Progress by cooperation

We’re all part of society and to help make it function in a way that is good for all, there are a few basics that need to be adhered to, especially when there is common ground that has to be shared. Rules exist for a reason and they are good for us all…


– By James Stout  


A feature from RIDE #67 (on sale now).





A reminder of the basics


We’ve all been there, making the side of the road look good on a Sunday morning in our matching Lycra and carefully selected socks, riding two-by-two like the well ordered, well dressed and well tanned examples of healthy active lifestyles we know we are. A car drives past and the oh-so clever driver shouts something obscene. The bubble bursts. Apparently nobody else has realised that we are, in fact, carbon neutral as well as beautiful – that we’re easing the burden on the roads and the healthcare system and contributing a huge amount to the local economy through our prodigious spending on macchiatos and Perrier. We feel offended, violated and insulted. Perhaps we even take our hands off the bars to let the driver know he’s ‘number one’. And we discuss amongst ourselves why everybody hates us. We decide it’s likely envy and the bubble heals itself again.

What we don’t think about is the day before; the Saturday ride when someone attacked with Gilbert-esque panache up the far side of the road. The galloping bunch gave their best effort to chase. The stragglers spread across the road in a scrappy echelon, crushed by the superior abilities of the Saturday morning world champion.

He smiled as he powered through the town sign with arms aloft and a kilowatt of power registering on the LCD screen he had been staring at intently for the previous five minutes. And, later, the victor floated into the cafe on a cloud of superiority and embrocation. To some he might have been called arrogant, but to him, it was just justified confidence. He’d just taken a Strava KOM and the bunch ride on the same day. He was an undisputed King of the Road, surveying his asphalt kingdom.

In the eyes of that car driver the next day, things played out differently. He came across a number of middle-aged men, exercising at a ridiculously early hour in their brightly coloured underwear. One of them blew a red light in front of the others, who all followed suit; they spread out across the street, blew through stop signs and – at times – violated the speed limit. Then one of them waved, they all stopped and the driver felt relieved to be able to drive without the fear of hitting someone.

As a driver, you don’t want to hurt anyone. But you can’t help but feel resentment at this scofflaw attitude. You simply don’t know what to expect from these guys, you’ve never seen a bike race, you have no idea why they have to ride in funny diagonal lines. Even if you have, you’re pretty sure these guys aren’t actually racing.

While we’ve all probably run a red light in our time, we may not have all read Jean Jacques Rousseau. So allow me to indulge in a brief synopsis…

Before society existed we lived in a ‘state of nature’, a state in which our lives were, to quote Hobbes “nasty, brutish and short” – much like criteriums. Without a contract between us and other citizens we had no way to work together, no framework to trust each other.

We enjoyed unprecedented levels of freedom, but this came at a cost, we couldn’t work together as we didn’t have any reason to trust each other. Society only progresses when we cooperate; this is what makes us better than animals – we can put our heads together and do things that no individual can do. In order to facilitate this interaction, we have to give up some of our freedom. We buy into this social contract by paying with the freedom we give up, and society as a whole, as well as the individuals within it, benefits. That contract needs enforcing and, if one person breaks it, then we all can no longer expect others to act in the way it mandates. Society, with all its benefits, falls apart and we’re once again plunged into the state of nature.

As cyclists we are, for the most part, very fortunate human beings. We have bikes that cost more than half the world earns in a year; we have enough time to ride them (at least sometimes we do) and good enough health to be outside exercising for hours at a time. We also always want more: we want to have more expensive bikes, more time to train and to get more out of our bodies. We want to be respected as cars are, we deserve to be respected as cars are, but we don’t want to behave like cars have to.

As a species we develop patterns of sociability in order to facilitate predictability. If you walked into a business meeting in a suit, you wouldn’t expect a high-five or a chest bump. If you walked into a pool party, you might.

Society has added rules to remove the awkwardness and danger from our social interactions. Technology has also advanced to such a degree that the powerful tools that make our lives easier can, if used without consideration for others, make your lives shorter. The only way we can make it safe for us all to speed around encased in tonnes of metal is to make the movements of those vehicles predictable. This is where traffic laws come in; we expect others to stop at red lights and to indicate before they turn. If they don’t do so, not only do they break the law, they also break the social contract that says they’ll act in a predictable fashion so that travel is safe for everyone.

In 1936, anarchists and the worker’s militia took control of the city of Barcelona (you should know this by now if you’ve read the Orwell book I suggested in the previous issue). They felt that the law was a restriction on personal freedom and that the educated and aware working classes could interact without them. In many cases this was a great success, wealth was redistributed, people didn’t go hungry, homeless people slept under the roofs that had once housed art collections and women marched to defend their nation alongside men as the militia threw gender roles to the wind. However it didn’t work so well on the roads of Barcelona.

As the militia requisitioned trucks and cars and sped around the city searching for coup plotters and spies (and, one imagines, generally looking as dashing as possible) they also eliminated traffic signals. In the first months of the civil war more militia died on the roads than on the battlefield. They exercised their judgment where lights had once enforced patterns of behaviour, they saved time and – in the end – paid with their lives.

All this brings us back to that Sunday morning motorist.

We all think we ride safely, it would be irrational not to. We all think we know when and where it is safe to blow through a red light or a stop sign. Nobody reading this has been killed yet, so it must be okay, right? Wrong!

The benefit of running that red light accrues only to the person who runs it, they save time, keep an interval going, win a Strava race, or get home sooner. The cost accrues to every cyclist, not because they risk getting hit but because the social contract is broken. The motorist who sees the group run the red light begins to reassess how to drive around cyclists. He can’t assume that all the rules are true anymore, that they will stop where they are supposed to, that they will give way when they are obliged to or that they will ride on the correct side of the road.

Thus the driver becomes nervous around cyclists, unsure as to what they’ll do. And his/her driving is modified accordingly. Where once they would act as if we were a vehicle, now they act unpredictably as well. On seeing us they slow down and wave us through.

Now we don’t know what to do, we don’t have the right of way but they are acting as if we do, so both parties don’t know where they stand. There is no code that we can all come up with apart from the one every road user is taught.

Every motorist and cyclist cannot sit down and agree on how to act, that’s what the law does for us.

The law doesn’t have value because it’s the law or because it’s enforced by police. It has value because it’s the only social contract we have that allows us to interact predictably and safely. Just as Rousseau argued, we have to give up a little bit of freedom to buy our safety.

We all want to train hard, we all want to get home more quickly or carry momentum into a climb but so long as we all acknowledge that these relatively minor desires are secondary to our want for wellbeing, then we really should never rationally run through red lights.

The problem is general, not specific; you might be safe running a red light once but in doing so you undermine the contract that makes the roads a safe place for us all, always. This same contract gives us rights, as well as obligations. We should take up the lane and not ride in the door zone; we should ride two abreast and not lined out in the gutter; we should have advanced stop zones at busy road junctions. But we can only advocate for these things on the basis of an understanding, and the only common understanding we can assume we have with motorists are the laws they are required to study (or at least have a passable knowledge of) in order to get behind the wheel.

So how do we, as citizens of a society with an established social contract, deal with those who wish to break it?

We use the tools that society gives us.

It’s remarkably easy to not blow through a red light on the next bunch ride. I really excel at slowing down on bikes (it’s the speeding up which is problematic). It’s not impossible to let Saturday morning Merckx ride away – if he thinks he’s winning by riding away from the group at a red light, he isn’t part of the group any more. He’s riding on his own. It’s remarkable how little you have to do this before the message is conveyed very clearly. Especially if you go to another coffee shop!

On a recent group ride I found myself on the front next to a rider with rainbow bands on his arms. As we stopped at a red light a herd of lower grade racers flew past us, until this point they’d been invisible. My friend smiled and noted that this wasn’t going to end well for them. I replied that drivers around here are (sadly) accustomed to this by now. He responded that the drivers weren’t the ones who would be hurting anyone. And 10 minutes later as my world closed in on the 23mm of rubber in front of me (we’re lucky enough to have some closed roads for the hard portion of our bunch ride) I realised what he meant.

There are plenty of places to show off on your bike, you can climb fast, time trial at 45km/h or even partake in a bike race on the internet.  If you’re really good you can pin on a number and they’ll give you money for your efforts. But nobody, not even your mate, is impressed by an ability to ignore the contract that society has agreed to. Even if you think it’s okay, and they think it’s okay, you can’t ever get everyone to agree it’s okay and it’s everyone who is affected by breaking the contract. Break legs by all means but don’t break the rules.


– By James Stout



Author: rob@ride

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