The Unacceptability of Cycling

This tweet at the beginning of March from Jezza Vine ‘started a conversation’, as high profile media types like to say.

It wasn’t, however, just an attempt to stir things up. In fact, it was a reasonable question to ask following an incident that Vine had experienced earlier (being called a ‘cunt’ for doing exactly what he describes in that tweet).

It’s particularly interesting that, in the first tweet linked above, Vine didn’t ask whether a cyclist who acted in the way described would be breaking the law. Instead, it was a question about acceptability (so, what is likely to be socially judged as reasonable behaviour). Yet the thought process gone through by a large number of commenters on that tweet seems to have run something like this:

  1. Hang on, Vine’s at it again with his cycling crap. Fkn cyclists!
  2. Hmmm. There is something unacceptable about this, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Fkn cyclists!
  3. Can the law help me make sense of my intuition? (Fkn cyclists!)

Why was this?

An example of a not untypical kind of response follows.

So here you have someone suggesting that the law just has to be clear on this issue. Probably because, in tricky conflictual situations we like to believe that the law will sort things out. Though anyone who has been to court after witnessing bad driving, uses the family courts or fought a libel case will probably not agree.

The law isn’t 100% clear here either (and in my initial replies to Vine’s tweet, I was rather too convinced that it was, mea culpa). Some case law suggests Vine’s cyclist is doing nothing illegal. Famously, Crank vs Brooks [1980] established that, when crossing pavement to pavement on a marked crossing, and pushing their bike, a cyclist is, in law, a pedestrian. But crossing from stop line on one arm of a junction, with lights red and no traffic, to the opposite in opposite arm in order to continue on one’s way? Some legal opinion suggests that no-one has ever been prosecuted for this.

Perhaps, then, the legality of doing it remains to be tested in court. Perhaps propelling a bike by pushing it while remaining in the carriageway means the cyclist remains in charge of a vehicle on the carriageway and must abide by laws that apply to someone in this position. But it’s doubtful whether this would be so in the case Vine describes – and even more doubtful in the incident he was involved in, when he walked his bike through the lights on a pedestrian green phase.

Subsequently, several actual police officers responded to the incident by confirming that Vine did nothing wrong.

So there’s a lack of case law relevant to this incident, and the legal position is thus unclear – so that intuition expressed in the tweet I quoted about cyclists ‘not being able to have it both ways’ just doesn’t stack up. Although maybe that feeling there’s something going on here that’s just unacceptable is about something else, perhaps the rightness or wrongness of Vine’s actions in a broader sense. Various commentators indeed pointed out that the law and morality are very different kettles of fish. So what about the morality of Vine’s actions?

Well, as the tweet from Harry Tangye confirms, no-one was harmed, put at risk or even put to any form of inconvenience or disadvantage by Vine’s actions. There were no consequences that flowed from his actions. The recommendation in the Highway Code (a recommendation, not any kind of binding law, by the way) that all road users should be ‘considerate’ is thus not even relevant, as it’s hard to see what actual impact Vine’s actions could have had on anyone else.

So what exactly did over 8000 people find unacceptable about his actions? Some were determined to keep reaching, one going so far as resorting to the concept of pre-crime.

One final possibility. Suppose we say that it’s ‘cheating’ that’s the problem – that it’s cyclists flouting the rules and getting away with it that people find unacceptable (see p. 16 of this Dept of Transport paper from 2002 on the commonness of this perception). Well, first of all, it’s not at all clear (as we saw) that any rules are being flouted here. Secondly, cheating implies that someone is getting an unfair advantage – but again, no-one is being disadvantaged here. To reiterate, there’s no harm or inconvenience involved. Vine continuing on his way as he did had literally no objective consequences for anyone else.

But the perception persists, as the 8000 people who found Vine’s actions ‘unacceptable’ confirmed. Now obviously we all regularly make sense of various phenomena we encounter in ways which, on reflection, don’t make a great deal of sense. But there was a stubbornness evident in many people’s responses to Vine’s tweet which is particularly interesting. An obdurate sense that a cyclist shouldn’t also be a pedestrian, even if alternating between these two ways of getting about has zero effect on anyone else.

So what other possibilities remain for understanding why those 8000 people had such a problem with Vine’s actions? Well, for some of them the unacceptable thing might not be the behaviour, but something about cycling itself. Given my background and the kind of work I do, what the stubbornness of so many replies to Vine brings to mind for me is above all Mary Douglas’s argument in her 1966 book Purity and Danger, regarding how humans tend to view things which, in relation to cultural distinctions between good and bad, pure and impure, are just anomalous or ambiguous. Such things are a threat to order, to a belief that it is possible to identify a stable and consistent way the world should be. I don’t think it’s over-intellectualising things to suggest that cycling is, in cultures like that of the UK, unacceptable for some people because cyclists are really neither one thing nor another. Not drivers of vehicles and not pedestrians. And when they demonstrate this, as Vine did, it makes a certain subclass of people – those who are very attached to certain kinds of hierarchy – very uncomfortable indeed.

That sense of ‘how dare you!!’, where it’s present, goes deep. When it surfaces, it does so in a way that wants to make itself respectable (through an appeal to the law, or to morality). But what it is, fundamentally, is something more akin to disgust. So, as the psychologist and cyclist Ian Walker points out, the desire to call out non-harmful, non-inconvenient, entirely insignificant behaviour like Vine’s is essentially a desire to erase this feeling and soothe an imperilled sense of how the world should be.

We can go one step further, though. For those people who feel it, the desire to punish cyclists is particularly intense, because cyclists are not just different, they are themselves – unacceptably – a kind of difference, the difference between vehicle and pedestrian bound up in one person.

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