It was entirely predictable that the recent review of the Highway Code, which includes a rephrasing of the advice on ‘two abreast’ cycling, would provide fruitful material for lazy opinion columnists and shock jocks, respectively filling newspaper pages and the air waves with confected outrage and re-heated clichés about selfishness, self-righteousness, and whining about how frustrating it is to be stuck behind a bunch of lycra-clad, testosterone-fuelled Bradley Wiggins wannabees riding five abreast, for twenty miles down winding country lanes, with a hundred cars queuing behind… (yes, yes, we get the idea).
What I find remarkable about these discussions is the brazenness with which an intrinsically selfish demand – that other people should travel in single file, unable to easily talk to each other, look at one another, and engage in a natural human way, purely for the convenience of someone driving a far larger (and typically empty) vehicle – is presented as being entirely reasonable.
To see how odd this is, we only need to reframe this demand from one being made by motorists of cyclists, to one being made by cyclists of pedestrians.
How reasonable would it be for me to demand that people walking on shared use paths should do so in single file, the person behind staring fixedly at the back of their companion, purely for my convenience and to avoid any delay to my journey as I pedal along? And not just that, how would it sound if I described pedestrians walking side-by-side (or even, gasp, three or four abreast!) as selfish, thoughtlessly causing frustration to cyclists? I’m sure you would agree that it would sound deeply entitled, and frankly ridiculous. But this is precisely the logic of those motorists who routinely make exactly this kind of demand.
It’s not hard to imagine other ‘reasonable’ demands by motorists that suddenly become deeply unreasonable, once those demands are being made by people cycling. One occurred to me by chance last week.
Behind the local Sainsbury’s, there’s a shared use path that runs into the town centre. It’s not a particularly good path, but it’s an important connection for people that know about it, and thankfully it has street lighting, which is necessary for several reasons, not least among them being that it doesn’t feel particularly socially safe without it. (The rear of the supermarket is a large, oppressive brick wall, and the path isn’t overlooked).
The evenings have drawn in quickly, and after a long hot summer I am now using this path in the dark. Last week, one of the street lamps wasn’t working, and this meant I had to cycle through a patch of darkness. And it just so happened that on this particular evening, concealed within that patch of darkness, there were two pedestrians lurking (or more accurately, just walking home, minding their own business).
Because the path isn’t busy at the best of times, I have to admit that I was complacent when I was cycling along, and simply wasn’t expecting anyone to be there in the darkness. However, I wasn’t so complacent that I was going to cycle into anyone, or anything (I have a pretty good reason not to cycle into people or things – namely that I would get hurt myself), and as soon as my headlight beam illuminated them, I was able to respond, easing off and steering around them, without any alarm, bar a mild bit of surprise that there were people there that I hadn’t anticipated.
For the briefest of moments, a thought – a selfish thought – flashed through my head that these people could have made themselves more easy for me to see. Perhaps some brighter coloured clothing, or some reflectives, or even a torch. It was pitch black, and they did seem to be wearing dark clothing.
But of course – just as with a demand that people should walk around in single file so I am not held up while cycling – that would be a ridiculous expectation. They were just walking in the town centre, on a path away from any roads, and it simply shouldn’t be necessary to change the clothing they are wearing, or add hi-viz or lights, merely so that idiots on bikes don’t crash into them on a shared path.
For the minutes remaining on the rest of my journey, I pondered the absurdity of writing a letter to the local paper asking, “as a cyclist”, for thoughtless pedestrians to “make themselves seen!” on shared use paths. I could even throw in an anecdote about how so many pedestrians have the temerity to be “invisible”, about how I’m always nearly having an accident because of them, and add in some language about how “irresponsible” it is of people to just walk around in ordinary clothes without making any effort to prevent cyclists from riding into them in the dark.
Such a letter would undoubtedly provoke a strong reaction. A cyclist, a self-righteous cyclist no less, demanding that ordinary citizens make accommodations for his dangerous behaviour! But again, this is the kind of letter that motorists write all the time, without even any apparent reflection on the selfishness of this kind of demand. Their expectation is that the people they are putting at risk should “make themselves seen”, and that to do otherwise is irresponsible.
Indeed, this goes beyond mere letter writing – the whole philosophy of people walking and cycling “making themselves seen” is embedded in mainstream road safety, reflected (excuse the pun) in the kind of advice that local authorities and police forces pump out at this time of year.
By analogy, I wonder how far I would get suggesting that “invisible” pedestrians should consider luminous yellow jackets “a very good idea for their survival” when being menaced by people cycling who aren’t bothering to ride to the conditions.
An even more extreme example would be me arguing that people walking should wear helmets to protect their heads, in the event that I crash into them when cycling. I could even garnish that demand with a suggestion that helmetless pedestrians are actually being irresponsible for not protecting their brains, or even some guilt-mongering about how a cyclist would feel if a pedestrian they hit died because they weren’t wearing a helmet.
Sounds selfish, if not callous, right? Welcome to the world of motoring, where advising people to wear safety equipment to “protect themselves” from the consequences of bad driving is… extremely normal.
One final form of this double standard (there will undoubtedly be many others). Take the ubiquitous demand that cyclists should always use “the perfectly good cycle path”, rather than sharing (or more accurately attempting to share) with motor traffic on the road. Let’s skip over the fact that no-one in their right mind would choose to “share” with sociopathic motorists if this cycle path was indeed “perfectly good”, and again consider what a pedestrian-cyclist form of this argument would take.
Imagine a road with a shared use footway on one side of it, and a pedestrian-only footway on the other, and then imagine me, a cyclist, demanding that pedestrians walk on the “perfectly good” footpath on the other side of the road, rather than walking on the shared use footway that I regularly cycle on, getting in my way, and holding me up. Again, I could garnish this with some suggestions about how it would be “so much safer” for them to use the pedestrian only footway, and that I can’t understand why they would put themselves at risk on the shared use side, when there is a safer option on the other side of the road. Yes, it might be more inconvenient for you as a pedestrian, but don’t you care about your safety? Don’t you worry about me cycling into you?
Frankly, this is the kind of argument that only a complete dick would make – a totally selfish demand that someone walking should be somewhere else, at their inconvenience, so they don’t hinder me. But that doesn’t stop it being made with tiresome frequency, so much so that every time I cycle on the road past even the merest fragment of shared path, I’m instinctively cringing in the expectation that a passing motorist is going to yell at me, or, worse, punish me with their car.
So the next time you think about making what you feel is a “reasonable” argument about how where someone cycling or walking should be, or how they should be dressed or behaving, try to imagine exactly that same demand coming from a cyclist. Suddenly it might not seem quite so reasonable.