Ask the Advocate – What’s In a Name?

Jeffery Miller answers the question, should advocates stop using the term “cyclist”?

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Q: Should advocates stop using the term “cyclists”?

A: There’s no doubt that words are powerful. The words we choose to use – in terms of both actual meanings and connotations – affect how our messages are perceived.

The terms “cyclist” and “bicyclist” are good examples. Many leading thinkers and advocates argue that within the movement we should avoid using the term “cyclist” in communications.

Their perspective is that when most people think of a cyclist, they think of a person dressed in racing attire, riding a fast bike. “Cyclist” sounds like somebody participating in a race, not someone on their way to pick up some groceries. People who wear bike shorts and tight jerseys are certainly part of the bike advocacy movement but there are plenty of people who ride to commute who might not associate with the term “cyclist.”

In order to encourage more people to start pedaling, many bike advocates try to talk about bicycling as an activity that anybody can do. For external communications, this does mean avoiding a term like “cyclist” that may imply exclusivity and athletic specialization.

An informal survey of leading US bike advocates by Seattle’s Cascade Bicycle Club in 2012 found that many of the largest organizations do avoid the term. The report found that “many groups strive to refer to cyclists as ‘people who bike’ or ‘people on bikes,’ rather than ‘cyclists,’ to emphasize our shared ‘peopleness:’ we are all people who get around via different modes of transportation at different times.” Under the same logic, active transportation advocates tend to say “people walking” instead of “pedestrians” and “people in cars” rather than “drivers.”

You may be surprised that even among the Lycra-clad some do not self-identify as bicyclists. Many times on charity rides I’ll be guaranteed to win a bet with a friend by asking a stranger in their full get up with their expensive bike on a multi-day state ride “Are you a bicyclist?” Ironically, they will almost always say “no” because there is always someone faster and more hard-core than they are.

But should we toss out “cyclist” altogether? I say no. e term is still useful in some cases. It’s common to see advocates use the word “cyclist” or “bicyclist” when communicating with their own base. It’s also still routine parlance in most news coverage about commuting by bike. And sometimes, it’s just easier to use a single word instead of three.

Jeffrey Miller is the president/ CEO of the Alliance for Biking & Walking, a coalition of nearly 200 state, provincial and local bicycle and pedestrian advocacy organizations across North America. @BikeWalk

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