Using Psychobabble to Justify Anti-Bicycle Rage is Dangerous

[Stafford's photo is a classic psychologist stereotype.]
Yesterday, Susan Perry at Minnpost pointed out a BBC column about the mentality of what you might call "anti-bike rage," or the tendency of car drivers to get furious at bicyclists on the road. The article, in the "Neurohacks" column, is in that genre of magazine writing that cloaks an opinion piece in a veneer of techno-science, similar to the "Freakonomics", Radiolab, or anything that Jonah Lehrer made up. (Also similar to much of the drivel I write here.) The author points to a psychology study to argue that, when people driving cars experience anti-bike rage, they are exhibiting "altruistic punishment" aimed at maintaining the moral order of the rules of the road.

Here's the key point of the piece:

So now we can see why there is an evolutionary pressure pushing motorists towards hatred of cyclists. Deep within the human psyche, fostered there because it helps us co-ordinate with strangers and so build the global society that is a hallmark of our species, is an anger at people who break the rules, who take the benefits without contributing to the cost. And cyclists trigger this anger when they use the roads but don't follow the same rules as cars.

Now, cyclists reading this might think "but the rules aren't made for us – we're more vulnerable, discriminated against, we shouldn't have to follow the rules." Perhaps true, but irrelevant when other road-users perceive you as breaking rules they have to keep. Maybe the solution is to educate drivers that cyclists are playing an important role in a wider game of reducing traffic and pollution. Or maybe we should just all take it out on a more important class of free-riders, the tax-dodgers.

While Stafford frames his piece as a simple attempt to understand the mysteries of anti-bike rage, he ends up picking sides, condemning bicyclists as being "free riders" within a system of moral order. It's a new argument, and it's entirely misleading.

The main problem here is that car drivers generally, and Stafford in particular, are universalizing the system of rules for automobiles we've developed, and applying them to everyone. Stafford calls this the "moral activity" of driving, and describes it with a bit too much reverence:
Driving is a very moral activity – there are rules of the road, both legal and informal, and there are good and bad drivers. The whole intricate dance of the rush-hour junction only works because people know the rules and by-and-large follow them: keeping in lane; indicating properly; first her turn, now mine, now yours. Then along come cyclists, innocently following what they see are the rules of the road, but doing things that drivers aren't allowed to: overtaking queues of cars, moving at well below the speed limit or undertaking on the inside.
Granted, Stafford is probably using the term "moral" here in its non-normative sense, but reducing the complexities of everyday life to the highly simplified highway system is a serious error. Applying automobile rules to everyday life is a bit like a British aristocrat visiting his colony in China, and condemning the chopstick wielding Chinese for failing to use "civilized" knives and forks as he oppresses the shit out of everybody.

As Tom Vanderbilt's wonderful book Traffic points out, there are infinite codes and rules for different streets in cities around the world, and they're constantly changing and being negotiated in everyday life. Universalizing one automobile standard -- and this case, a constraining, unnecessary, and boring standard -- is shortsighted at best.

[The orderly chaos of San Francisco's Market Street in 1906.]

Before cars came along, streets were an example of order out of chaos. Most of the traffic went at about the same speed, and while there were many accidents (for example, high-speed carriages routinely killed pedestrians in 19th century London), there wasn't a need for an explicit system of enforcement and infrastructure. It wasn't until cars came along, moving at rapid speeds and taking up far more space on the streets than alternatives, that cities started creating Staford's wonderland of automotive queuing and civilized hostility. In a sense, today's system of traffic codes are an after effect of the terrorism of the automobile.

[Part of a Minnesota safety guide for bicyclists from 1946, blaming cyclists for 94% of accidents.]

[A 1937 WPA poster on jaywalking.]
One of the more pernicious effects of this early era of automobile rules was the criminalization of the behavior of anyone not in a car. The word "pedestrian" didn't really exist before drivers began claiming all the space on the road, and the invention of the term "jay walking" traces back to attempts to force people on foot to get out of the way of those driving cars. The same is true for bicyclists, particularly in US and UK cities. The mantra of World War II-era bicycle policy was to "drive your bike," to encourage bicyclists to get off the road and avoid cars, to walk their bike across intersections.

The end result was a system of rules that actively discouraged anybody trying to get around on foot, on bike, or using transit. (For example, streetcars used to let people on and off in the middle of the street.) At some point, you reach the absurd situation we have today, where people walking are forced to press buttons and wait long periods to cross the street, bicyclists are told that they "fare best" when acting like motor vehicles, and you're confronted with stop signs for pedestrians.

Luckily, today we're starting to see shifts in auto-dominated Anglo-American cities. Trends like shared space, common-sense stop laws, and bicycle boulevards mark a return to a pre-automobile concept of the street, one that relies far more on a latent moral code than an explicit set of often unenforceable rules. The trend these days is not to make everyone in the city behave at all times like a motor vehicle. Rather, it's to make people distractedly operating fast-moving energy-sucking machines behave more like someone on foot.

[A Hans Monderman-inspired "shared space" in London.]

[Graphic from NYTimes.]
Maybe Stafford's right when he calls driving a "very moral activity." If that's true, then the proper magazine venue for thinking about anti-bike rage isn't Stafford's "neurohacks" column, but Randy Cohen's "ethicist" column in the New York Times. A few months ago, Cohen wrote that bicyclists skirting rules designed for car drivers is not only forgivable, its ethical.

He writes:
I roll through a red light if and only if no pedestrian is in the crosswalk and no car is in the intersection — that is, if it will not endanger myself or anybody else. To put it another way, I treat red lights and stop signs as if they were yield signs. A fundamental concern of ethics is the effect of our actions on others. My actions harm no one. This moral reasoning may not sway the police officer writing me a ticket, but it would pass the test of Kant’s categorical imperative: I think all cyclists could — and should — ride like me.
 The overwhelming majority of "accidents" on city streets are caused by people driving cars, not only killing each other but killing people trying to walk or bike to get around. There were 176 cyclists and pedestrians killed by cars on the streets of New York City last year. There really isn't an evolutionary or ethical defense of anti-bike rage. The shoe is on the other foot.


Jason DeRusha said...

It's a ridiculous concept - that there's some real explanation for anti-bicycle rage. There's no explanation, no justification.

However, trying to decide a moral approach to traffic signals is also ridiculous. I stop at the red light near my home at 11pm when there are no cars around. Is there a moral justification for running the light? I suppose. But in a society of laws, we don't get to decide which ones we'll impose our own moral authority on, and which ones we don't.

Kirsten Valentine Cadieux said...

Also, the majority of the anti-bike rages I've endured (the people who actively try to drive me off the road onto the sidewalk, for example) have had to do (when I've asked, because I always do -- it's awfully compelling) with the basic rageful (mis)understanding that *bikes don't belong on roads* (Like unfortunate Toronto's mayor http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nySs1cEq5rs). So yes, there may be some point that this author is drawing on (people get themselves into a swivet because they somehow think bikes are CHEATING and getting an advantage), but what seems useful would be understanding how to back off from that fundamentalism (and perhaps equally when cyclists get morally fundamentalist about internalizing the costs of their own transportation, even if that does seem like a much better-supported moral position...)

Keith M said...

Of course, Mr. Stafford's question is ridiculous on its face for the many drivers who are also cyclists, as though the two were mutually exclusive. Do they become filled with rage when running red lights on their bikes because they don't do it quite as often in their cars?

Ty said...

I think most people against the implementation of shared spaces like advisory bike lanes appeal to the logical fallacies of universality and antiquity. Humans tend to fall into this cognitive trap because of a lack of understanding of the actual issue. One could argue that it is used as some type of heuristic where the individual can appeal to it to solve an internal conflict, in this case their lack of knowledge of the new street markings and regulations. It isn't that drivers "morally condemn" cyclists, drivers become enraged when anyone does not obey as what they view as the applicable traffic laws and driving habits, but that they feel threatened by sharing the same space as the cyclist. The driver fears that they may encounter a situation where they injure or kill a cyclist. If roadways have a more clearly define mode of use for cars in relation to bicycles this confusion might be mitigated. Drivers would know their place and cyclists theirs. As it stands currently there is a competition for space on the road. This is what most likely leads to the conflict this supposed "psychologist" is referring to. If drivers take the time to learn how to navigate the roadways and read the signs (which they are LEGALLY required to do and understand) there would be no issue. Cyclists will need to do this as well.

cheap baseball jerseys said...

Mr Stafford question is ridiculous, of course, many drivers and cyclists, as if the two are mutually exclusive. They become angry when riding a bicycle through a red light, because they are less often in their car?
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Kurtis Engle said...

I am attracted to the idea that there is psychological basis to motorists acting out against bicyclists. But, I think the basis is cost/benefit analysis.

The cyclist has a hard time catching up with the motorist and even then the motorist is wearing armor, so the perception is that rude and aggressive behavior will go without a reply. I think this is why some motorists indulge in hit and run bicycling lessons.

Arne said...

Although I think your point on the absurd and historically unique car focus in traffic rules is brilliant, I'd like to disagree with respect to cyclists not being free-riders (at least some of them sometimes, me in younger days almost all the time). I've been riding my bike to work on a daily basis for the last twenty or so years, mostly in continental Europe, mostly in Germany. Germany being Germany, cars tend to stop at red lights, always. Not so in Italy, where I lived for three years until the beginning of this year. Drivers there tend to have the same attitude towards traffic lights that bicyclists regularly have the world round - a red light being a recommendation rather than an obligation to stop. But as soon as you as a bicyclist can't be sure anymore whether the cars will in fact stop at the red light, you can't run (however carefully) your own red (or dark yellow) light anymore - too dangerous. In other words, well established (and car-centric) traffic rules allow bicyclists to free-ride on the margins of these rules (exactly because bicyclists are not cars and can manoeuvre with more agility). Once there are no clear rules anymore (or no rules that have positive externalities for bicyclists), there is no room for this kind of free-riding anymore. If in fact clear rules are lacking overall, that's disadvantageous for everybody, as traffic becomes really hazardous. The loss of free-riding options for bicyclists is of the least concern in these settings. Having negotiated somewhat rule-free traffic on a daily basis the last three years (the truth is, there are informal traffic rues in Italy, but they all assume you have some steel sheets around you...), I've come to appreciate the predictability of German traffic of late. And although there's enough slack in the timing of the traffic lights to do all the free-riding you want in Germany, I find myself stopping on my bike at the first hint of a red light more often than not these days - a bit out of solidarity with the rule-obiding car drivers, and a bit in an attempt to act as a role-model for my fellow bicyclists...