“The idiots are self-regarding lycra renegades, oblivious to the paradox of their uniform retro-cool originality. They sculpt their facial hair to casual perfection. They wear their shorts tight round their balls. They babble into handheld dictaphones about that cool video of the bloke without facial hair going under a bus. Their cool friend made it. He’s an idiot, too. Welcome to the age of bigotry. Hail The Rise of The Idiots.”
Bradley Wiggins popped up in the news this morning muttering something about the way in which people ride bicycles, which was played out in the context of “London’s cycling revolution”—a nod to the current construction of dedicated cycling infrastructure.
“This might be the beginnings of an Amsterdam or Copenhagen but everyone abiding by the rules and co-existing is key. New cycle lanes are great but you always get cyclists who give a bad name to the rest; people who jump the kerbs, jump red lights and ride around with iPods so you can’t hear the rest of the traffic. You would not do that in a car so why would you on a bike? You do not have a right to complain how you’re being treated on the road unless you apply the rules yourself.”
Now, I know there will be people reading this who think I’m about to say that it’s absolutely fine to disregard the law when you’re on a bicycle, but I’m not. (And I never have, though there are rare cases which illustrate that—in certain, very specific situations—thoughtfully disobeying a law can significantly reduce the risk of a tragic collision.)
Furthermore, just so it’s clear that I’m not defending these actions at all, for the sake of argument I’m going to generalise all of the people who do these things as idiots. So: idiots jump the kerbs; idiots jump the lights; idiots listen to iPods. Got that? Good.
Idiots… idiots everywhere
Having established that idiots do these things, let’s take our eyes off bicycles for a bit. Starting with one of Wiggins’ complaints, every day I see people using in-ear headphones in cars. Indeed, every day we can all see people with their windows up and their music on, leaving them less able to hear their surroundings than someone wearing headphones outside a car. Often I’ll see a driver jump a red light (I only actually pass through one set of lights most days, so I don’t see much); indeed, around 1 in 7 drivers admit to regularly jumping red lights. Mounting the kerb? Mounting the kerb? Let me introduce you to one of my favourite YouTube videos.
Let’s see what else goes on. Nearly a third of drivers admit to using a handheld phone while driving. Nearly a quarter of drivers—and nearly half of young drivers—admit to texting at the wheel. Nearly 1 in 5 surf the internet. Nearly 1 in 14 watch video. 83% admit to regularly ignoring the speed limit, 63% doing so in 30mph limits. Just under half admit to flouting road laws generally, with half of those doing so “deliberately, because they thought they could get away with it or did not agree with the laws”. Some, er, well… some masturbate.
Wiggins’ glib statement that “you wouldn’t do that in a car” is—let’s not beat about the bush here—bullshit.
It’s the same bullshit that’s trotted out time and time again by anyone who sees the misconduct of people on two wheels but not the misconduct of those on four. It’s the same bullshit used by people to justify endangering others. There are several technical terms which describe this manner of thinking, and a few lay terms as well. We’ve been here before.
Wiggins follows this up with, “You do not have a right to complain how you’re being treated on the road unless you apply the rules yourself.” This is a particularly damaging comment, because it sits firmly and clearly within the context of his generalisation of “cyclists” as lawbreakers. “You”, in Wiggins’ statement, is a group. To him, no-one has the right to complain, because someone else broke a law. (To the shock of precisely no-one, Wiggins appears not to apply the same logic to drivers.)
However, Wiggins exposes some ugly elitism in describing whom he understands to be “cyclists”. Referring to “another cyclist that’s died” he says,
“They are termed under the phrase ‘cyclist’ but they’re not cyclists as such, they are not membership holders of British Cycling.”
The idiots are here to stay
Here’s the thing. Idiots exist. They’re all over the place, and always have been. Even sensible people do dumb things from time to time, or things which you think are dumb, and for the purposes of this argument, that makes them idiots. Even people trying to do something sensible but making a basic error: idiots. You think they’re idiots, so they are.
But here’s another thing. We live in a world where idiots have to get around. Idiots have jobs, idiots go to school, idiots need to go shopping. You can’t just force idiots to stay in their houses, because there’d be virtually no-one left doing anything productive.
So, what tools do you give the idiots? You could make them walk, but walking is slow and for most people that’s not a realistic proposition. Public transport? Great, but it too has significant limitations, especially as soon as you step outside London.
A bicycle is quite a decent tool. It covers distance in reasonable time and should a collision occur it generally won’t result in someone else’s death.
Now, you don’t like people on bikes in the carriageway, because they’re idiots. And no-one wants them on the footway either, because they’re idiots and in this scenario they do have the potential to harm others. You can crash a bicycle into a car at significant speed and not harm its occupants; that’s not true of crashing into someone on foot.
So Wiggins’ comments, framed in the context of threatening the reasons for London’s nascent infrastructure, are not only damaging but completely perverse: The infrastructure that is being built in London is good for everyone, precisely because it’s good for idiots.
Once you have a coherent additional highway system where idiots can be encouraged out of vehicles that significantly harm others and can be kept away from people on foot, the increased diversity of the system as a whole means it becomes safer and more resilient.
If we all agree that idiots are harmful or even just an annoyance, then the bicycle is the very vehicle that idiots should be using, and dedicated cycleways are the very place they should be doing so. Wiggins, however, hands the media a perfect anti-cycling gambit in justifying resistance to cycling on the basis of this inevitability of idiocy: as a vignette of this, the Standard’s leading paragraph says,
Sir Bradley Wiggins today called on London’s cyclists to obey the rules of the road and avoid jeopardising the capital’s two-wheeled revolution.
Without reversing a rise in population, it is impossible to reverse The Rise of The Idiots. The two are inextricably linked, because people are idiots: idiots have always been, and always will be. It is an intrinsic truth of human nature, one which neither the invention of the bicycle nor that of the motor car changed in the slightest.
The principle of Vision Zero is founded on this: it explicitly does not seek to achieve perfect user behaviour, because that is as realistic a dream as world peace and a free unicorn for everyone. It seeks to engineer solutions that reduce the harm that can arise from the inevitable realities of flawed behaviour. Indeed, good infrastructure begets good behaviour while bad infrastructure begets bad behaviour.
We must find engineering solutions that are resilient to idiocy, because we will always have to share our planet, our cities and our roads with idiots.
And, sadly, we will always have to read their comments in our newspapers.