Learn more about BikingToronto and Singer Kwinter

More on “Cyclists” versus “People Who Ride Bikes”

A couple weeks ago I posted an opinion piece entitled “The Last Thing Toronto Needs is More Cyclists” and attempted to make the point that any Torontonian should not be labeled, stereotyped or pigeonholed based on the type of transportation they like to use.

Photo by MBeauchamp on Flickr

The post fostered much discussion, both among people who understood what I was saying and those who thought I was saying that cycling advocates or people who eat-live-sleep bikes are not needed (I suspect these people may have just skimmed the post?) … when what I was in fact saying was that regular, ordinary “people who ride bikes” are more powerful than people who choose to label themselves as “cyclists”.

Cycling advocates are very important in the pursuit of better and more extensive cycling infrastructure… and here in Toronto, nobody does it better than the Toronto Cyclists Union and the Toronto Coalition for Active Transportation.   They have a presence at City Hall, reach out to groups across the city, and generally are involved in policy stuff that regular non-advocates do not have time for.

My post “The Last Thing Toronto Needs is More Cyclists” made the point that the label of “cyclist” is not only a loaded one (media portrayals of cyclists in Toronto often involve mentions of rule-breaking and self-righteousness) but inaccurate (since most people who ride bikes in Toronto are also pedestrians, motorists and transit users) and that it is harmful to the promotion of cycling in Toronto to use it… because the vast majority of cyclists in Toronto do not identify themselves as such.

The following infographic shows the numerical ratio between “cyclists” and “people who ride bikes” and asks what group obviously would have more influence.   We’ve used the approximate number of members of the Toronto Cyclists Union (which does an excellent job of cycling advocacy) as a rough estimate of how many people self-identify themselves as cyclists.  These ~1000 cyclists should be commended for paying to join an organization with the purpose of lobbying for cycling infrastructure improvements. We’ve also used the 2009 City of Toronto survey which identifies dedicated and occasional users of bicycles in the city for utilitarian and recreational purposes.



Click for full-size version

Essentially, the label of “cyclist” is helpful because it’s a form of identification and unification… but it’s also a hinderance, as it allows mainstream media and society to lump us all into the same group and marginalize us as a monolithic group instead of the diverse and varied individuals we are.

Copenhagenize makes this point very well with the comparison of bicycle afficionados with vacuum afficionados… sure there are some, but there are far more people who simply find bicycles (like vacuums) a very useful tool to help make their lives easier and/or more fun:

We all have a vacuum cleaner, we’ve all learned how to use it and we all use it. But we don’t go around thinking about our vaccum in the course of a day. Only when the bag is full do we roll our eyes and sigh. Kind of like when our tire is flat/chain is loose and we chuck our bike into the bike shop.

We don’t have a ‘stable’ of vacuum cleaners. We don’t buy vacuum cleaning clothes from our LVS or wave at other ‘avid’ vacuum cleaning ‘enthusiasts’ whilst we clean. The relationship to our bicycles is the same as to our vacuum cleaners. They’re both merely incredibly effective and useful tools for making our daily lives easier.


What do you think?  Is it better for all people who ride bikes in Toronto to be lumped into the “cyclists” label… or is it better for them to just be people who happen to sometimes (or always) use a fun, green, cheap way to get around the city?

  • RobOnWheels

    Is it possible to be a “cyclist” while enjoying the open road in goofy lycra, and a “person who rides a bike” when discussing issues related to cycling in Toronto? Or is that asking too much?

  • Joe,

    I’m glad you’re keeping to your word and posting a follow-up, and that you’re keeping this conversation alive. However, none of your new arguements or restatements have changed the reaction I originally had…

    *By definition* a Cyclist is “someone who rides a bike” much like a pedestrian is “someone who walks” and a motorist is “someone who drives a car.” If you want to distinguish “cycling activists” from “casual cyclists” then make that distinction; I think there’s some credence to that. But I find it infuriating that you insist on poisoning the word cyclist; why don’t you try to empower the different adjectives that can precede it instead? Making effective arguments requires clear use of words and grammar; doesn’t the advent of your own ad hoc definitions just confuse the issue?

    Biking is my primary mode of transportation, but I also walk, take transit and occassionally drive a car. I am most of the time a cycling adocate and sometime activist, sometimes a transit advocate and usually a nay-sayer of driving. However, every time I use one of those modes *I am always* a cyclist, pedestrian, transit rider and motorist, respectively.


  • That’s an interesting take Paul.

    Of course by *definition* a cyclist is someone who rides a bike. But should any biker be identified as such in the name of advocacy?

    Is someone who rides their bike with their kids in Ashbridges Bay Park once a week/month as much a cyclist as someone who commutes to work by bike, or is a bike courier, or organizes cycling events?

    Assigning an identity depending on an activity that you do sometimes doesn’t seem logical – do you say that you’re an “eater” if someone asks you what you are while you’re having lunch? Or a “shopper” if you’re buying something when the question comes up?

    Of course not… and that’s exactly my point. Many many many people in Toronto (I’m not talking about advocates here) do not describe themselves as “cyclists” even though they ride bicycles frequently or occasionally. Even if they were asked who they were while on their bikes.

    Getting those people (the non-“cyclists”, the people who ride bikes) on bikes more is what is important.

    As I mention above, having one generic label apply to us all may unite us, but it also allows us to be marginalized.

  • While we are tapping about the definition of “cyclist” and “empowering the different adjectives that can precede it”…

    I believe the word “bicycle” comes from the Latin words for “two wheels”? (We accept tricycles as being “bicycles” also?) Another adjective we are familiar with is “motor” as in “motor-cyclist”. So I’ll suggest a broad definition of “cyclist” might be anyone traveling on a light weight vehicle that lacks seat belts and air bags and crush zones and moves at “human speeds” (Usain Bolt sprints at almost 35kph… Lance Armstrong can average over 50kph) A vehicle that can be parked almost anywhere so does not require that another piece of the planets surface be paved over as a parking space. A vehicle that is extremely energy efficient (never an empty seat.) These daze a motor-cyclist can use chemical batteries (for stored energy, the same way the human body uses fat) that accepts energy from a wide range of sources including wind and solar and micro-hydro… As a motor-cyclist myself to speed up my commutes I use energy from food (heavily laced with hydrocarbons) but also energy stored in batteries that is 20% generated from winds and 80% from micro-hydro power (see Bullfrog Power.) I never travel as fast as Usain or Lance but I can get around town as fast as rush hour traffic speeds and faster than public transit schedules… One eighth of the old City of Toronto has a speed limit of only 20kph… our city parks. There’s a reason for this. 20kph is considered “civilized”…

    Works for me.

    Watt we really need in a 21st century high-density urban world is cities that are re-modeled around trips for work and play that are short distance and at slow (safe) speeds.


  • Joe,

    I’m not disputing that it’s important to have lots of people on bikes, with all kinds of levels of engagements. I agree!

    I do, however, think there’s a serious flaw in the logic of your language. For example, in paragraph 2 of your post you lay out the two terms you are trying to distinguish, “cyclists” vs “people who ride bikes” but in the *very next sentence* you revert to using terms more like I am suggesting be used and say “cycling advocates” and “non-advocates.” If you have to preface or explain what you mean by “cyclist” every time you call that term, then it’s the wrong term to use.

    I said this in regard to your last article, but it seems to me that you’re projecting a bunch of ideas onto the word cyclist, things that are subjective and not universally associated with the word and then going on to form your argument based on that.

    Sure the media will use blanket terms and stereotype the whole community, it’s kind of what they do, and they’ll continuing doing it no matter what terms we’re using. If we create more positive examples of cycling and cyclists — demonstrate inclusivity — it will counteract this, but if we disassociate all “people who ride bikes” from the term, then it’s that much easier to demonize the remaining “cyclists,” and if that happens then they — the advocates — will have a lot more difficult time fighting for the things that all of us need.


  • cityvelo

    i think it’s fair to distinguish between the hardcore bike rider/cyclist/person who owns 5 bikes and average joe cyclist/person who rides their one bike to work. maybe the hardcore cyclist is on their bike 10 hours a day and the casual commuter/average joe is on their bike for an hour a day.

    why is it fair to make the distinction? they are two different demographics…and yet, in the end – they are riding their bike in the city. their commute/ride/pleasure full peddle should be safe no matter what.

    bicker all you will about semantics, in the least we can agree that once your ass sits on a saddle and you are rolling on two wheels – you deserve to have a safe voyage from start to finish.

  • Pingback: Semi-bike-friendly Santa Monica FedEx fail; LAPD ride-along for Critical Mass « BikingInLA()

  • Great discussion everyone!

    The main point here is not what we should call people who ride bikes, but that they shouldn’t be labeled.

    CityVelo makes an excellent point which we can all agree on: you deserve to have a safe voyage from start to finish, no matter how much you bike.

  • As someone who owns one bike (although I intend to get/build a winter bicycle), no skin-tight spandex clothing, and in fact nothing in spandex except a pair of MEC cargo pants, as someone who vehemently denies that cycling makes any particular political point (two of my early cycling buddies fell a fair distance to the right of Preston Manning), and who rides because I like doing it, not to save the world… please call me a cyclist. And if you get on your bike, if you want the freedom to make that choice, then I encourage you to do the same.

    Because it doesn’t matter whether you see yourself as the next Lance Armstrong, you just want to save on gas, you can’t afford a car, or you ride for the sheer joy of it. A small but very noisy minority wants to deny you the right to ride, or at least the right to do it safely. Telling yourself, or other people, that you don’t belong with those scary political people won’t help you at all. Telling yourself that you don’t ride like the bike couriers, red-light blowers, or anarchists won’t help. Because whatever your riding style, somebody will want you off the road. And they’ll write into any weblog or forum that will accept their ranting, screaming about how you held them up on the way home, or they once saw someone run a red light on a bike, or they don’t like the fashion sense of someone they once saw on a bicycle. So, reason number one to call myself a cyclist: because I don’t consider it wise or dignified to ignore the tiny minority of very bad drivers who hate cyclists and do us harm (or at least applaud when some other incompetent driver kills a cyclist or three).

    Second reason: because as things stand right now, very few people beside organized cyclists have anything serious to say about the question of road safety and especially the need to get the really homicidal drivers off the roads. Everything I believe about road safety as a cyclist, I also believe as a driver, a pilot, and as a mariner. The culture of entitlement, impatience and impunity that hangs around the car “culture” infuriates me just as much from behind a tiller, a joystick, or a steering wheel as it does from behind the handlebars of my bicycle. If I didn’t take political action for road safety with self-identified cyclists, who would I take it with? If the CAA stood up and loudly called for stiff jail terms and lifetime license suspensions for drivers who kill other road users (including people in other cars), I’d ally with them. But on the 3000+ Canadians (0.1% of us in any given year!) killed on the roads, the CAA murmers about defensive driving. Maybe, the best defence for other road users consists of stone walls with armed guards between the rest of us and homicidal drivers. Who do you think will stand up and make the radical suggestion that we hold people who drive cars accountable to the same laws, the same standards, that we apply to people who use other dangerous technologies like airplanes or guns? If the people who drive cars, who fly planes, who sail boats, who ride (or drive) trains, and who ride bicycles, in other words, the cyclists, don’t make the necessary political points about road safety, who will?

I Bike T.O. Shirts
available in 12 colours

I Bike T.O. Shirts
available in 12 colours

I Bike T.O. Shirts
available in 12 colours

Left Wing Pinko Shirts
available in 12 colours