Someone said to me the other day “You know you just can’t trust anyone these days.” as they locked up their bicycle with a large sturdy U-lock. The obvious implication was that we needed a huge chunk of hardened steel to affix to our bicycle in order to run quickly into a store because if we didn’t our bikes would instantly be whisked away by the scoundrels just waiting to take them. This got to me thinking about trust, and transportation and bicycles.
The idea of public trust has been stewing in my brain for the last couple of days, something just struck me as wrong about my friends statement. On the way into work a couple of days ago it struck me what I didn’t like about that statement. You can in fact trust people these days! In fact we put more trust in total strangers these days than ever before. If anything our lives are so wrapped up in trusting strangers that I started to get nervous with just how much trust I was putting in complete strangers. First I thought about money (how we just trust that people will take it and that it is worth something). Then I thought about food (how many people touch it before it gets to me and what they could do to it). Finally I started to think about biking, that’s when I really started to freak out.
A few examples:
White paint on the ground
There is a little strip of white paint down the center of the road, on each side cars race by at 50 mph. That little white stripe is about 1 millimeter high, and most likely worn lower by time and tires…it is not going to stop anything bigger than a dust mite. The only thing keeping that massive truck bearing down on you from smashing into you, killing you and everyone in the car, is trust. You trust the driver of that truck not to cross that tiny little white line. Everyone else puts the same trust in you. The little white line doesn’t protect you, it is a symbol of the trust that does.
Light bulbs on wires
There are sets of light bulbs, one red, one yellow, and one green hung off wires at intersections. The light from these bulbs is visible for several hundred feet, but the force of the protons emitting from the bulbs themselves will do little more than tussle up some air atoms. They certainly wont stop the cars traveling in opposite directions about to smash into each other at the intersection. The only thing that keeps the drivers from smashing into each other is the trust that one will stop when they see the red, and one will go when they see the green. Every time you go through a green light you are trusting every other human driver at that intersection to stop for you. The same way they trust you not to run them down when they have the green. The light is only a symbol of that trust, not the actual thing that keeps you safe.
If you think about it almost all of our traffic control systems are either lights, or paint, or other similar “symbolic” control devices. You trust others and they trust you. On an average trip you are placing your very life in the hands of hundreds if not thousands of total strangers. Think about that for a second…I know I was a bit shaken by this revelation (especially considering how stupid people can be sometimes). The reason why you are alive to read this is because no one has crossed the center line, or run a red light, or any of the many other things they could have done easily and killed you.
The story of the boy who cried wolf is a good example. The little boy kept doing things that eroded the shared trust of the village (screaming that there was a wolf when there was none) and when he really needed help (a wolf did show up) no one trusted him and he was eaten. Breaking that shared trust doesn’t just get you eaten by wolves, it ruins the whole system. Imagine if a whole bunch of little boys were crying wolf. How could the village stay safe if they were always getting false reports of danger? The story is a perfect illustration of how shared trust effects a whole community and an individual member of that community. As grizzly as it sounds the community was actually safer after the boy had been eaten…because now they were not getting false reports, or to put it another way the public trust was no longer being eroded.
This is why I think people who drive cars get so upset when cyclists run red lights. It is not because cyclists are breaking the rules (everyone does that, and often), it is because they are breaking the shared trust. It is offensive to the group because that trust is what keeps them alive. If you are a cyclist and you run red lights this is not something you should brush off lightly. People react very badly to this sort of thing.
At the very least you can expect them to be upset with you, in extreme cases some very unhinged people might even try to hurt you for doing it. I think people that threaten violence against cyclists are crazy, but I can understand why they would get upset at you (even if you think you are not putting anyone in danger other than yourself). You are breaking the rules that keep them alive. It is a danger to the village, you are ruining the wolf detection system, you are mucking up the whole system. How can they go through green lights with confidence if they think someone might be running them? The reason they are upset is because you are making the entire system worse for everyone by breaking the shared trust.
This idea works for just about any person driving/riding any kind of transportation. Car drivers run red lights also, they also make turns with no signals on, bikers go the wrong way down streets, pedestrians walk out against the signals…etc…etc. The point is each and every time anyone does this, not only are they breaking the rules, they are breaking down the shared trust. I would say that one of the biggest problems that Boston has transportation wise is that over the years that trust has been severally eroded. Driving or cycling or walking in this town can be stressful because you always have to be on the lookout for trust breakers. Constant vigilance is very stressful. It is like everyone in Boston has been crying wolf for years. Will that car turn with no signal? Is that pedestrian going to go against the red? Is that biker going run that red? Wolf, Wolf, WOLF!!
So how do we rebuild this trust? The same way you build any other kind of trust. Slowly, and deliberately. Stop at that red light, walk with the signal, use your turn signals. It is going to take time, and it is going to happen slowly, and you will not be able to get anyone else to do it with you. You have to set that example. Every time you stop at a red light and you make it clear you are going to follow the rules, the person in a car next to you can see that at least some bikers don’t run reds. Every time you yield to a cyclist when you are making a left hand turn in your car the cyclist gets just a little grain of trust back in drivers. Every time you wait till the walk guy comes on to cross the street you show other walkers how it is done. It is the only way I can think of to make any real kind of steps towards rebuilding the shared trust in Boston. The nice thing about this system is that it is free, and the more you do it the better things get. There are other ways (better infrastructure, better enforcement) but they all cost a lot of money, and can not be implemented tonight on your ride home.
So the next time someone tells you “you can’t trust anyone these days” look them right in the eye and say “I trust you, and thousands of other strangers every day with my life” then smile at them.
Tags: red lights, strangers, trust, white lines
Posted in advocacy | 17 Comments »