Invisible Gorillas

May.14, 2010, filed under Cycling, Rant

avatarI sometimes wonder why we are so fixated on the provision of cycle facilities in this country. The Beauty and the Bike project is only the latest in a number of initiatives to try to tackle the issue of increasing the popularity of cycling by installing infrastructure. They come right out with it and say: It’s the infrastructure, stupid!

Regular readers will already be aware of my feelings about this, and the organisation that started it all, Sustrans , which is not, and never has been, a cycling organisation.

Here’s why it’s not the infrastructure:

Selective attention blindness is probably the main cause of SMIDSY incidents on the road, as discussed by the author of the original study, Daniel Simons, in this Seed magazine article. The phenomenon is one in which an observer is so focused on looking for one thing that he fails to see something else that is right in front of him. Hence, in the above video, people who haven’t heard about it will be so absorbed in counting the passes between the white shirts that they completely fail to spot the gorilla. Seriously. It may be impossible to believe but it’s true.

Did you spot the gorilla?

It’s also why no amount of fluorescent material or bright lighting will help a cyclist be seen —apparently you’d be better off wearing the same colours as road signs, because drivers are expecting those— and why segregated facilities are not only unhelpful, they make the problem worse.

Drivers are looking for other cars. This is a peer group phenomenon. The other members of their peer group are more important to them and have higher priority, and there are so many more of their peer group that road users who are not members of that peer group are involuntarily ignored. Frequent cyclists who are also drivers tend to be more aware of cyclists sharing the road for the same reason. Other cyclists are members of their peer group. The more frequently a person cycles the more he is likely he is to spot other cyclists from behind the wheel of his car.

I’m basing this on personal experience, incidentally. I’m not sure if any formal studies have been done into the correlation between cycling frequency and likelihood of spotting cyclists on the road.

If we combine selective attention blindness with peer-group attention selection and segregated facilities, we’re creating a situation in which cyclists won’t be able to use the road even if they want to. Drivers will become less used to seeing cyclists and if cyclists become more unexpected than they are at present, then they’re even more likely to end up in physical conflict with motorised road users.

Cyclists on the road in a world dominated by car culture are the invisible gorilla beating his chest in the middle of the screen. It’s bad enough right now. The more cyclists who choose to give up their right to the road and let drivers get away with not having to look for them, the more imperative it will become to have a fully integrated, segregated network of routes for bikes. The more segregated routes we have, the more dangerous the roads will become.

I don’t know about you but that strikes me as a move in completely the wrong direction.

I shouldn’t look at websites like Bike Belles and their ilk any more. They’re sexist, they’re insulting and they’re trying to make my cycling experience even worse than it is already.

When will people accept that getting more people cycling shouldn’t be done at the cost of those who are already out there doing it? It’s not the infrastructure: it’s evolutionary biology. We can’t tackle this problem by treating the symptoms because there isn’t enough space in this country for building yet more paths. We need to tackle the source of the problem, and the only thing that will do that is getting more cyclists on the roads.

Every single person who chooses to ride on a segregated path is part of the problem. Every single person who chooses to ride on the road is part of the solution.

Which one are you?

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