Why getting rid of cyclists is a good idea

I’ve just read a wonderful article at www.peopleforbikes.org about how the city of Seattle is getting rid of cyclists.

People only pretend to like cyclists anyway. Cyclists are a breed unto themselves with their gaudy clothes, their over-developed calf muscles and their self-righteous sense of entitlement.

Actually, I am one of them, those pesky cyclists. I ride my bike to work most days. I ride because I genuinely believe that I am doing a good thing for the planet by committing to alternative transport instead of buying a second car.

That probably makes me kind of annoying. It also aligns me with a particular tribe.

Last week the Bay of Plenty Times reported that some of my tribe haven’t been wearing bike helmets, for shame. Editorials followed. Comments raged. Annemarie Quill opened her Monday column with the words, “I want to like cyclists,” as though it’s really difficult.

As a fellow columnist I understand what she is doing there, but still, this whole us-versus-them thing is never going to get us anywhere. How we talk about each other influences community attitudes from grassroots all the way up to local and national decision makers. In an us-versus-them world any funding for cycle projects is perceived to be at the expense of motorists.

Let’s look to the city of Seattle for a better way forward. They appear to have solved the problem of cyclists by getting rid of them altogether. That’s right, no more cyclists in Seattle.

But I am playing with words here. What they have done in Seattle is to reframe the conversation by removing a bunch of words like ‘cyclist’ from public discourse. Neighbourhood advocates and public officials have been given new terminology that focuses on people rather than modes of transport.

According to a reference sheet published by Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, the word cyclist is out. They no longer talk about cyclists. Instead it’s ‘people riding bikes’. There are no pedestrians, just ‘people walking’. There are no drivers, just ‘people driving’.

These may seem cumbersome and almost pointless distinctions, but the results have reportedly been profound in a city that a few years ago was embroiled in a high-profile turf war between cars and bikes.

“Supporting safer streets is obvious once you ditch the vehicle language,” says Seattle writer Tom Fucoloro. He puts it this way on his Seattle Bike blog: “If you think of everyone on the street as a person, discussions go in a very different direction … We all want our friends, neighbors, co-workers and family members to get around town safely whether they choose to drive, bike or walk. I don’t love my mom any less when she’s driving than when she’s walking.”

Seattle Neighborhood Greenways was set up in 2011 to advocate for a network of low-traffic streets. But they didn’t brand themselves as a cycling action group. Instead, they branded themselves as advocates for the neighbourhood. The language they promote is deliberately people-centric. Goodbye cyclists, hello people on bikes.

I’m wildly attracted to this idea that small changes to the words we use can influence community attitudes.

Our usual starting point for most points of contention is to define our turf and argue from there about where the other side is going wrong. We fortify ourselves behind our contrived identities – I am a cyclist and you are a driver – instead of focusing together on our common goals.

I want our city to be characterised by a range of safe, low impact and pleasant options for getting around the place. Is that a common goal? Let’s talk about that.

To borrow the parlance of Seattle, I am not a cyclist. I am a father of three boys who works in the Tauranga city centre. I think I will ride my bike today.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 13 February 2015. Reproduced with permission.