“Not at all surprised.” “No big surprise.” “I think you could be on to something there”… Those were the typical responses we received from readers when we reported earlier this month on a recent study from Australia, which found that an alarming percentage of people do not, in fact, see cyclists as fully human.
According to the rather startling paper, published by Mark Limb of Queensland University of Technology and Sarah Collyer of Flinders University, people who ride bikes while wearing helmets or hi-visibility vests – you know, the kinds of things we’re constantly told will keep us safe on the roads – are also perceived to be less human than those who do not.
After those shocking (but not particularly surprising) findings appeared to capture the imagination of our readers, who shared their own experiences of the humanising or dehumanising effects of different clothing choices, the road.cc Podcast got in touch with one of the academics behind the study, Dr Mark Limb, to discuss hi-vis, helmets, and the various perceptions of cyclists on the roads in Australia, the UK, and beyond.
In the interview (which you can listen to above), Dr Limb also chats about the limitations of his recent research, which he describes as a “pilot study”, the need for a more in-depth look at the ‘othering’ of road users and why cyclists can be dehumanised, and the relationship between infrastructure and the creation of a “normal and safe” cycling culture.
It’s clear just from speaking to him that Mark Limb loves riding a bike. A self-described “utility cyclist” who also enjoys cycling for fun, the Brisbane-based urban planner and lecturer has been without a car for several years, a choice he says that is aided in no small part by residing in one of the few places in Australia where it isn’t “virtually impossible to live a car-free life”.
When we sit down – over the internet – for our chat, Mark is spending his first morning in Amsterdam, where he and his family are spending the first part of what will be a month-long cycling holiday in northern Europe. This is the second bike-oriented holiday the Limb family has enjoyed in recent years, after a similar trip to South Korea in 2019.
So Limb is well aware, as someone who rides a bike for both function and fun, of life as a cyclist on the road, and how he is perceived by others. But even he was surprised by how his latest study has captured the imagination of cyclists who see their own experiences in its stark findings.
“It has had a lot of attention, but it is quite a small study in an area which is in its infancy, really, in terms of our knowledge about it,” he tells the road.cc Podcast from Amsterdam. “So it’s a little unnerving to have this much attention on it, because it is very much in a pilot study sort of zone still, and it does have some important limitations.”
Limb explains that his and colleague Sarah Collyer’s study built on a 2019 article by Alexa Delbosc, a senior lecturer in civil engineering at Melbourne’s Monash University, which featured what he describes as the “disturbing” conclusion that cyclists are considered less than fully human by a significant proportion of the population.
“That study – like I guess maybe it shouldn’t have been surprising to cyclists – but I was honestly shocked just to see it considered in terms of dehumanisation,” he says.
“And the other really interesting thing with their initial research was that they showed a link between how strong that sense of dehumanisation was with how likely somebody was to either exhibit harassing behaviour towards a cyclist – just shouting at them or something like that – or actual aggressive behaviour, throwing objects at them, swerving the car at them, that kind of thing.”
While Limb notes that the 2019 study from Monash relied upon a small sample, so wasn’t necessarily “representative”, he did recognise the paper’s conclusions from his own experience as a cyclist.
“One thing that did catch my eye was the idea of ‘what is explaining this?’ Could it be how cyclists are dressed?” he says.
“In their initial paper, they suggested – because we have mandatory helmet laws in Australia – maybe it’s because the hair and eyes are obscured by helmets. And that’s the thing I picked up on and thought I should test the attire types and see if there’s a link between the obstruction of hair and eyes by a helmet and the level of dehumanisation.”
To test this apparent link, Limb and his co-author Collyer used what he describes as a “somewhat unconventional” forced-choice photo comparison method, recruiting 563 participants to assess various images of a male and female model standing with a bicycle.
While the models, the background, the bike, and the majority of the models’ clothing remained the same, the participants were shown four variants of the images – one where the person was wearing nothing on their head, one where they wore a baseball cap, one with a helmet, and one with a hi-vis orange vest and no helmet.
The participants were then asked to compare every possible combination of the photos, and decide which one was ‘less human’.
The results were stark. 30 percent of the 563 respondents said they considered cyclists less than fully human, with the cyclists with helmets perceived as less human compared to those without, while the cyclists with safety vests were perceived as least human.
Limb and Collyer also concluded that dehumanisation related more to visible safety gear than obstruction of hair or eyes, and the that perceptions of dehumanisation also varied based on respondent gender.
Notably, Limb also told us that, though it was only compared with the helmet photos so didn’t make it into the main findings, an image of the models wearing lycra clothing – a clothing choice typically ridiculed by anti-cycling mouthpieces on social media – was “off the charts” in terms of being selected as ‘less human’.
However, while he says that the pattern of the responses emphasised that there was a clear difference in perception based on a person’s attire while riding their bikes, Limb is quick to point out the limitations of what is still a “pilot study”.
These include the potentially ‘self-selecting’ character of the respondents, who answered an open call for participants from the researchers and therefore represented a higher proportion of cyclists compared to the general population (“Cyclists are more likely to respond to something about cycling,” Limb says).
The researcher also noted that the survey’s focus on which image was ‘less human’ could be “quite confronting” and perhaps unnecessarily cut-and-dry, especially for those respondents who didn’t see a difference in the photos.
“We asked about dehumanisation and we think there’s probably something there, but it may not be,” he says. “It may be some other preference, some aesthetic preference that people are potentially choosing. And we knew that was a limitation of this particular approach when we did it.
“We knew this wasn’t a representative survey, but like I said this stuff is still in its infancy. This wasn’t a funded project or anything, this was just something we did on the side. But when you’re starting these sorts of new links and in new fields, often you need these sorts of pilot studies to come out and show that ‘yeah perhaps there is something here’, before you can start applying for funding to do bigger studies to truly get representative samples and the like.”
Nevertheless, despite its limitations, Limb believes the study does shed light on perceptions of cyclists by other road users, particularly concerning the concept of ‘othering’ and the use of language in the media.
“It’s quite weird that a lot of traffic conversation in the press does dehumanise,” he says. “It’s rarely that a ‘driver crashes into a cyclist’ – it's always like ‘a collision with a car’, it’s depersonalising the actions of everybody involved. It’s in the language of how these things are often reported.
“So one of the theories we came up with to explain these results is that the more overtly you place yourself within this ‘cycling group’, the more overtly you connect to it, the easier it is to dehumanise you, basically, because of the idea of people being delayed and the frustrations that come from that.
“It is quite disturbing to think that’s how I’m viewed when I’m out there on the road just going about my business.”
Limb also believes that the ‘othering’ of cyclists based on the clothing they wear is intrinsically linked to the cycling infrastructure, or lack thereof, available in that particular country or city.
“As an urban planner I come to this topic from the idea of knowing the benefits of what a cycling city is like,” he says.
“A city that cycles is one that has less pollution, there’s less carbon output, it’s safer, it’s healthier, it’s quieter. It’s far more pleasant to be around a city of that type of nature and I’m very keen to see Australian cities try to develop down that that path.”
While Limb notes that cyclists in the Netherlands don’t need “specialist equipment” to hop on their bikes, in Australia – where helmets have been mandatory for 30 years yet the cycling infrastructure is significantly lacking – the situation is completely different.
“It’s almost like the more of this safety gear you have for utility cycling, it’s a sign that your city, in fact, doesn’t have the infrastructure necessary to have a safe and normal cycling culture,” he says.
And it’s by comparing different cycling cultures – from the everyday, relaxed cycling attitudes of the Netherlands to the safety attire-focused UK and Australia – that Limb thinks may pave the way to understanding more about why people on bikes can be dehumanised.
“If we ran this survey in a place where helmets are not mandatory and are not particularly normal for everyday cyclists to wear, such as here in the Netherlands, would we have even a greater difference in terms of that dehumanising effect or not? Or maybe we wouldn’t just because of the different cycling culture that exists here as well,” he says.
“There’s definitely a lot of unknowns around what that means. I think those sorts of cross jurisdictional studies would be really, really handy to advance information around this area.”
So, how do we go about re-humanising cyclists in the minds of most motorists?
Limb again reckons it’s down to “how common the activity is in society more generally”.
“If your mum or your granny rides her bike to do her shopping, and you know that, and everyone’s grannies do the same things and you see that everywhere you go, if you just think of cyclists in that respect because you’re so used to that happening because cycling is so normalised in society, then I think it’s naturally going to be humanised,” he argues.
“Because how could you otherwise see people as anything but human in that situation?”
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Ryan joined road.cc in December 2021 and since then has kept the site’s readers and listeners informed and enthralled (well at least occasionally) on news, the live blog, and the road.cc Podcast. After boarding a wrong bus at the world championships and ruining a good pair of jeans at the cyclocross, he now serves as road.cc’s senior news writer. Before his foray into cycling journalism, he wallowed in the equally pitiless world of academia, where he wrote a book about Victorian politics and droned on about cycling and bikes to classes of bored students (while taking every chance he could get to talk about cycling in print or on the radio). He can be found riding his bike very slowly around the narrow, scenic country lanes of Co. Down.