The Curious Case of the Myth-Shift

“So what’s your research about?”

“Ahem, it’s a bit complicated to explain, but it has to do with media and cyclist safety and uptake.”

“Oh, so… like how cyclists endanger themselves when they use mobile phones?”

“No, ahem, it started when I got interested in how people talk on media, and started wondering how that affects cyclist safety on the road.”

“So… how cyclists maybe talk in terms of how they own the roads?”

“… Well here’s the thing, what you said there is kind of exactly what intrigues me. Can I ask why you say that?”

“The way they cycle two abreast…”

“Cyclists are legally entitled to be two abreast because they are entitled to the width of the lane, but I…”

“Three and four abreast, I mean.”

Yes, while I didn’t have recording equipment with me and therefore have no word-for-word record of it, that conversation actually happened. It was especially the exchange about cyclists travelling in any method other than single file that got me thinking about what I suppose you can call the Invisible Cyclist myth.

It is rooted in another myth: that of private car drivers’ right to unimpeded progress on the roads. The poster child for the Unimpeded Progress myth is the Donald Trump of driving, who “says it like it is” and verbalises too many drivers’ private belief: that all road users daring to not be in fast cars (preferably also a class that can afford fast cars) are a nuisance, and should ideally be got rid of somehow.

When the bicycle is viewed through the lens of the Unimpeded Progress myth, the Invisible Cyclist myth is born: cyclists must position themselves on the road in such a way that their presence makes no difference at all to the driver. They must be so out of the way that the driver doesn’t even notice they’re there, in other words, cyclists belong on the absolute edge of the road (or off it altogether).

This specific exchange also got me curious about something else I think I’ve noticed. It used to be that cyclists were lambasted for cycling two abreast. Even someone who should know better, a Garda chief, warned cyclists against doing this. Yet lately it’s become three and four abreast that’s hauled out on television, in print, on social media. Why the change?

I believe it’s because people have been corrected, sometimes very publically, about the fact that they’re berating cyclists for something that is perfectly legal. This has been happening for a few years, with some cycling activists no doubt starting to feel they’ll go mental from repeating themselves.

The message has finally started to sink in, at least with some: it’s legal to cycle two abreast. So without breaking stride, believers of the Invisible Cyclist myth add a cyclist to the mix, because these accusations are not about a real problem, they are about an ideology. The real belief is that cyclists should not be allowed road space at all, unless it can be done without drivers even registering their presence.

No doubt now and then cyclists travel three or four abreast. However, I believe it is rare, seldom found outside a cycle race situation. It’s a made-up problem used to disguise the real belief that anything affecting totally unimpeded progress of a private car driver is wrong, even if the law allows it.

Nadia Williams is a postgraduate researcher investigating the role of social dynamics in cycling uptake and safety. She lives car-free with her family in Dundalk.

IMAGE: Greater Manchester Police archive.

9 Comments

  1. Did anyone respond to your twitter request to show evidence of people on bikes cycling 3 or 4 abreast?

  2. In a word: #motordom!

  3. Evidence: As you often see on forums: “Photos or STFU”.

  4. Not so far. And what’s interesting is if you search on YouTube for video of it, perhaps ten at most relevant videos come up. Of those, most are contestable as evidence of the kind of three/four abreast cycling that you’d think is referred to when people moan about it. As a very quick and not very rigorous test, if you do a search on YouTube for something like cyclists breaking red lights, you get a lot more relevant results. Therefore I would argue if three and four abreast was in fact common, there should be as much evidence of it available (red light breaking is something we know does happen, though I have a problem with anyone who argues cyclists are more likely to break red lights than other road users – I probably don’t need to explain to most cyclists that such infractions are equal among all road users, and then we can dig deeper into the argument that much of it is the fault of poor environment and system design).

  5. Indeed!

  6. Precisely, see my reply there to Citizen Wolf – I asked on Twitter a while back if anyone could provide me with evidence of three/four abreast that is clearly not in a cycle race situation. One respondent promised to deliver, but then nothing. It’s been retweeted a good few times so more exposure than the average tweet, but maybe I should have asked on a motoring forum? Don’t know if I have the energy, I’d probably get a thousand responses telling me how they definitely see it all the time, but zero of what I’m specifically after: evidence.

  7. The problem with defending agains any vilification of cyclists as shown on prime time is sticking to the point. There is so much evidence to support cyclists argument that the anti group keep going off in tangentsx and to argue properly on social media would give you arthritis.
    Apart from the obvious benefits o cycling 2 abreast like safety and the social aspect , the primary reason for groups to ride two abreast is to operate a draughting train that helps riders endure longer sounds at higher speeds with less effort. It’s not possible to do this effectively (if at all) with any other formation.
    The problem is only a cyclist would understand this. But to explain it to every gobshite on twittter or Facebook is just too much trouble.and I’d doubt you’d hold their attention.

  8. My solution. Change the rules completely – the priorities for rights of way should be – firstly pedestrians, then cyclists, then buses and public service vehicles, then motor cycles and finally and LAST motorists. That might make idiotic motorists get off their backsides and either walk or cycle. Loved living in Germany where pedestrians and cyclists shared the footpaths.

  9. I’m actually a little surprised that people back down from the “two abreast” thing so easily. I’m certain what they actually mean is “cyclists getting in my way” which makes sense since I agree with the gist of the article that most people seem to think the point of the roads is to keep cars (ie: them) moving as quickly as possible.

    You can see this in the say the general advice that all traffic should “keep left” gets changed to “as far left as possible” when it comes to cyclists. This is why certain motorists tend to be so insistent that cyclists should use the “perfectly good” cycle path, often provided for them by the poor tax payer, as if cyclists aren’t tax payers. These people don’t care that the cycle lane is in bad condition, that the cyclist is trying to turn right, that the lane isn’t open or is contraflow only. They don’t care that the gutter is full of glass, is slippery with leaf mold and slopes to the side and has frequent large hollows for drains. Ironically the thing that slows motorists down the most, by far, is other cars but any effort to reduce traffic is fought tooth and nail while measures which would put cyclists off their bikes and back in their cars are widely supported.

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