Searching for solutions to ‘re-human’ cyclists

“It’s depressing, but not surprising.” 

Dr Alexa Delbosc is no stranger to the findings of urban planner Professor Mark Limb and psychologist Sarah Collyer which have stoked concern among the global cycling community this week.  

That headline-grabbing research found a proportion of people view cyclists – particularly those wearing cycling-associated clothing – as somehow “less than human.” 

It’s not the first time such findings have been made. In 2019, Delbosc led a study – described by Limb as the “most seminal piece” of research into dehumanising attitudes towards vulnerable road users – that quantified such viewpoints, at least within Australia.  

But while Limb and Collyer took Delbosc’s study and specifically tested whether a rider’s attire influenced perceptions of them by others, her original work was more expansive.  

Delbosc and colleagues from Monash University’s Institute of Transport Studies, Melbourne Psychology School and the QUT Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety (CARRS), asked a range of questions to assess attitudes towards riders, and utilised an ape-man scale, as well as the insect-man adopted by Limb and Collyer, to gauge dehumanising attitudes. 

Those scales were designed to emulate derogatory language sometimes used to describe cyclists on social and mainstream media platforms. 

Dr alexa delbosc.
Dr Alexa Delbosc. Credit: Supplied.

Four years later, such descriptions persist. 

“It seems to be considered okay in society to joke about people riding bikes: comedians make jokes about it, newsreaders make jokes about it, shock jocks made jokes about it all the time,” Delbosc says. 

“On social media, the comments that come out of people’s mouths sometimes are shocking.” 

Like Limb and Collyer, Delbosc’s research found that a high proportion of cyclists viewed their fellows with disdain.  

Why is this?  

For some, as Delbosc explains, the switch from the saddle to sitting at the steering wheel seems enough to create a disdainful attitude, something she calls a ‘windscreen bias’.  

“When you’re seeing the world behind the windscreen of your car, you do see [it] differently to when you’re outside of your vehicle.” 

To try and find real-world solutions to this problem, Delbosc and her CARRS colleagues were recently appointed by the Australian Capital Territory government to explore how dehumanising attitudes among those driving around Canberra could be reversed.  

First, participants were offered photographic cues to determine their attitudes. Again, this study found even cyclists hold negative views towards other cyclists.  

In the study’s second stage, the scientists tested two pilot advertising campaigns, again handing participants a questionnaire to gauge driving and cycling habits, and then pitching two ‘leave a metre’ road safety campaign messages: one a photograph and the other a graphical representation of a cyclist and car sharing the road.  

Campaign images pitched at study participants by the carrs research for the act government.
Campaign images pitched at study participants by the CARRS research for the ACT government. Credit: CARRS.

While dehumanising characteristics were still reported, drivers responded more positively to material showing a photograph of a cyclist and car sharing the road front-on, though the authors noted little difference between front and rear-view imagery. On the flip side, graphic representations were found to be clearer, more memorable and more effective at conveying the road safety message than photographic posters. 

Delbosc says that front-on portrayals of actual cyclists seem to resonate with drivers. 

“There does seem to be something in the message, in the way we portray cyclists, that can potentially push people’s attitudes one way or another,” she says. 

“When you’re portraying cyclists in a newspaper article, in an ad campaign, in training manuals, think about how you’re portraying them: some campaigns explicitly take the stance that someone on a bike is your doctor, it’s your brother, it’s your kids, it’s your pharmacist, it’s your greengrocer, it’s the guy who works on the construction site, it’s your mum and dad: they are your community, they are people just like you.” 

For its part, the ACT Government sees this research as contributing to the way it educates the community about road safety. In a statement, a Transport Canberra and City Services spokesperson told Cosmos that a balance of graphic elements and photography “helps the ACT Government achieve our desired communication objectives”, when it comes to such messages.

“In 2019, the [ACT Road Safety Fund] Board recommended funding for the project ‘Putting a human face on cyclists in the ACT’, as this fell within the strategic priority area of vulnerable road users and was seen as potentially useful in the development of future communications activities about the ACT’s Share the Road culture.

“The results of this grant support the ACT Government’s approach to active travel and road safety campaigns, which predominantly use photography and videography in local Canberra settings to promote safe behaviours for driving, riding and walking.”

Delbosc is now taking her research a step further as part of a global collaboration looking at implicit attitudes towards cyclists, but largely she takes the view that the only way to better protect vulnerable road users in Australia is to build suitable infrastructure. 

“We’re not going to change hearts and minds,” she says. “We just need to go and build the infrastructure.” 

“Then, more people will ride bikes and, eventually, fewer and fewer people will feel like they can be biased against cyclists because they will know one, or be one themselves.” 

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