“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.
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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.