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This paper is the result of a collaboration between a cycling instructor involved in changing attitudes in urban areas towards cyclists and cycling in order to encourage more people to reap the benefits of riding a bicycle, and a psychotherapist.  Personal Construct Psychology (PCP), as a comprehensive theory of behavior and change, has been a helpful framework to explore the issues and attitudes of cyclists and drivers towards each other. 


British society is in transition in relation to the way people move around.  In Britain's highly motorized towns, increasing congestion and noxious emissions, as well as concerns about the nation’s health, highlight a need to adopt more sustainable forms of transport like cycling and walking. Cycling is seen by institutions (transport and health) as a major part of the solution and while on the increase in some UK towns, the numbers of cycle trips lag significantly behind other European cities.  The average trip by UK drivers is 6.2 miles according to the UK census data from 20131, a distance that can be cycled in about 30 minutes. 


Urban planners and government transport agencies seek to find ways to increase significantly the number of people cycling (and walking) and in so doing need to tackle the conundrum of whether to encourage the sharing of the same road space as drivers or whether to create a separate network for cycling, reducing the perception of danger so more people will take up cycling (or to find a third way such as a pragmatic mix of measures).  


Encouraging more cycling and reducing risk in the urban environment could be construed as contradicting another superordinate, institutional, aim of “smoothing the flow of traffic” so making driving easier, which may be politically expedient since the vast majority of voters in the UK would identify themselves as drivers rather than cyclists: 57% of commuters drive to work in the UK. This transition in the urban environment is manifested in conflict between different road users. 


This paper will look at evidence of the way drivers construe cyclists, and how cyclists construe drivers, and how their behavior towards each other is governed by the ideas people have about the way they move around. We also consider the role of society in shaping people’s construing by looking at the effect of different institutional interventions on individual people while driving or cycling (or people considering cycling or driving)  Elaborating the core issues that create resistance to, or facilitate change, using personal construct psychology, provides an explicit rationale for current and future interventions in this field. 




Anecdotal evidence is drawn from the work of Cycle Training UK (CTUK), and from the construing of the authors as cyclists using the technique of Self Characterization, as described by George Kelly in his book The psychology of Personal Constructs. 


What do professional drivers think of people who cycle? In 2008 CTUK was commissioned by a London Borough to develop a training course where essential council drivers got on a bicycle in order to help them empathize with cyclists with an aim to make their driving around cyclists less risky and more considerate. A core element of this course was to ask the drivers their view about people who cycle before they get to ride themselves, then again after spending time on a bicycle, on a road, to see if their attitude changed. This course was subsequently taken up by Transport for London and recognized as contributing to a drivers’ Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC) and named “Safe Urban Driving” (SUD). There was a huge uptake of these courses by many professional drivers. Between 2010-2015 CTUK alone has delivered this course to over 3,000 drivers. Each driver at the start of the course was routinely asked their view on people who ride bicycles. 


Within almost every group of ten professional drivers engaging in the question about their views on cyclists and cycling, approximately: 


  • 10% considered them a menace who shouldn't be allowed on the road at all, and used terms like “hate them” or suggest that “they deserve what they get” and would not be averse to admitting wishing to “run them over.” 


  •  40% considered them a nuisance, as in the way of their vehicle, considering them dangerous and describing their behavior as lawbreaking (transgressive), recognized and felt differently towards different cycling “tribes.” The lycra-clad, the fixed gear hipsters and couriers, and women with baskets going slowly seeming to stand out more than other cycling groups. These drivers noted that some do not wear helmets (many believing that this is unlawful) and complained that they ride in the middle of the road and do not stick to their cycle lanes or to the gutter. They believed that cyclists should be licensed, insured and undergo compulsory training before being allowed to ride on the roads. 


  • 40% considered them a valid road user. Some of this group agreed that they should be licensed and insured but in general agreed that people have a right to cycle as long as they stick to the rules. Some of this group may be occasional/leisure cyclists or have a family member who rides a bicycle so may be more forgiving of a cyclist who rides on the pavement (as it is safer). This group tended to express less extreme negative emotions and had a more “live and let live” attitude to cyclists. 


  • 7% were regular cyclists themselves and considered others who ride in a positive light (apart from the minority who break the law, giving all cyclists a bad name). They stated that every person on a bike is one fewer car in the traffic jam, recognized the general benefits of encouraging cycling, and approved of environmental changes to facilitate this. 


  • 3% thought cyclists should have less constraints than drivers as they can do less harm. Some stated that cyclists should be allowed to go through lights and ride on the pavement if done carefully. They took more issue with other drivers than with cyclists. Often these drivers were regular cyclists. 


What do cyclists think of people who drive? CTUK has been training cyclists and working with people wishing to feel safe riding on the road since 1998. While cycle trainers engage in discussions with individuals about their perception of drivers and riding on road, a core principle of this training is to keep things positive by avoiding highlighting danger, with an emphasis on improved riding skills and an ability to risk assess situations to promote a more efficient, more enjoyable, and less risky riding experience. Therefore, while the drivers trained are asked specifically to describe how they view (construe) cyclists/cycling in order to enhance their learning process, (potential) cyclists are not asked this directly for the same reason.  D. Horton reports that a perception of danger comes across strongly in his many interactions with non-cyclists or people considering cycling.   


Because of the lack of a clear standard question on the perspective of cyclists, the authors wrote Self Characterizations about themselves as cyclists to help inform this paper.  


An extract from the Self Characterization of David Dansky, for whom cycling is his profession, is as follows:  


David ... felt he owned the road on his bicycle, that he had an equal if not more right to space on the streets since his transport choice was benign, good for him, good for everyone. He shunned driving, finally giving up driving for good, not wishing to use a machine that can harm the earth and people on the earth. He hated motorists’ feeble excuse “sorry mate I didn't see you”, those drivers not intending to harm yet not being responsible operating a machine that can cause such violence, not being extra careful vexed him. 


Since David (used to) consider driving as an immoral and selfish activity he rode in a manner drivers may construe as defiant, taking up the space in the road that would prevent a driver passing, believing that the drivers had less right to proceed than he did. David, through working with professional drivers as part of his job, has modified that view now, understanding that most drivers are going about their business, may be victims of a history of motorizing the UK, so are not aware of other transport possibilities. He now considers himself less defiant and focuses more on positive communications and interactions. 


An extract from the Self-Characterisation of Clare Morris, new to the field of cycling, is as follows: 


In elaborating the role of cycling for people with dementia, Clare trained as a cycle instructor and became much more aware of the issues involved in cycling in London.  She acquired a new bike and started cycling more, engaging more mindfully in elaborating her position on the road and the way she cycled.  

Yes it made sense to stay away from parked cars, and yes it made sense to be highly visible in order to be safe on the roads. She had learnt that in her motorcycle training. However as a cyclist, often moving slower than the motorized traffic, she became very aware of her default tendency to keep to the left of the road, out of the way of cars, often feeling squeezed and stopping to give way to motorized traffic. ... in some instances she construed, and still construes, David’s position as ”defiant” (as opposed to giving way to something bigger, faster and scarier than a man on a bicycle) – ”taking the lane” and forcing car drivers to slow down to his pace on one lane roads, keeping his position when faced with an oncoming car where there is not room to pass and forcing the driver to stop and let him through, all with a big smile and making eye contact with the driver of the vehicle.  


Clare, who is also a driver, slot rattles between understanding intellectually that riding in an assertive manner, in the middle of a lane makes her safer, it feels at times that this is defiant to drivers, thinking she is in their way, so moves left to allow them to pass. With time she has come to recognize the powerful effect of making clear signals and maintaining her line, controlling the traffic around her, keeping herself visible and therefore safe. Moving out of the way has become a courtesy when it is safe to do so, as opposed to the default position which makes her feel bullied, scared and at risk. 


These characterizations reflect David’s elaborated view of cycling safety which follows the Highway Code and forms the basis of National Standards Bikeability Training. This involves maintaining a central, “primary” position in roads with one lane, to ensure being seen by drivers emerging from side roads on the left, and to avoid being overtaken at zebra crossings and road narrowings.  This is not always popular with drivers who are unlikely to be subsuming that this is the safest behaviour for cyclists. Each side in the current debate within the cycling community about whether to segregate or integrate cyclists and drivers offers arguments backed up by different ways of construing drivers and cyclists.  Complete segregation is rarely possible in London, and many of the marked cycle lanes reinforce unsafe cycling, without solving conflicts such as drivers turning left across cycle lanes.   


Drivers are the majority road users and also the main source of road danger: about two thousand people are killed annually by drivers as opposed to less than one person killed annually by cyclists.  Were all drivers to accept and even encourage road sharing with cyclists and drive in a manner that reflects this, then David’s view that drivers are 'immoral, sloppy, dangerous, selfish people” would be invalidated, enabling him to ride less “defiantly,” which is an expression of his professional role teaching drivers to be considerate around cyclists.  Most importantly, when there is a cultural acceptance that the road is to be shared, many more people might cycle, contributing to meeting the current societal goals (core constructions) of improving health and wellbeing and creating a better environment. 


Clare continues to elaborate her thinking and this manifests more and more in maintaining an assertive road position, which she now construes not so much as defiant, but as the safe way to travel by bicycle. 



Sharing the road and cultural change 


PCP, a comprehensive theory of the person, invites us to view each individual as perceiving the world through their own unique personal construct system — the highly individual lenses through which we experience and find meaning in the world.  Using the metaphor of a personal scientist, Kelly sees each person as deeply involved in the process of anticipation, their behavior an experiment to test out their unique theory of events. 


Personal constructs exist at all levels of awareness, and are not always easy to put into words. From birth we are making discriminations about warmth vs cold, hunger vs feeling satisfied, familiarity vs feeling scared and anxious, and so on.  It is only as we develop language that we communicate and elaborate our discriminations throughout life.  Much of our construct system remains at a low level of awareness, and this is linked to the fundamental ways in which we make sense of events. These core constructs are described as those by which we maintain our identity and existence, our sense of the person we are and how we fit in with the rest of the world.  More peripheral constructs are easier to modify:  


"as we continually climb around the scaffolding, shifting and adjusting peripheral constructs to achieve a better fit with the world in which we find ourselves, these central core constructs remain relatively unchanged, allowing us to retain our sense of who we are and the meaning of what we do. Kelly has described our core constructs as comprehensive enough to allow us to see a wide variety of events as consistent with our personality, and to understand ourselves as complex, but organised. We react vigorously to any threat of change at this level which might imply a loss of clarity about who we are, and the meaning of our lives" 


How we move around involves core constructs, and many of these are at a low level of awareness.  The skills involved in driving a car and riding a bicycle involve motor skills that, although we are given instructions initially, are acquired and developed non-verbally through practice and experience.  They are skills we do not forget and we go about in an automatic, subconscious way using procedural memory.  The manner in which we use these non-verbal skills (constructs at a low level of awareness) also reflects our construing.  To what degree does a person follow the Highway Code? Does this vary from day to day? In the context of changing the way we move around in order to reduce danger to road users, there are likely to be core constructions that are involved, and it is Kelly's constructs of transition that illuminate the processes involved when our construct system needs to change in fundamental ways. 


Individuals construing within a group  


The role of a psychology of individuals in this context needs to be clarified as we are dealing with core constructions at an institutional and cultural level.  George Kelly stressed the importance of individual construing in group behavior, and given the central philosophy of constructive alternativism, that whatever can be construed can be construed differently:  “no one needs to be painted into a corner, no one is the victim of their autobiography”.  Robertson quotes Kelly’s explanation of the ‘Group Mind’: 


"The process of group behaviour is nothing but the behavior of individual members, although the pattern may be super-individual. In this sense, then, we can say there is a group mind . . . But wait, we should be careful not to jump to conclusions. The group mind is not a separate organism, not a separate process, not a separate will, not a separate force from that of the individual. It is a super-pattern into which the individual sub-patterns fit. . . . The group mind is a situation into which individual tendencies are so combined as to make their effect violently felt by all". (Kelly, 1932) 


In working with organizational change, PCP provides a way of getting a window on cultural construing, which we can now see as a structure of individual anticipations.  We can only attempt to influence individual anticipations, and thereby accelerate what generally comes naturally.   


"Constructive interventions ... seek to accelerate the capability of individuals and communities and work groups to enhance their experience of everyday living to transform the super-patterns to which they contribute"


Robertson outlined how a super-pattern is first felt intuitively rather than something that can be spelled out, and the aim of intervention is to elaborate the issues as clearly as possible, involving those people who are included in it.  He quotes Mindell's wise counsel about intervening in violently polarized disagreements within super patterns, promoting the use of formal processes and group skills such as dialogue.  The work of CTUK has been engaged in this process for some time. 


The process of change in individuals 


Personal construct psychology is a radical approach to understanding how people tick. Mostly psychology buys into a dualistic model where people are conceptualized into thinking and feeling - rational and emotional people. Kelly's constructs of transition neatly address emotion in relation to what is happening within an individual’s own construct system, defining common emotions from the perspective of the person.  


In elaborating the context for the behaviors and attitudes observed between cyclists and motorists outlined above, we consider the role of Kellian anxiety, threat, guilt, and hostility.  The core institutional construct of smoothing traffic flow (as opposed to tolerating congestion)  is, among other constructs relating to priority and speed, invalidating for a driver, construing driving as a symbol of freedom (as opposed to being trapped while sitting in a traffic jam).  If the more superordinate construct was, to move around more actively and healthily, or to live in a cleaner environment, how might drivers behave differently? 


Anxiety:“the awareness that events lie outside the range of convenience of his construct system


Consider driving on autopilot in areas you know well in contrast to the anxiety of finding your way in unfamiliar places, making sense of road markings and signage, speed limits … we experience anxiety and our style of driving may well reflect this. There is an extra load on a driver to construe more elements in their perceptual field and their construct system is more challenged.  As the route is construed over subsequent journeys, we will have developed a theory about the likely hazards and will feel less anxious, more confident.  What effect might this have on a person’s driving? Would they be more cautious on unfamiliar roads (constricted) or would the attention to infrastructure and finding their way distract them from an awareness of cyclists and pedestrians in the road space?  Would a greater familiarity with a road mean a person would drive faster and with less awareness of other more vulnerable road users? Can this be seen as aggressive elaboration in the absence of sociality? 


Threat: “the awareness of imminent comprehensive change in ones cores structures” 


Most people have a core need to feel safe and wish not to injure others. Drivers may feel threat when they are involved in a near miss collision, as will a cyclist or pedestrian. Perhaps the relative size and speed of the vehicles may influence the degree of threat experienced.  Being the object of road rage can be threatening to a car driver, but on a bicycle you are even more vulnerable.  Likewise being the target of an unintentional near miss, or a close pass by a driver who may not have noticed the cyclist, not understood the passing distance perceived as safe by a cyclists. 


A rider regularly experiencing a threat to their safety may only ride in places where there are no drivers, giving up their right to share the road (constriction), or start driving adding to the congestion on roads and public transport..  It is important to note that statistics about crashes involving cyclists on the whole involve poor judgments of drivers and only rarely are caused by the cyclist themselves.  


Reconstruing in order to adopt an assertive “primary” position on the road through cycle training is another way to address threat.  In the experience of the authors, both personally and through training many cyclists, there is increased validation in the ability to control the traffic around them, and what is more, frequently people report that there have been significant changes in other areas of their life following the core shifts involved in reconstruing their position on the road. 


CTUK work with lorry drivers to help them subsume the experience of cyclists.  Early in the training they are taken out on bicycles, on busy roads where they may experience Kellian threat first hand, (drivers who are used to feeling protected inside a vehicle as opposed to sitting exposed on a bicycle,) with significant shifts in their construing and driving.  


Guilt: “the awareness of dislodgment of the self from one's core role structure"


A driver, through a brief moment of inattention can cause severe injury to another. The lorry driver who causes the death of a cyclist may well feel dislodged from a core sense of themselves as a competent professional driver.  


Hostility: “the continued effort to exhort validational evidence in favor of a type of social prediction which has already been recognized as a failure” 


Hostility is another option in reestablishing the status quo when our construction system experiences threat. When we are hostile in this sense, at some level we know we are wrong, and there is a sense that this could often be true of people who exhibit road rage.  Calm and considerate people can respond to stress very differently when behind a wheel, removed from personal connection in a box which moves. Is it due to a lack of role relationship, or is it hostility in the face of core invalidation at a low level of awareness?  An example might be a motorist who believes that driving is their right, an expression of themselves, their status, and their freedom to move around effortlessly, wherever and whenever they wish (as depicted in advertisements for cars which show drivers moving freely on empty urban roads or mountain passes). In reality, while immobilized in traffic, this construct of freedom of movement is invalidated.  There may be additional construing at stake contributing to threat, such as being late for work, or taxi drivers whose livelihood is governed by the number of fares they can take. They may construe a bicycle as a slow, low status machine, requiring much effort, and yet see a cyclist moving freely through the traffic, all perhaps contributing to a hostile reaction.  To reconstrue and start cycling instead is not an option for everybody, but for many it might well be. However it may be preferable to construe the cyclist as to blame rather than entertain giving up their car to make more trips by bicycle. 

A cyclist who sees themselves as confident, skilled and experienced in controlling their bike, may continually experience threat when squeezed by drivers. Their bike handling skill may be fine but their understanding of their place on the road is influenced by the cultural construct of keeping to the left, “out of the way.” They leave space to allow drivers to squeeze past instead of riding more centrally ensuring drivers keep behind them so reduce conflict.  Regnant construing about all drivers being dangerous and “out to get them” can ensue, in contrast to David’s modified construing that most drivers are going about their business. 


Does the construing by politicians of the importance of appeasing motorists lead to placing cyclists at the margins of the road, (and of society) by building narrow cycle lanes which seek to place them in the gutter, a more risky position? Could this be an expression of hostility in urban planning?  Or are these decisions made by people who do not understand about cycling risk assessment? 


A driver may believe that s/he is a kind, benevolent person who cares and looks out for people yet, on almost injuring a cyclist reacts with rage and anger towards that rider, even compounding the initial near miss with a “punishment pass” by swerving into the rider to teach them a lesson. This may be also linked to another core construct of a driver’s right to unhindered freedom of movement which was invalidated, which may be experienced as  threat, by a cyclist “in her way.” 


Fragmentation: "A person may successively employ a variety of construct subsystems which are inferentially incompatible with each other"   


Many drivers will be concerned about environmental issues. They may recycle at home, be meticulous about saving electricity, turning lights off to minimize the burning of fossil fuels, yet continue driving. Health conscious people may avoid junk food, exercise regularly or do a yoga class, yet will drive, rather than cycle or walk, to the health food store, to the gym or yoga class.   


Smoothing traffic flow through developing road infrastructure and encouraging sustainable forms of transport such as cycling are similarly an example of fragmentation at an institutional level. Traditional infrastructure for cycling has often been designed to facilitate smooth traffic flow for people in cars, putting cyclists in less visible and more risky positions, forcing users of such infrastructure to often to go the long way round while drivers go straight on. Making this point, Olympic cyclist Chris Boardman asks who cycle lanes are really for? 


Behavior change and modal shift 


With cities becoming ever more polluted and congested, with more and more people suffering poor health from inactivity and pollution, some larger metropolises such as Greater London and Manchester are taking the issue of encouraging active travel more seriously and exploring ways of “nudging” people to change their travel behavior. Transport for London, some London Boroughs, and to a lesser extent Transport for Greater Manchester are leading the way by introducing behavior change programs to encourage people to shift how they view driving and active travel. CTUK over the last 18 years has trained cyclists, lorry drivers, and driving instructors, contributed to the development of the national cycling standard, and works alongside government bodies and urban planning and road safety departments in order to facilitate change in the deeply ingrained cultural construing around urban transportation.  


Societal interventions by local authorities to encourage active travel and improve road safety through education (and encouragement), enforcement, and engineering, (known as the 3 E's in the travel behavior change community), aim to influence the construing of individuals in order to bring about a change in their travel behavior. Here are some examples of such interventions: 



  • Cyclists are trained under the Bikeability scheme to control their bikes well and ride assertively, often in the primary position, on trafficked roads. 

  • Professional drivers are trained on bicycles to empathise with cyclists under the EU Certificate of Professional Competence22 scheme. 

  • Driving instructors are educated in cycle awareness 



  • Operation Safeway enforces junction infringement by cyclists and drivers 

  • The industrial HGV taskforce targets non-compliant HGV operators and drivers in the capital who create risk and danger on London’s roads 



There is a major overhaul in cycling infrastructure in London which involves a mix of segregated cycle routes, cycling networks called Mini-Hollands, and Quietways. Many of these interventions involve reducing the space for driving while increasing space for cycling and walking. There has been some controversy from driving groups but on the whole Londoners support this. 

A Note of Optimism 


In the London Borough of Hackney many of the 3 E's have been in place for more than a decade, (as illustrated ironically in the Drive to Work Day blog.) This has revolutionized the way Hackney feels for cyclists, walkers and drivers. People out of cars are prioritized over people in cars. Car ownership is one of the lowest in the country and 14% of commutes are by bicycle compared to a national average of 2%, second only to Cambridge (Office for National Statistics 2013). 

PCP’s role in examining the construing of drivers and cyclists 


We have shown how people’s construing when they travel may be affected by the mode they choose. The superordinate  construing of both drivers and cyclists undergoes shifts (such as being safe versus being at risk, being free versus feeling trapped, high status versus low status). Constructs of transition occur leading to resistance, constriction or reconstruing their travel behaviour.  PCP may help us understand some of these behaviours and how different interventions may ease people into making transport choices that fit better with a societal superordinate construct of living happy, healthier lives. 





Dansky D, Cycle Training Instructors’ Manual, Cycle Training UK, 2012 


Kelly, G. A. The Psychology of Personal Constructs. New York: Routledge 1955/1991 Vol 1 


Mary Frances, “Organizational Change and Personal Mythology,” Personnel Review, Vol 24, no 4, 1995 


Mindell, A. The Leader as Martial Artist: Techniques and Strategies for Resolving Conflict and Creating Community.  San Francisco: Harper. 


Robertson A. Making Sense of the ‘Group Mind’ in International Handbook of Personal Construct Psychology edited by Fay Fransella, Chichester: John Wiley and Sons, 2003, Chapter 34  

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