Better By Bike: What causes ‘bikelash’, and is road rage towards cyclists getting better?

Christchurch cyclist Allan Taunt picked up biking to help him quit smoking about 10 years ago. Now he cycles everywhere, clocking up around 5000 kilometers a year on his bike.

Taunt said there’s a lot to love about cycling – he likes being able to get out in the fresh air and say hello to people, he loves biking with his kids, and it’s better for the environment and his health, too.

But Taunt said he’s also been victim of a “bikelash” incident which made it all the way to court, and after a few crashes, he now cycles everywhere with a camera.

This spring, Stuff launched the Better by Bike campaign, aimed at getting more Ōtautahi commuters out of their cars and onto their bikes to improve our own health and that of the planet.

There have been horror-story “bikelash” – negative or hostile reaction to cyclists – incidents around the country.

Last month a Hamilton man was disqualified from driving for six months after deliberately driving into a cyclist he had been stuck behind – before assaulting him.

In 2019, a Christchurch cyclist reported being punched in the face and knocked to the ground by an angry driver, while in 2017 a driver spat in a cyclist’s face during a road rage tirade.

Avid cyclist Allan Taunt bikes everywhere with a camera.

Peter Meecham/Stuff

Avid cyclist Allan Taunt bikes everywhere with a camera.

In Taunt’s case, he said he had told a driver on Clarence St to stop using his phone while they were both parked up at a red light.

The man then drove “really close” to him, following him and occasionally blocking his way in the cycle lane.

But Taunt said in his experience, very few crashes or near-misses were malicious.

“Most drivers just make mistakes, it’s not intentional.

“They’re looking for cars, they’re not looking for people riding bikes.”

He believed the few true bikelash incidents were mostly just a fear of the unknown.

“Some of these drivers, they don’t ride a bike themselves.”

But most would know someone who does, he said, and perhaps giving it a go themselves – as well as building more safe, separated cycleways – could be part of the solution.

“It really is only a small percentage… mistakes happen, but the intentions of most people are good.”

Simon Kingham, an academic and chief science adviser at the Ministry of Transport, says bikelash - or road rage towards cyclists - is decreasing.

Joseph Johnson/Stuff

Simon Kingham, an academic and chief science adviser at the Ministry of Transport, says bikelash – or road rage towards cyclists – is decreasing.

Simon Kingham, University of Canterbury transport researcher and chief science adviser to the Ministry of Transport, said when some people see bike infrastructure, their reaction was to “get angry”.

“They say, no-one’s using them, they’re too expensive, and they actually get quite agitated and quite animated about it.”

But international research suggested those people were not actually the majority, he said.

“There’s about 1% of people who would cycle on anything, and there’s about 3 to 5% who will cycle given a little bit of encouragement – ​​if there’s a painted white line, they’ll cycle.

“Then you get about 30% of people who will never ever cycle, and then in the middle is this big group of about 60%… they kind of like the idea, but they don’t feel it’s safe enough.”

BRADEN FASTIER / STUFF

Cyclist Kate Jensen is asking for better driver behavior on the roads. On her daily cycle to work she experiences near-misses and abuse from motorists.

Kingham said it was unlikely even the best separated cycling infrastructure would be able to get that last 30% on a bike.

“They’re generally the bikelash people.

“They just don’t get it, they’ll never cycle, nothing’s going to make them cycle. They therefore see it as a waste of money, particularly at the beginning.”

Seeing empty bike lanes could easily leave people wondering why councils bothered to spend the time and money, he said.

But Kingham said with cycle infrastructure, there needed to be a bit of momentum.

“We’re starting to see it in Christchurch and I think we’re starting to see the numbers [of cyclists] go up.

“If you look in Wellington and Auckland the bikelash is probably stronger because they’re still much earlier in the process.

“What you find with cycle infrastructure is build it, and they will come.”

Bikelash was not unique to New Zealand, he said, and for road users unlikely to ever get on their bikes, many saw it as “encroaching on their space on the road”.

“They’re driving in their car and they get a bit of congestion, and they see this [bike lane] looking empty, they get grumpy about it.

“It’s something they see as inconveniencing them, and they see no purpose in it.”

Kingham said that sometimes escalated to dangerous driving or even aggression – a powerful deterrent for would-be cyclists.

The more people who cycled, the more normalized it would become, Kingham said.

ALDEN WILLIAMS/Stuff

The more people who cycled, the more normalized it would become, Kingham said.

“Most of the time cycling isn’t as dangerous as it’s perceived, but actually perceived danger is really important.

“I think as a cyclist, you only need one case of someone cutting you really close and it puts you off… cycling should be an enjoyable activity.”

But the more people who cycled, the more motorists would get used to them.

“You should start seeing less congestion… More people cycling is actually really good for car drivers because you’re starting to take some people off the road.

“You still get bikelash… But the more people who cycle, the more it declines.”

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