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Researcher explores the ‘Language of promoting cycling’

Posted by on September 18th, 2013 at 1:53 pm

“When it comes to cycle planning and policy, all parties involved (politicians, policy-makers, practitioners, advocates, etc) should remember that they are providing for “cycling”, not “cyclists””.
— Glen Koorey, University of Canterbury

Reader John Lieswyn (an associate at Alta Planning + Design) emailed me a link to an amazing bit of research this morning. A 2007 paper written by Glen Koorey, a transportation researcher based at the University of Canterbury titled, Are You a Cyclist or Do You Cycle? The Language of Promoting Cycling.

This 10-page paper (PDF) blows my mind, not because of the subject matter itself, but because Mr. Koorey explores a topic I have thought and spoken about for many years. It’s as if he crawled inside my brain and then reported back what he found.

From the online abstract, it appears Koorey presented the paper at a cycling conference in New Zealand. Here’s how he introduces the topic:

“Promoting more cycling in New Zealand is still an exercise fraught with much adversity, both from the general public and from decision- and policy-makers. It is therefore crucial that anyone advocating for a better cycling environment is careful in how they present their case, lest they end up “scoring an own goal” or furthering existing mis-conceptions.”

Anyone who reads this site closely, follows my daily rants on Twitter, or has heard me talk about this in person, knows that I agree with much of Koorey’s thinking. While I was not previously aware of his work, I find it fascinating that he and I have come to some of the same conclusions about 1) how to talk about cycling and 2) the power and importance language has in general.

Here’s more from the abstract:

Some key examples of this include:

  • Referring to “cyclists” rather than “people who cycle”, the former often conjuring up images of a relatively small bunch of “weird” people who only ever cycle.
  • Asking to “provide cycle facilities” rather than “provide for cycling”, when many treatments that greatly benefit cyclists often involve no dedicated cycle facilities.
  • Publicly highlighting safety problems for cyclists in an attempt to get improvements, when the net effect may be to increase the general perception of cycling as “dangerous”.
  • Pushing strongly for on-road cycle provision, thus alienating the population who would prefer an off-road environment to cycle on; or vice versa.

The paper itself goes into greater detail about how language reflects (often unintended) bias against “cyclists” — or as I prefer to say, people who ride bicycles.

One of my pet peeves is when people refer to a “bicycle community”, “cyclists”, or “bike advocates” as one, homogenous, definable block of people. As if we are all friends and we hang out in some basement plotting our next move. “It can be simple descriptions like this that can subtly serve to question the rights of those who cycle,” Koorey writes, “Humans, by nature, like to group similar people together, especially when trying to discredit them (e.g. “Asian drivers”, “Muslim terrorists”). A more objective way to deal with this is to refer to the activity rather than the people… When it comes to cycle planning and policy, all parties involved (politicians, policy-makers, practitioners, advocates, etc) should remember that they are providing for “cycling”, not “cyclists”.”

And with this, Koorey recommends one of the major principles in my approach to language use: use the verb “cycling” whenever possible, instead of a noun like “cyclist”. By taking the human identifier out of the equation and focusing on the activity, you make it more difficult to attach bias to the subject. I do this a lot when I write about “pedestrian” issues (I put it in quotes, because I don’t like to ever use that word). Instead of “pedestrian advocates” or “bike/ped projects” — two very common terms in the advocacy/DOT worlds — I will substitute the word “walking” whenever possible. For example, someone who works to make walking safer and more pleasant is “someone who cares about walking” or a “walking advocate” — not a “pedestrian advocate”.

Koorey’s paper is full of other important thinking about the words we use and why we should consider using other ones. “Vulnerable road user”, a common term here in Oregon because we have a law named after it, perpetuates what Koorey calls the “dangerisation” of cycling. Instead, he prefers “active transportation user”.

In my opinion, Koorey’s paper touches on just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to re-thinking our language use. I am constantly learning and understanding more about this topic each day as I try to communicate about cycling and its role in our society and the transportation debates we often find ourselves in.

I have gotten a lot of interesting feedback when I share my feelings on this topic. Some people are initially skeptical, but after keeping an open mind they see the value in taking this stuff seriously. I’ve even had a public information officer at the Portland Police Bureau call me to help proofread a press release because he knew how important the topic was. But there are also folks who think this whole thing is much ado about nothing and get upset at me for even suggesting that the words we use matter.

And it’s not an exact science. There are not hard-and-fast rules about which words to use when to use them. It’s simply about respect and consciousness for how words impact our ability to make change and have productive conversations.

I highly recommend checking out Goorey’s paper (PDF). Another good one sent to me by the same reader is a 2010 paper by Russel Greig titled, Limitations on the use of the term ‘cyclist’ to describe people who ride bicycles (PDF).

UPDATE: For more on this topic, read this “Language Matters” piece I wrote in 2011 which critiqued a PBOT press release.

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  • ladyfleur September 18, 2013 at 2:19 pm

    I completely agree with you. I work hard to avoid the word “cyclist” because it puts distance between people on bikes and regular people.

    But the cyclist label is hard for people to shake. When I wrote my bio for a short talk on bike share I wrote “I ride my bike every day to work, for errands, etc.” But when the mayor introduced me she called me an “avid cyclist.” Not at all what I wanted when I was trying to convince the press and public that bike share is for everyone, not just cyclists.

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  • Sam J September 18, 2013 at 2:46 pm

    Great resource. Thanks for sharing. I find myself writing “people who ride bicycles” and “people who drive cars” more and more these days. The phrasing makes me consider the common humanity of the folks engaged in these and other activities. And in a media-spiked world of sides, groups, clans and cliques, that’s an excellent place from which to reason.

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  • Chainwhipped September 18, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    “One of my pet peeves is when people refer to a “bicycle community”, “cyclists”, or “bike advocates” as one, homogenous, definable block of people. As if we are all friends and we hang out in some basement plotting our next move.”

    Exactly. One of mine, too. Kind of like when we use the phrase “Bike Culture” or someone refers to themselves and/or someone they know as a “Real Cyclist”, as if riding a bike a certain way puts you in some kind of exclusive club.

    I would be super if cycling became a totally normal thing, but I think that first we’ll have to stop thinking of riding a bike as something that makes someone special or righteous in some way.

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    • Clark in Vancouver September 20, 2013 at 9:46 pm

      It’s mine as well.
      I’ve had some people when finding out that I cycled to where we were, want to condemn me for the actions of others, refer to those others that they saw cycling and want to complain about as my friends. As in “Well, you tell your friends to stop doing X or to do X”…
      No matter how many times I tell them that I don’t know those people it doesn’t seem to matter.

      I wonder if there’s something intrinsic in human nature to want someone to demonize. Some sort of psychological need. Cyclists are just the flavour of the year but in the past it was all sorts of people at different times in history.

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  • Craig Harlow September 18, 2013 at 3:41 pm

    Hear hear. “Cycling” is an activity that anybody can and might do, no matter what kind of ???-ist they may be.

    I sometimes goof by using this email signature:
    Craig Harlow – cycler/drive-ist/transitite/walkman

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  • patrickz September 18, 2013 at 4:26 pm

    Articles such as this one are what makes this webpage a real asset.

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  • Todd Boulanger September 18, 2013 at 4:48 pm

    In agreement here…

    Looks like another reason to reboot the name Bicycle Transportation Alliance…

    …to PWPRMFLESB [People Who Pedal and Raise Middle Fingers at Large Erratic Steel Boxes] 😉

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    • nuovorecord September 18, 2013 at 5:11 pm

      Rolls right off the tongue…

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  • Peter W September 18, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    re: dangerisation

    Tricky to balance need to raise awareness about infrastructure that needs improvement with desire to not cause undue fear of riding.

    Possible solution: perhaps articles highlighting people injured or killed while riding should also remind people of stats for people driving (message: dangerous conditions should be fixed for safety of all users).

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  • q`Tzal September 18, 2013 at 8:34 pm

    “Dangerisation”, my new favorite word.
    Certainly better than FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt).

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  • Glen K September 18, 2013 at 9:16 pm

    As a regular reader of Bike Portland (and avid fan of the city!), I am pleased that my paper has hit the spot with you! (and thanks to my old mate John Lieswyn for the hat-tip)
    I do quite a lot of media interviews related to cycling and it is an interesting challenge to consistently refer to “people who cycle” rather than “cyclists” (the latter being far more convenient to say). The other habit I will try to do is to turn up to meetings, photo-ops, etc in my normal work attire rather than my dayglo and lycra so that it is a “normal person” who is talking about cycling. The subtle things we do…

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  • Hart Noecker September 19, 2013 at 7:56 am

    Somewhere, I imagine there are legions of car drivers pondering whether to call themselves ‘motorists’ or not.

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    • Chainwhipped September 19, 2013 at 9:24 am

      Do you remember when soda pop cost only a nickel, car drivers where called ‘motorists’, and certain folk weren’t allowed on golf courses? Pepperidge Farm remembers . . .

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    • John H. September 19, 2013 at 10:43 pm

      Not quite the same. You don’t see race car drivers referring to themselves as ‘motorists’. When that word is used we all know it is meant ordinary people going about their ordinary lives getting around. Cyclist however has over the last 50 or so years become synonymous with bicycling’s race car equivalent, the sports cyclist. Us ordinary bikers(like most dutch cyclists) that ride in normal clothes, without any silly safety gear, just don’t have a word in the English language that define us and us alone.

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  • olivia September 19, 2013 at 10:47 am

    I bike. “Cycling” sounds like an expensive sport to me. I don’t race (unless I am late to pick up my kids at school). I bike to the store, schools, parks, work. I don’t feel like that makes me a “cyclist”.

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    • D September 20, 2013 at 1:08 pm

      Correction–you ARE a cyclist. If you are using a bike the way you say you are, it’s the highest and best use of the machine. By my reckoning, if it’s your transportation you are a better human being than someone who’s never out of a car. Pat yourself on the back, ma’am.

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  • GlowBoy September 19, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    Oh please. If you’re riding a bike you are, at that moment, a cyclist. If you are commenting on this blog you are commenter. These labels aren’t saying who you are as a person, they’re just describing your role in a particular context. Sheesh.

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    • Dave September 20, 2013 at 7:33 am

      I’m thinking this particular incidence of wacko hypersensitivity is a hoax, perhaps a sneak preview of a future Portlandia script.

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    • John H. September 20, 2013 at 8:27 pm

      And that’s why we need change. The word cyclist is almost meaningless. Only thing I share in common with a spandex clad racer is that my vehicle is somewhat like theirs (but still worlds apart in construction, build, and capability). I however ride with a purposes for daily life. I don’t wear special clothes or any so called safety gear. I don’t watch my heart rate or monitor my cadence. If we are both called cyclists then why even use the word when the two people are so different with such vastly different goals?

      I see being called a cyclist as insulting as it groups me with the sports cyclist and in my view we have nothing in common.

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  • Ed Birnbaum September 19, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    Been thinking the same thing more and more. A guy who got off Max at the Lents station, insisted I go ahead when I stopped on the I-205 path to leg him cross, calling out to me, “I ride on that path all the time, dude.” He wasn’t what comes to mind when you say “cyclist.” But he rides a bike and cares about other people who do. Some of those motorists who stop to wait for me to cross the road probably also ride bikes, and can empathise with others who do. But they might not think of themselves as “cyclists.” Maybe when, 20 years ago, there were just a few of us riding regularly, saluting each other as, very rarely, we might actually encounter one another, then we were “cyclists,” a small fraternity (mainly, since there were far fewer women.) But I see exponentially more people on the multi-use paths, and most of them obviously don’t look like we did back then. They might well share many of the same values, but not the same way as those of us who read this blog, belong to the BTA, etc. They might want to get some exercise, save gas money, perhaps do something for the environment, do something together with their kids. But they are not so likely to be ideologically committed to cycling, do cyclocross, go to the Clinton St. Theater for films about biking, etc. Jonathan is making a good point that we should at least think about using language that includes these folks. They might well be, or soon will be, the majority of folks on bikes on any given day.

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  • Faith September 20, 2013 at 2:45 pm

    Funny timing for me to read this (linked to it from Sightline) because I was just thinking on my ride to work this morning about actions we take, or don’t take, that make a statement about ourselves – or that others believe we do to make a statement. I have lots of reasons to ride my bike to work and very low on the list (though I admit it is there) is the reason of making a statement about it. Possibly without knowing it, people choosing to drive to work are making a statement (or many statements), too, even if it’s only “this is what I’ve always done/what my parents did, and I haven’t thought of looking into alternative means of transportation.”
    I don’t consider myself a “cyclist” – to me those are the folks that go for long road rides on the weekends. I consider myself a bike commuter. 🙂
    One thing that concerns me about taking the person out of the equation is that we lose the purpose of why it’s important to develop better bike transit infrastructure – for PEOPLE to safely, efficiently and enjoyably to get from point A to point B.

    –Faith, bike commuter, Kirkland, WA

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  • olivia September 20, 2013 at 3:31 pm

    Terms and names are meaningful. Call me sensitive, but I am not a “chink” or a “china doll” or a “little brown girl”, all of which I have been named before. I am also not a “cyclist”. I am a Filipina. And I bike.

    If the “cyclist community” strives to be more inclusive and to reach underserved areas or marginalized communities, language, terms and names will continue to be meaningful.

    I also think it would be a successful Portlandia skit.

    Thank you, Jonathan, for starting the conversation.

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  • Clark in Vancouver September 20, 2013 at 9:52 pm

    ladyfleur she called me an “avid cyclist.”

    LOL. When I hear someone say “Now, I’m an avid cyclist but…” all I can think of is a bigot saying “Now, some of my best friends are black/native/gay but…”.

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  • Alan 1.0 September 27, 2013 at 10:26 pm

    I flinch at people calling themselves “avid cyclists” (big ego, bigger wallet), and I appreciate Jonathan’s effort to make a big tent for everyone who rides bikes and the political motives for doing that. At the same time I like the simplicity and directness of calling a spade a shovel, and I’d like to think that the noun which describes anyone who rides a bike can be reclaimed to its proper meaning. Just as many other once-deprecated words have been reclaimed by pride and ownership of the group they represent, that’s my purpose when I use “cyclist” or “bicyclist” or “biker.”

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