A recent article in Gizmodo, of all places, discusses how using the word “cyclist” is dangerous and how saying “people on bikes” could be safer — safer as in improving the physical safety of people. The central argument of the the piece is that the word “cyclist” brings to mind a certain stereotype: lycra-wearing, speed-racing, law-breaking, expensive bikes and gear, hyper-competitive people. And the author, someone who rides a city bike in everyday clothes at a casual pace, feels that since she doesn’t fit the “cyclist” stereotype, she shouldn’t be referred to as a cyclist. The safety aspect comes up with a bit of sociological analysis: some people believe that using the term “cyclist” dehumanizes the person riding a bike, and as a result “others” (by which they mean motorists) don’t treat the cyclist with the same care and consideration that a person would normally receive. The suggestion by Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition is “people on bikes”, or “people who ride bikes”. The suggestion is that by putting “people” first, then “others” will think of the person and not the stereotype.
The Bike Pittsburgh organization has mounted a public-awareness campaign with the same idea, without being as forthright about avoiding the term “cyclist”. Much like the Worksafe BC Slow Down campaign (“Slow Down Our mommy works here”), BIKEPGH’s campaign includes powerful posters with “humanizing” messages and photos of people: “Nurse. Mother. Rides a bike.” “Student. Adventurer. Rides a bike.”
Vancouver’s Chris Bruntlett wrote a similar article for Hush Magazine. His article “I Am Not A Cyclist” expresses the same sentiment as the Gizmodo piece: because his behaviour, gear, and look doesn’t match the “cyclist” stereotype, he doesn’t feel that “cyclist” applies to him. In fact, Chris says in the first paragraph of his essay that he despises being referred to as a cyclist.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sympathetic to these ideas. It’s easy to put labels on people, and once you label someone, it’s easy to project stereotypes on them. And in doing so, the person beneath the label gets hidden, removed from the thought process.
But, let’s consider the word cyclist in the Oxford dictionary:
cyclist: n. a person who rides a bicycle
That’s pretty straightforward, pretty unambiguous. It doesn’t say anything about the type of bike, the type of gear, the style of riding. It doesn’t say anything about the person riding the bike, their motivations, their story. It’s just a clear noun to describe a person who rides a bicycle.
My objection to disowning this term is that in disowning it, the very stereotypes and dehumanization that are trying to be avoided are being perpetuated instead. Those people on bikes who don’t want to be called cyclists because they don’t like being associated with certain perceptions are reinforcing the stereotype. Instead of normalizing the word
“cyclist” and instead of broadening the types of people who are thought about when the term “cyclist” is used, a number of problems result: They themselves are dehumanizing those cyclists that do fit the stereotype. They are introducing an “us vs them” attitude amongst cyclists. They bring confusion to the public who aren’t really that concerned about semantics, who think “there’s a cyclist” when they see a person on a bike.
Anyone riding a bike is a person. They are somebody’s daughter or son. They might be someone’s mother or father. They might be your doctor, your teacher, your food server, or a bike courier. They might be dressed in lycra. They might be dressed in tweed. They might be riding an upright city bike or they might be hunched over aerobars. They’re all cyclists, and deserve to be thought about as … people.
So, I own the word, but it doesn’t define me. I’m a father. I’m a husband. I’m a son. I’m an engineer. I happen to ride my bike to work regularly, and that makes me a cyclist. Sometimes I wear lycra on my bike. Sometimes I wear jeans. Sometimes I’m riding a road bike, sometimes an upright. Sometimes I’m pulling a kid behind me on a tag-along. Sometimes I’m riding with my kids and my wife on the roads as we get to and from things in our neighbourhood. We’re cyclists. And, we probably log more kilometers on our bikes than the average family. But we also walk. A lot. That makes us pedestrians. And we drive places too. As shocking as it might be to readers of this blog, I’m a motorist. Oh, and we take a lot of transit too. That makes us … wait. We’re pretty average city dwellers.
So, when you think of cyclists, don’t think just of the fully-suited club-riders. Don’t just think of the capri-wearing fixie-riding hipsters. Think of me and my family. Think of Chris and his family. Think of tourists riding the seawall. Think of kids riding to school. Think of your neighbours, your friends, your colleagues. Ride a bike? You’re a cyclist. And that’s all right.
Last modified: November 25, 2013