One frequently hears about the “safety in numbers” effect as it relates to cycling. An increase in cyclists results in greater bicycle exposure to motorists and thereby improves driving behavior. This is simple and rational enough. Most people are inherently good and have no desire to harm an innocent, but how do we reach the hardcore bike haters…those rare individuals who are hell bent on running cyclists off the road?
During the Nuremberg trials Captain G.M.Glibert, an Army psychologist, made the following observation:
“In my work with the defendants, I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men.”
We have all experienced the dehumanizing effects of being shut up in a car while stuck in terrible traffic. The metal and glass barriers give us the illusion of safety and complete control; the car is our sanctuary. We rage against our fellow humans in ways that would be unthinkable in virtually any other setting. To put it simply, the car sucks the empathy right out of us and makes us dictatorial rulers of the road.
“Fuck that guy. I’m running late and need to get to work. I’m only running the red light a little bit.”
To what degree does empathy towards our fellow humans drive the “safety in numbers effect?” Are drivers in Bremen, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen safer drivers simply because of the sheer volume of cyclists they encounter, or is it because their friends and families are also cyclists? I suspect that it’s the emotional entanglement, the ability to empathize with cyclists, that really drives the safety in numbers effect. If empathy is the key to driving a permanent change in driver habits, perhaps cycling advocates need to keep this in mind. What is the predominant stereotype of “the cyclist” and is this person somebody that John Q Public can empathize with?
If I were to interview car commuters from the suburbs, people with no attachment to cycling at all, my bet is that the typical stereotype of American cyclists would include some or all of the following:
- Law breaking
- Insufferable hipster
- Holier than thou
- Freakishly dressed
- Car hating
- Helmet/safety zealot
Is this the type of person that’s easy for the suburban car commuter to empathize with? Probably not. Of course, this is just a stereotype but unfortunately our perception often becomes reality.
The Latter Day Saints recently launched a brilliant campaign designed to challenge the stereotype of Mormons being a mostly white, affluent, and Utah-based religion (all in the hopes of driving converts no doubt – just like cycling advocates). A sexy surfer from Hawaii or a scruffy Harley rider from middle America is introduced to the viewer culminating with the tagline “I’m a Mormon.” Perhaps cyclists could learn from this approach to challenge its predominant stereotype. What would the “I’m a Cyclist” campaign look like?
Of one thing I am certain. Cycling will never become a popular or accepted form of transportation in America as long as the “fringe cyclist” stereotype persists. “Evil” road raging maniacs will never adapt their behavior until the current mold is broken. The Germanic model of cycling (normal bikes, normal people, normal risk assessment) as transportation is so much closer to “the average Joe” and easier to empathize with than the Anglo model (sporty bikes, political people, broken risk assessment). Is it possible that our cycling culture is in itself limiting its popularity? Building empathy amongst the “cagers” is key to changing the game. Cycling advocates should be looking long and hard in the mirror and asking themselves what exactly it is that they’re pushing.