The180·The 180

Why do drivers hate cyclists?

Last week's conversation about a proposal to license cyclists in Vancouver elicited a flood of emotional feedback. So what is it that makes the relationship between drivers and cyclists so testy? We ask psychologist Ian Walker.
Car and bicycle commuters in Halifax. (CBC News)

On last week's program, we had a conversation about a proposal to license cyclists in Vancouver. That unleashed a torrent of feedback - more than we've ever had on a single item, and much of it hostile to cyclists.

This week, we asked psychologist Ian Walker why drivers get so angry about cyclists. Walker studies traffic and transportation psychology in the United Kingdom. 

The full interview is available in the audio player above. The following portions have been edited for clarity and length.

Every time we talk about bikes on the program, we are just inundated with feedback. Why do you think it is that every conversation about bikes and cars -  and pedestrians, for that matter - is so contentious?

If you think about what makes cyclists stand out, one thing is that they're a minority. They're people who have chosen a behaviour that is different to what most people do. But that alone can't be it, because we could easily find other groups that meet that criterion that don't get the same distaste. So for example, vegetarians are another group of people who have chosen a lifestyle that is different to the majority, and there might be some joking around that, but there are very few people actually making serious death threats to vegetarians. My guess would be that it's tied to the fact there's also a competition for limited road space with the cyclists. 

I think car-drivers listening to us would probably take issue with the idea that the anger only flows in one direction. What do  you make of the perception that cyclists are aggressive, or that they're disinterested in following the rules of the road? 

Something you hear people say a lot is that it should all be equal, it should all be exactly the same. And it's a very seductive idea, you know - we should all equally be responsible on the road. It's a seductive idea because we're all taught from childhood that you should share equally, that everything should be fair. And it would all be nice and lovely, except for the fact that the threat isn't equal. So the idea that two people should have the same responsibility when one of them poses a vastly greater danger than the other is potentially an issue. 

I understand as part of some earlier research, you interviewed bus drivers. What did you learn from them about attitudes towards cyclists? 

The bus drivers I interviewed had no idea why people rode bicycles. If you speak to people who cycle, they talk about the exercise and the pleasure of the activity and how it's faster and more efficient and all this sort of thing. But the bus drivers I spoke to, again and again, would say the only reason they could see for riding a bicycle was to save money. And that actually led to some sort of resentment in some cases, where they'd be saying something like, "why should I have to look out for this person who's on the road because they're too cheap to buy a car or too cheap to pay for bus fare?" So that misunderstanding was really causing some problems.

The other really interesting thing that came out from the bus drivers was the idea of empathy. So there was one bus driver in particular who said this incredible phrase that probably sums up the whole problem. She said, "I can always forgive pedestrians, because of the number of times I've been in the city centre and I've just stepped into the road without looking, and thought, oh God, I've stepped into the road. So when pedestrians make mistakes, I can understand that and forgive them, but never cyclists." And that just captures the problem - that we've got people sharing the road in this very imbalanced way, and some of them have never tried cycling. To drive a car past a cyclist not knowing what it feels like is probably at the root of a lot of these problems. 

Click the blue button above to listen to the full interview.


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