Are you a Cyclist or a Person?

Robert F’s recent post was a very enjoyable read. I was interested in his statement that “I am a cyclist. To define more accurately, I am not a competitive cyclist, extreme cyclist or even much of a recreational cyclist nowadays. Just a cyclist.” You see, as far as I’m concerned, I’m NOT a cyclist. But I do CYCLE…

Sarah Ulmer: clearly not a cyclist in that dress...
Sarah Ulmer: clearly not a cyclist in that dress…

Is this just playing with semantics? Well it depends on whether if affects how you are perceived.

A couple of months ago, The Press featured some minor column articles on page 3 about road fatalities around the country. I was struck by the key differences between them, and I quote (my emphasis added):

1) “ROAD TOLL RISES: Two people were killed in separated crashes yesterday. One person was killed and one person was injured after two cars collided near Katikati… etc”

2) “CYCLIST DIES: An investigation has opened into the death of an elderly West Coast cyclist. Police said [name] of Greymouth died shortly before noon on Sunday after apparently falling from his bike… etc”

This language pattern has shown up before when reporting crashes involving people walking or cycling; apparently if you are not in a car then you are not a “person”, you are defined by the mode you were travelling by when you were injured/killed.

This might seem like a pedantic point but it has two important follow-up effects:

  1. Particularly for cycling, there is already enough angst with the general public viewing “cyclists” as different from “the rest of us” (i.e. not just “people” who happen to be cycling at the time) and thus able to be the target of all sorts of abuse (just check out the online comments sometime when a cycling-related article appears, whether good or bad). Mainstream media is very important in working to change this perception.

    John Key: well he's on a bike so he must be a cyclist. But then again, he isn't wearing lycra...
    John Key: well he’s on a bike so he must be a cyclist. But then again, he isn’t wearing lycra…
  2. It fails to dignify the deceased/injured as a person who is no doubt loved by a lot of other people and known to them as many things (e.g. father, friend, brother, etc) and not just as a “cyclist”.

It may take slightly longer to write or say, but it would be preferable to be consistent and refer to “person driving”, “person walking”, “person cycling” (you could even be gender-specific if you wish, e.g. “man driving”).

I raised this issue with The Press to see whether their editorial policy has considered this. To their credit I received this reply:

“Sorry, but you ask something that we cannot do. We need to present news as accurately and as concisely as possible. ”Person cycling” for ”cyclist” breaches those requirements. It is harder to avoid “people” in reports of car crashes because we often do not know whether they were passengers or the driver.”

Now I have some sympathy with the need for brevity, and I can see that it may be difficult to say that a car occupant was driving. However their argument somewhat loses its weight, given that the final line of the cycling article above only contained one word – plenty of room to say “man cycling” instead…

As we look to re-develop Christchurch into a city where virtually anyone could choose to cycle safely and easily, it’s important that we don’t constrain ourselves (or introduce unnecessary tensions) by only thinking we are providing a cycle-friendly city for “cyclists”….

This city should be big enough for both of them...
This city should be big enough for both of them…

Note: If you want to look at this issue further, you may be interested in my 2007 conference paper “Are you a Cyclist or do you Cycle? The Language of Promoting Cycling”

So what do you think? Are YOU a “cyclist”? Or are you just a person who likes to cycle?

6 thoughts on “Are you a Cyclist or a Person?”

  1. It is great that my ramble has been read , and flattering even that it should raise a comment . I see exactly where you are coming from and it does seem these days that the word ‘cyclist”
    creates a stereotype of either lycra clad aggressive machine on wheels , maniac on a mountain bike, or death-defying poor fecker struggling in heavy traffic because he can’t afford a real mode of transport to get to work . The reality can be very different ( see the families cycling together at Bottle Lake forest or McLeans Island. ) . To my mind “cyclist” means someone who cares about their personal well-being, the long-term future of the planet and someone with a desire to live in an environment that is not completely dominated by cars. However the ‘person who cycles” description is just fine by me , whatever it takes to get more of these creatures in the world has got to be good .

  2. I see your point Lenny and a very small (shrinking?)minority think cyclists can not be classified as human beings but I would be proud to be called a cyclist. I have been cycling nearly all my life and I am afraid it is now ingrained in my psyche, nothing I can do about it. I am driver too but only when I can not avoid it (which is still quite frequently). Being a driver is certainly not a part of my personality and it never will be as far as I am concerned.

  3. Some days i’m a cyclist and other days I just ride my bike! ….. Very much depends on the moment and frame of mind.

  4. Hi Lennyboy,

    Interesting article! I’m the author of the UK article you linked to (great minds think alike, eh!), and I’ve added a link from mine to yours.

    I find it strange that The Press claims not to have room to use “person cycling”, because after all it’s just one word, and the phrases you suggest are much more consistent and unbiased across all articles.

    I think calling someone a cyclist does imply that the person is a cycling enthusiast, someone for whom cycling is a lifestyle, rather than just someone who is using a bike as a mode of transport.

    Finally, I love the photo at the bottom, it sums up the point very nicely!

    All the best,
    S.C.

  5. Today I was reminded about this post. When I commute I use my bike or my car but always take the same route. When I drive the (City Care) cones indicate (sometimes non-existing) roadworks, implying serious concern for my safety as a driver. When I cycle, these very cones make me feel unsafe because they block my path completely and swerving towards cars is the only option. The whole city is littered with these cones and while I understand the need to indicate roadworks or potential dangers I cannot see why cyclists are not considered when placing these cones. Why do these cones need to block the complete parking/bike lane? Why I am so looked after as a driver and not as a cyclist?

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