Opinion: Cyclists need to learn to take criticism to win friends

Why is it apparently unacceptable to say cyclists have responsibilities to themselves and other road users?

Tuesday evening’s road death brings to three the number of cyclists who have lost their lives on Irish roads so far this year. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times ‘It’s clear that cars are much more dangerous than bikes – but I would still prefer not to be struck by one.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Tuesday evening’s road death brings to three the number of cyclists who have lost their lives on Irish roads so far this year. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times ‘It’s clear that cars are much more dangerous than bikes – but I would still prefer not to be struck by one.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Recently, I made the mistake of contributing to a Twitter thread on cyclists’ behaviour by remarking that, as a regular pedestrian, cyclists are more of a danger to me than cars.

To be sure, I used loose language. “Danger” is difficult to quantify accurately. What I should have said was that, in my experience walking around Dublin, I am more likely to be struck by a cyclist than a motorist, primarily because of many (not all) cyclists’ unwillingness to observe traffic lights.

That may also be reflective of my own behaviour. I’m probably more wary of cars than I am of bikes. And, of course, a cyclist is very unlikely to kill me or do me serious injury.

Then there was the abuse. I was called a c**t. I was told that I had 'proven' that I was anticyclist

I doubt that there are adequate statistics capturing the number of times pedestrians are struck by cyclists for this very reason. Most of the time, such collisions are very minor. It’s clear that cars are much more dangerous than bikes – but I would still prefer not to be struck by one.

What followed was extraordinary. There were the polite (and some less polite) responses drawing my attention to the statistics on the number people killed by motorists versus those killed by cyclists or reminding me that force equals mass times acceleration.

As an engineer, I found that funny. I wasn’t questioning either the statistics or the laws of physics. There were many who were happy to engage in a respectful exploration of frequently only slightly differing points of view.

Abuse

But then there was the abuse. I was called a c**t. I was told that I had “proven” that I was anticyclist by failing to condemn the behaviour of motorists (I did); that I wanted someone to hate and had decided to demonise cyclists; perhaps most ludicrously of all, that I was condoning child abuse.

It was also “obvious” that I had never been to the Netherlands (I’ve been there dozens, perhaps more than a hundred, times).

Even when I sought to withdraw from the conversation, the abuse continued. In more than 10 years on Twitter, I have never previously blocked or reported anyone for abuse. I have now.

On virtually every practical issue, I agree with the cycling community

I was struck by many aspects of this experience. The willingness of people to extrapolate from something that was said and then to criticise and sit in judgment on something that was never said and never intended is remarkable.

The absolute unwillingness to accept that there might be some among their number whose behaviour is a danger to themselves and others (just as there are among drivers and pedestrians) is also extraordinary. As an aside, it’s also interesting that none of the abuse came from women, at least as identified by their profiles.

And there’s a question for another day on the sort of vitriolic, personalised “debate” on any topic that social media has unleashed.

Failure in judgment

More remarkable still is the failure of judgment in thinking that such abuse might achieve anything.

On virtually every practical issue, I agree with the cycling community (apparently, it’s unacceptable to suggest that there’s a cycling “lobby”). Cycling (and walking) should be encouraged. It’s even more environmentally friendly than public transport. It’s healthy. It takes cars out of our towns and cities making them more liveable for all.

It’s clear that cyclists and pedestrians are enormously more vulnerable than drivers and, as such, we should segregate road use where possible. We should build more high-quality cycle lanes and should explore alternatives such as placing cycle lanes between on-street parking and pavements.

We should pedestrianise more parts of our towns and cities. I confess that I’ve never, in any square or pedestrianised street, in any city in the world, found myself saying “they really should let cars in here”.

Legal penalties

We also need to ensure that legal penalties for dangerous behaviour are reflective of the relative potential for harm. In other words, a motorist breaking a red light should be much more heavily penalised than a cyclist doing the same thing.

It’s ludicrous that we already have cameras mounted at traffic lights that are not being used to detect and punish drivers who run red lights.

There are also innovative approaches that have been adopted elsewhere that might improve safety such as the system in French cities where, at some junctions, cyclists can effectively treat red lights as yield signs (brought to my attention by one of the more polite correspondents).

So why is it apparently completely unacceptable to say that cyclists also have responsibilities to themselves and other road users? That they should obey traffic laws and take reasonable steps to protect themselves and other road users such as lights and visible clothing at night?

There are many, many cyclists who are impeccable road users, but it might just help to win (and keep) friends and allies to accept that that’s not universal and we need to be able to have conversations that recognise that.

Brian Caulfield is an entrepreneur and venture capital investor. He is a former non-executive director of The Irish Times.

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