Shifting perceptions: From cycling, to riding a bicycle.

Based on this guys attire, I figure he must be a construction worker.

Based on this guy’s attire, I figure he must be a construction worker.

Everyday I am reminded that a normalised version of cycling is a long way from being realised. I know this to be true because colleagues, friends and even members of my extended family still define me and refer to me as a ‘cyclist’ in a way they would refer to a Tour de France cyclist. For example, a colleague offered me some cycling shirts the other day. The stretchy, highly advertised ones that you wear with lycra shorts when riding fast on a bicycle that weighs less than 100 grams. He thought I would have a use for them. Because I’m a cyclist.

I also get, ‘where’s your hi-viz vest?’ Or, ‘are you doing the Taupo ride this year?’

If random people were asked to draw a picture or describe in words their version of a cyclist, I reckon the sports/recreational/vehicularist version would be the most common response.

My teaching colleagues talk in terms of cyclists being two-wheeled versions of motor vehicles. They teach children about cycle safety but ignore the fact that knowing how to secure a helmet correctly or how to do a hand signal on a school field will not slow down motorists or convince parents that riding a bicycle to school is a safe option.

There’s a rule of thumb in the teaching business that says when you are trying to modify a particular behaviour, you need to provide as many as ten positive statements before making a corrective statement. The positive statements help build up a strong relationship that then allows you to nudge the behaviour into the direction you want it go.

It’s this kind of thinking that needs to be applied to changing people’s perception of cycling. The public are the target that need to be nudged into seeing cycling as something that is a normal, everyday activity. Imagery and words matter.

Efforts at growing ‘everyday’ cycling seem directed at current cyclists and seem to assume that the non-cycling public are already aware that cycling is an easy and functional transport tool, well suited to short journeys. I say, assume nothing.

Presenting the general public with models and imagery of wheeled pedestrian style cycling will also have the impact of decreasing public resistance to the building of the necessary infrastructure like cycle ways, or introducing supportive transport policies like slowing traffic down.

‘Cycling’ is sport and recreation. ‘Riding a bicycle’ is everyday activity. No sweat. As easy as walking, but faster.

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  1. Excellent article. I agree – I’m just a guy who rides a bicycle, not a cyclist… But can you expand on this? Do you have any specific practical suggestions for changing the perception of riding bicycles?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. I hope this article will be a conversation starter. In a nutshell, look at what the experts do. Tobacco companies, motor companies, sugar drink companies, bottled water companies successfully sell products of dubious merit. Of course, they have the budgets. But they need those big budgets to sell products that are so harmful and valueless. Cycling is a much easier sell than that. It should be able to sell itself.
      Avid cyclists are not our friends in this situation.
      Change won’t happen over night but acknowledging the need to change how we approach the promotion of cycling is a good first step.
      So, put yourself in the shoes of a non-cyclist and copy how the experts do it. How’s that?


    2. Hi Bicycle Riding Man. You could make positive statements on your arrival at work about your pleasant ride was, something cool you experienced on your trip or how many people you waved at/chatted to/smiled at/received smiles from on your commute. Even when it pours rain unexpectedly, have a laugh about the experience rather than being frustrated (but always keep a spare set of clothes at work just in case and learn where your closest laundromat/dry cleaner is).



      1. The problems are much more complex than we are willing to acknowledge and require sophisticated solutions. One of the main problems that has largely been ignored is that driving is still too easy, accessible and habitual.


  2. I absolutely agree. These issues are particularly highlighted for me as I am both a cyclist and a bike rider. Once or twice a week I will get in my lycra and cycle the full 20 miles of my commute each way on a road bike, this is also a hobby I enjoy on my days off. On all other days I hop on my city bike and, wearing my work clothes, pedal to the station where I catch the train to work. My colleagues seem baffled that on days when I don’t cycle, I still ride my bike.
    Likewise when my wife and I cycle our city runarounds to the pub or the cinema or to friends’ houses our friends seem flabbergasted that we are not in high-vis vests and alternative clothing but simply arrive dressed as we intend to spend the rest of the evening (but in a tenth of the time it takes them to get there).
    It is this perception of everyday bike riding as cycling that needs to change if more of the general public are to take it up. When Jan Gehl referred to most British cyclists as ‘freaks’ he meant the fact that normalised bike riders in the UK are now seen as the type that dress up like christmas trees and take things extremely seriously rather than those who simply hop on two wheels to get from a to b.


    1. Thanks for the link. Jan Gehl came out to NZ some years ago. While there was much excitement about what he had to say, very little has changed in practical terms since then. Some people accuse me of being impatient.


  3. You have to get people who drive cars to FIRST be courteous to other car drivers, calm down, relax and ALWAYS depart for your journey ( whether you are only going down the street or to work) a lot earlier than you think it will take to get you there. Relax yourself at the red traffic lights as well. Then they MAY start to be courteous to cyclists.


    1. I agree John. For me, the driving experience is so unnecessarily dangerous and aggressive. There is a real lack of sharing and caring for others when you drive in NZ. There is little room physically or psychologically for cyclists in the current transport culture. The Dutch have a phrase to define what you are describing – sustainable safety. It takes the ‘shit happens’ out of the traffic environment.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Admittedly I do refer to myself as a cyclist rather than a bicycle rider. As a bike commuter and car-free for last 3 decades, my work colleagues do know me as using the bike for transportation in addition to fitness, recreation and touring.

    They do see me in full or half stages of cycling clothing since I have a tough time cycling in (expensive) business clothing which costs me a petite woman (it’s expensive to find clothing that fits me).

    I don’t do anything to discuss my mileage, touring vacations, etc. unless I’m asked. I used to..about 20 years ago.


  5. Hi Jean,
    I think the point that I am trying to make (and is sometimes missed) is that all cycling is fine. No one form of cycling is better than another. But, in terms of marketing cycling to the non-cycling public, we would be better served by presenting an image of cycling that is easy and comfortable, suitable for short distances, like walking but faster, no sweat. I have chosen ‘wheeled pedestrian’ cycling as a way of making that distinction. As we know, first impressions do count and a strong positive emotional response is needed from the public about cycling if we are going to have any success in convincing politicians to invest the necessary $ into cycling.


  6. Hell yes.
    Went to visit family interstate the other month and except for my immediate family, EVERYONE greeted us with a version of, “oh yes, you have those bikes!”
    For the record, they’re Brompton folding bikes, not common here, but hugely popular in other parts of the world. But the way they said it you’d think it’s like they’re saying, “oh yes, you’ve taken up sumo wrestling!” – which is also popular in other parts of the world, but not so welcome in a supermarket, in a restaurant, or at work.
    Normalising bicycle riding has its own challenges. Along with getting children (and adults) to wear high-viz and helmets, we have to stop victim blaming.
    Now that I’m more conscious of victim blaming in society, I see how ingrained it is.
    Sometimes I feel like like I’m going around in circles trying to find the best place to start to get the most leverage. Maybe a bit everywhere is the best and only choice I have at present. It’s not exactly My Plan, but it’s what I’m doing. Utility/everyday and social riding, commuting, sharing photos and stories, inviting people on club social rides, advocate for the removal of MHL, encourage others to be considerate riders, challenge victim blaming when I hear it…
    Actually, now that I write it down, I guess I’m doing a fair bit – in my sphere of influence, at least – but I am still frustrated at how slowly the message seems to be getting through to people. :/

    Liked by 1 person

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