The other week I spotted a driver attempting to drive the wrong way down a one-way street in Horsham.
It’s tempting to do this, because it represents a big shortcut.
Starting from point A, driving illegally (south) down the road marked in red means that getting to point B is only a distance of 0.3 miles. Driving the legal route is over twice as long, and also involves waiting at several sets of traffic lights, which don’t exist on the ‘illegal’ route.
Here he is, setting off the wrong way down this one-way street…
Often this is explained in terms of ‘cyclists’ being able to ‘get away with it’, because they’re apparently not identifiable, with number plates, or fluorescent jackets with their names printed on, or some other nonsense.
Of course, this ‘explanation’ fails to account for how drivers consistently break laws in vast numbers, despite having number plates.
But there is actually something to this explanation. It is hard to get away with driving a car up a one-way street – much harder than riding a bicycle up a one-way street. However, this isn’t because you’ve got a number plate on your car. It’s because it’s physically hard to drive a car up a one-way street. There’s a strong chance you’re going to meet a vehicle coming the other way, and if that happens, you’re pretty much screwed, as in the case of the driver in the example described above. It’s a big risk.
By contrast, when you cycle the wrong way up a one-way street, it’s relatively easy to negotiate your way out of difficulty. For a start, you’re only the width of a human being, so you can simply stop against the kerb. Or you can become a pedestrian.
I’d estimate that, every day, around 50-100 people cycle the wrong way down the street this driver got caught out on. However, none of them will have encountered the kind of problem he did. There are some examples (and more background explanation) at the start of this post here.
And here’s a chap on a Dutch bike, cycling the wrong way, at precisely the position the driver met the bus.
We’re all cycling the wrong way precisely because we can get away with it. We can stop, walk on the pavement, get out of the way, and so on. Drivers can’t do this, because they’re cocooned in a much bulkier vehicle that is much, much harder to manoeuvre out of the way.
So the apparent ‘lawlessness’ of cyclists isn’t related to a lack of a number plate, or identification, but instead to the fact they’re much more like pedestrians, than drivers are. On a bike, we’re nimble and flexible; in a car, we aren’t.
I will often take short cuts in Tube stations, down passages that are ‘one way’ for pedestrians. I would think twice about this, however, if I was carrying a very large six-foot-cubed cardboard box. Because there’s a strong chance I’m going to get into difficulty if people come the other way.
This basic human psychology also explains why ‘red light jumping’ is associated with cycling (even if drivers actually jump red lights in roughly similar proportions). Drivers tend to jump lights by ‘gambling’ – nipping through the junction after the signals have turned red, on the (often mistaken) assumption that they’ve got just enough time to do so before traffic emerges from other arms of the junction. Here’s a gamble from a lorry driver.
People cycling, however, engage in a form of jumping that you rarely see drivers engaging in; creeping into the junction, looking around, seeing if it is clear, and progressing carefully across in stages.
It’s quite obvious why drivers don’t engage in this kind of behaviour, and again, it’s not because of number plates (because, again, that fails to explain why they’re jumping lights in vast numbers already). It’s because it’s risky to get yourself into the middle of a junction in a big bulky object, leaving yourself nowhere to retreat to, if things go wrong. You’re going to end up causing an obstruction.
On a bike, however, you can move onto the pavement, or you can position yourself against an island, or simply dismount, if things start going wrong. You’re small, nimble, and flexible.
One-way streets and traffic lights only exist in our towns and cities to accommodate the flow of big, bulky objects that can’t easily negotiate past each other. By contrast, present-day streets that carry tens of thousands of people a day on bikes (with very few, or even none, in motor vehicles) do not require traffic signals, or one-way systems, to accommodate flow. They are far, far more efficient.
So should we really be surprised that people using a flexible and nimble mode of transport will often ignore rules put into place to ease the passage of bulky and inflexible modes of transport? It’s their very flexibility that allows them to bypass those rules, without getting into difficulty – rules that came about because the drivers of motor vehicles were getting into difficulty.