Cyclists are often very kind to each other. The other day Maggie was biking home from work when she suddenly experienced a major problem with her bike. She phoned me to come and fetch her. She is a new bike commuter, and this has happened a couple of times. So as I drove off to find her, I was torn between irritation that she was in trouble again, and worry at the thought of her stranded on the side of the road, all alone.
I needn’t have worried.
In the 20 minutes she was waiting, the only interaction she had with other human beings was when a cyclist stopped to see if she needed help.
The kindness of strangers …
Maggie was pretty blown away by this. She has been a car commuter for decades, and has never experienced human kindness from any other car drivers. But in just the first couple of weeks of being a bike commuter, she was immediately exposed to the human kindness of the community of cyclists. On her first day of commuting, all she could talk about was how complete strangers on bicycles had said “Good Morning!” to her.
That is one of the things I love about cycling – it truly is a wonderful experience on a human level. People who cycle tend to feel a sense of camaraderie with one another, and so we smile at each other, and sometimes we even say “Good Morning!” At traffic lights, slower riders will politely say “After you” to obviously faster riders. And the other rider will say “Thank you!”
Road Rage has been with us since cars were first invented
A very far cry from the world of cars, where each of us is locked in an alienating two tons of steel, most desperately trying to go faster than the next, communicating only via raised middle fingers, harshly honked horns, screeched insults, or even violence and death threats.
Sadly, this kind of behavior seems to be endemic to driving, for it has been around since the earliest days of cars. Way back in 1902, Otto Bierbaum recalled a trip from Berlin to Italy:
“Never in my life have I been cursed at so frequently as on my automobile trip in the year 1902 … not to mention all the wordless curses: shaking fists, stuck-out tongues, bared behinds, and others besides.”
And this was when speed limits had just been raised from 4 miles per hour to 14 miles per hour, and Britain had just abolished a law requiring every car to be preceded by a man carrying a red flag or a lamp, to warn more sedate road users on horses, bikes or good old feet!
Just what is it about driving cars that brings out the jerk in people?
Kristian Viladsen, from Gehl Architects in Copenhagen, pointed out at the “On the Move in the Community” conference in Montreal that human beings have to be no further than two to three meters apart to identify each other’s emotions. Perhaps that explains the rudeness, aggression and hostility that is so prevalent in motorists: when we’re in cars, we can’t see other people’s emotions, so it’s easy to treat them really badly.
By contrast, when we’re on a bike, we can see each other’s faces, and so we tend to treat each other humanely. So cycling takes us back to a gentler world, in which we could travel and yet remain civil towards one another. The intimacy of being almost shoulder to shoulder on our sometimes difficult and sweaty journeys often brings out the friendly, kind and just plain human side of people.
A Brave New World of Bikes and Human Kindness
It’s that kindly community of cyclists that makes me regard a future in which the last drop of oil has been squeezed out of the earth, and cars are consigned to the scrap heap of history, not as a nightmare, but rather as a Brave New World.
A future in which my young children and my senior mother can safely pedal down the highway, surrounded by friendly human beings, rather than hurtling, hostile drivers? Bring it on, I say!