in our forum and many people have been making an effort to not let the comments on the article turn into a “bike-bashing” exercise. Frequently now, the comments section of bike-relate news ends up having many more pro-bike views and it is making a positive impact – based on the number of pro-bike articles that are now getting written.

    It may sound simplistic but I believe it does work.

    cheers

  4. Ghost Rider December 31, 2009 10:03 am 

    Bikebike, that is a great idea…pooling cycling resources to “turn the tide” on auto-centric media coverage.

    Like Dukie and Andy, I always object to the “not wearing a helmet” comment that always manages to get stuck in those articles.

    Reportage overall, particularly in crash accounts, is pretty weak — rarely any details on what really transpired, witness statements, etc. No one ever seems to ask if the driver was drunk, texting, reading the paper or had his/her thumb up their butt, but they LOVE to point out any insufficiencies on the cyclist’s part.

  5. Ghost Rider December 31, 2009 10:04 am 

    I should add that many media outlets get their crash data from the police reports taken on-scene, which many of us realize are spotty, at best and glaringly incompetent at worst.

  6. Paul December 31, 2009 3:06 pm 

    Maybe it won’t be an issue for much longer as I have learned that both local newspapers AND local networks (free TV) such as ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC are heading at autobaun speeds to bankruptcy in most major metro cities. Here in Austin, the local newspaper was pull from the market after failing to be sold and quickly turning into a really thin rag and propably won’t last another year or so. The networks are cutting back on news programming and putting even more paid infommercials, clearly on their financial death beds! By the way, most “reporting” about anything bicycling has been negative by ALL of these so-called “news” sources…

  7. Barb Chamberlain December 31, 2009 6:53 pm 

    In our local paper, any time an auto accident is reported they state two things if known at the time the story is filed: whether the driver and passengers were wearing seat belts, and whether alcohol was involved.

    Seatbelts are a potential factor in how severely someone is injured, alcohol a possible explanation for the incident occurring in the first place.

    I’ll be the first to admit that if the people in the car weren’t wearing their seatbelts and they got hurt, I think to myself, “Yep, they didn’t take a basic safety precaution and they paid the price.”

    I’ll think the same thing if some cyclist is hit and sustains a head injury that could have been mitigated by helmet use. I’m not excusing bad driving–I’m just saying I only have one brain and it’s my responsibility to do what I can to take care of it.

    Check out this piece from Oct. 2009 in Slate about “vehicularists” vs. “facilitators”: http://bit.ly/2tLvsG

    @BarbChamberlain
    Chair, Bike to Work Spokane
    @Bike2WrkSpokane
    http://www.biketoworkspokane.org

  8. Andreas January 1, 2010 4:13 am 

    @ Andy – really good points. The Helmet one struck a cord with me. It’s like saying: “The driver was wearing lipstick”. It’s unrelated to the fact an error was made somewhere.
    Regarding what will happen in 2010 I think it can go one of two ways. More cyclists will encourage more cyclists or the bad infrastructure available in most places will continue to discourage more cycling.

    @dukiebiddle LOL at trying to impress women in that way. If people toned down the “oh its dangerous” side of cycling and changed it to “how easy it is” like you said then so many more people would be encouraged to join.

    @bikebike – I agree with you, wherever there is an opportunity to comment I think its worth leaving something because then the website owners will start to think “oh maybe I should side with cyclists” At the end of the day so many people follow what newspapers tell us if we can change their view then we are onto a good thing. I can definitely see that is happening here in the UK already.

    @ghostrider – its the problem with the reporters only having 30 minutes to put together an article so they never go any more indepth with their research.

  9. dukiebiddle January 1, 2010 9:52 am 

    Barb Chamberlain, although I certainly don’t want to get into a helmet debate, the problem is that helmets, unlike seat-belt wear or alcohol temperance whilst driving, don’t mitigate anywhere near to the degree that is believed by the media or the masses. If a cyclist died due to blunt force trauma to the head, then fine, it may be pertinent information. But in a head on collision with a car or when being dragged 50ft in the wheels of a box truck, as in the two examples I sited above, the information was conveyed to assure the reader that the cyclist was somewhat less culpable for his own death.

  10. dukiebiddle January 1, 2010 10:04 am 

    Andreas, it’s been my experience that there is nothing too commonplace or too simple that a man under 30 won’t be willing to blow wildly out of proportion to sound hardcore/awesome to impress any woman within earshot. Of course, young men wouldn’t be such idiots if young women didn’t listen. :) Also, most people just love to exaggerate and impress others with their stories.

  11. Andreas January 1, 2010 1:32 pm 

    dukie, I would think we are all guilty of a bit of exaggerating at some stage!

  12. dukiebiddle January 1, 2010 3:45 pm 

    Me?! Never! Okay, maybe sometimes.

  13. Barb Chamberlain January 1, 2010 11:01 pm 

    dukiebiddle, I know what you mean. I wish I could find the great piece I read a while back (maybe someone here has seen it?) that talks about how we frighten people away from cycling by dwelling on how dangerous it is, how we need special head protection even though more drivers suffer head injuries every year than cyclists, how we’re not safe on the roads and thus need special lanes all our own, instead of talking about it as the joyous experience it really is. Then we try to tell them they should do this because it’s healthy, right after saying it’s dangerous.

    It was a great piece with lots of food for thought. If someone has seen it can you post a link here, or tweet it to @BarbChamberlain or @Bike2WrkSpokane? Thanks!

  14. Hipolito M. Wiseman January 10, 2010 12:04 am 

    I simply wanted to add a comment here to say thanks for you very nice ideas. Blogs are troublesome to run and time consuming therefore I appreciate when I see well written material. Your time isn’t going to waste with your posts. Thanks so much and carry on You’ll defintely reach your goals! have a great day!

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