Cyclists, People Cycling or Cycling Traffic?

Most discussions around mobility and active travel will refer to “cyclists”.

It seems uncontroversial. A person on a ‘cycle’, whether it is an e-bike or a pedal cycle is surely a “cyclist”?

Interestingly, research has shown that when we use this term in discussions about mobility (that are dominated by people more used to considering the needs of car traffic), using the term ‘cyclist’ is a way of separating that ‘other’ group from what they would consider their own experience or group. What we might think of as “people like us”.

In other words, by referring to “cyclists” or even “pedestrians”, you are actually perpetuating an antagonism between different groups of road users, and of course, the default is currently the “drivers”.

Advocates have therefore suggested that the way around this might be to refer to “people on bikes”, or “people cycling” in order to emphasise that they are people, just like the people who drive or people who walk.

I like the idea of breaking down barriers between road user types so we can think more widely about solutions - particularly since we may all actually be a person who walks, rides a bike, takes public transport or even drives, depending on the occasion or opportunity, so the groups are never separate.

Interestingly, I just came across new research that points out a very different conclusion when it comes to making planning decisions, however.

In fact, if we want investments in active travel infrastructure and street calming, then it is important that these are put on an equal level with ‘car traffic’. From this perspective, the data used for lobbying and decision-making might be better called: “cycle traffic” and “foot/wheel traffic”

It is an interesting aspect of the debate around local mobility that might be useful to consider if you are gathering local traffic counts in order to ask for changes in your area

What do you think? Are we measuring cyclists, people who cycle, or cycle traffic?

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Interesting topic! I never thought about it that way to be honest…

We, here at Mobiel 21, just use the terms “cyclists” and “pedestrians” in our communication and campaigns. Also when talking about Telraam counts. In Dutch, it would sound quite weird to talk about “people who cycle” or “people who walk”. The Dutch term for “cycling traffic” is used, but not often.

We almost never talk about “car drivers”, but just about “cars”. So there is a certain dichotomy there that might be explained by the fact that we don’t necessarily want fewer car drivers (i.e. people like you and me), but we do wan’t fewer cars (i.e. big machines in public spaces).

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@Rob_Telraam Another dimension to consider when talking about the words we use to refer to road users: the way crashes are reported by media organisations. Here too, there are often striking differences between the way car drivers and other road users are described… This creates a kind of seperation on yet another level.

A Bloomberg article from 2019 offers a good overview of the issue:

Reports may describe a vehicle doing something rather than a driver (‘‘a car jumped the curb’’ versus ‘‘a driver drove over the curb’’). Object-based language obscures the driver’s role in the incident, thereby reducing blame. Observers tend to refer to people in cars using ‘‘object-based’’ language (e.g., car, traffic) but typically describe people walking or using bicycles with ‘‘human-based’’ language (e.g., bicyclist, pedestrian, person). This practice assigns unequal agency among the two groups.

totally, and I think this is why many active travel supporters would like to encourage even more “human-based” descriptions of all road users (person driving car, not “driver” or worse, “car”)

however, the wider point of the second article I link to still matters.

We can use this language when thinking of the ‘actors’ on the street, so we think of all users equally and positively.

However, when making institutional decisions, such as allocating budgets for infrastructure, if the primary role of streets is still to deal with traffic, and traffic = cars, then “humans” are things that interfere with these plans.

If campaigners want better infrastructure and interventions (in the short term), then maybe we need to campaign for better ways to deal with “cycle traffic”, “foot traffic”, “wheel traffic”, etc.

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