You Can’t Trust Anyone These Days

Written by Boston Biker on Oct 28

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.

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Posted in advocacy | 17 Comments »

17 Responses to “You Can’t Trust Anyone These Days”

  1. By Mark Simpson on Oct 28, 2009 | Reply

    I like the way you phrased it – it is a matter of trust.

  2. By h4ckw0r7h on Oct 28, 2009 | Reply

    Great perspective.

    I’ve been thinking about safety and transportation in terms of predictability: when we can predict the actions of other road users, our judgment of what is safe is more accurate. Unpredictable behavior is distracting and dangerous behavior. Disobeying traffic laws that most road users follow is unpredictable, and therefore dangerous.

    It’s good to have the trust perspective as well.

  3. By Aaron Pikcilingis on Oct 28, 2009 | Reply

    Excellent post, I agree completely: It is a precarious and delicate dance.

    I suspect there is a compounding effect to people breaking the rules in this type of situation. I suspect that the more people see others breaking the rules they more likely they are to break rules themselves, given a decreasing level of trust in others (and therefore in the system of trust).

  4. By m2mayer on Oct 28, 2009 | Reply

    Amazingly well said. The “compounding effect” Aaron mentions is the key problem, and one that can only be solved by spreading the word, and getting people to read things like this post. And calling people out once in awhile.

  5. By Emma J on Oct 29, 2009 | Reply

    Persuasive. And encouraging to realize how our taking care of the small stuff can shift the balance towards trust, community, courtesy. The way that a lot of our cities have cleaning up crime by fixing broken windows or cracking down on ticketstile-jumpers.

  6. By Dave on Oct 29, 2009 | Reply

    This got me thinking (and this is a kind of stream of consciousness comment, so bear with me), about the fact that our culture is extremely alarmist. We paint everything as potentially dangerous, and everyone is talking all the time about how dangerous some or the other thing is. Essentially, we have people crying wolf at us the entire time we’re awake. What this does, is that when something is really actually dangerous (like driving a car at 50mph, for instance), it doesn’t get any attention, because, well, everything is dangerous, including you walking on the sidewalk near said 50mph car.

    I think this scares us away from being in our communities and public spaces and it also distracts attention from solving the actual problems, the things that really do cause danger, and instead gets a lot of people trying to change behaviors which really aren’t dangerous, or wouldn’t be if the actual cause of the danger were removed, just to partly mitigate the danger and make themselves feel a little better about it.

    I think bicycle helmets and neon or reflective clothing both fit in this category. Sure, there is some small mitigation of danger by wearing a helmet or bright clothing. However, in general, riding a bicycle is not inherently dangerous, what makes it dangerous (largely) is the automobiles they share space with. But people get so caught up on the helmet issue particularly, that they all forget that the real problem here is high traffic speeds and irresponsible drivers/riders, not helmets (or lack thereof). Very nearly every single death on a bicycle in the U.S. is in a collision with an automobile, and helmets and bright clothing don’t change that fact.

    So, let’s stop being so alarmist, look at danger where it actually exists and is worth doing something about, see it for what it is, and work at solving real problems instead of just trying to put a million band-aids on things.

  7. By Mark on Oct 29, 2009 | Reply

    This is deeply unpersuasive. How does any of this magically make my ride safer? Drivers will still door me, or rub me out into parked cars or turn across my path.

    The rules need to be changed – as they have in Idaho and Portland – to create a safe environment for cyclists. The law, as it stands, was designed in the 1950s to maximize car flow. For example, right turns on red are horribly dangerous for pedestrians, but they sure are great for drivers.

    You really need to question why things are the way they are, instead of accepting a situation that’s dangerous for you as a rider.

  8. By Boston Biker on Oct 29, 2009 | Reply

    mark: did you read the last part of this post?

    “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.”

    There is no magic here…and this was largely an argument against running red lights (in our current system with our current laws), do you disagree and instead feel it is good for everyone if cyclists run red lights? I would be interested in hearing your argument.

    It is very unlikely that an Idaho stop style law is going to be passed any time soon in Boston.

    Do you propose treating red lights like stop signs until the law falls under the pressure of the collective law breaking? Or would that be a mis-characterization of your argument?

    Please enlighten.

  9. By ramonchu on Oct 29, 2009 | Reply

    give me a break; drivers are trusting that we as bicyclists will continue respecting THEIR traffic laws that systematically discriminate against us in every way. When there was a whole system of laws that discriminated against certain groups of people in this country, did those people just keep reaffirming the hollow rotten social order you might refer to as “trust?” Or did they break the law knowing it was discriminatory, flout it as backwards and raise awareness of it as such, until a solid movement of people were mobilized to stop taking the BS and start creating a world that they knew to be better? Of course they did, this is America, it’s called direct democracy!

  10. By Ron Newman on Oct 29, 2009 | Reply

    If bicyclists truly treat red lights as stop signs — meaning that they don’t have the right of way, and need to yield to pedestrians and conflicting traffic — then they can have no negative effect on anyone else.

    Cyclists zooming through a red light at 18 mph is a different issue entirely.

  11. By Mark on Oct 29, 2009 | Reply

    “did you read the last part of this post?”

    You want me to read every last word of your misguided post and parse everything you wrote? Those are some high expectations.

    Yes, it is better for cyclists to run red lights. It’s safer for cyclists in general to get ahead of cars in urban areas. And if motorists have the expectation that bicycles are always going to run red lights and stop signs, they will ultimately not expect them to.

    Our court system could very easily find that requiring cyclists to stop at stop signs is incorrect. There is no reason that mass disobedience of the law wouldn’t achieve this outcome. Do New York City cops routinely give out tickets for jaywalking? San Francisco cops for panhandling?

    There are definitely ways to improve safety for cyclists that cost basically zero dollars:

    1) Ban right turns on red. Aside from informing the public of the new requirement and a political fight, the cost is zero. There are no signs forbidding right turns on red in New York, but people know the law.

    2) Increase traffic fines. Again, no up-front cost other than the political fight. In the long-run, this could fund enforcement and infrastructure improvement.

    3) Refuse to enforce the law as respects bicycles. If cities can stop enforcing laws pertaining to small-time drug trafficking, then they can stop ticketing cyclists for disobeying stop sign and red light laws.

    Show some imagination. A “courteous” cyclist is just as likely to get hit by a car. Otherwise we wouldn’t need any bike infrastructure.

  12. By Jazzercycle on Oct 29, 2009 | Reply

    I really don’t understand the issue here. For one, the law is stop at lights. Get over it and stop. Until that law is changed you have to follow it. If you don’t like it, go do some leg work and try and change it. Until then stop bitching. Be a productive person and don’t add to the already crazy street issues we have. Even if you belive that riders should not stop at red lights until the law changes, its illiegal. And if it does, and you run a red light “cause you can” and you mis-judge a car coming and get hit, who’s fault is it? Your going to blame the car going on a path through a green, that your allowed to run the red light so its their fault? I really don’t see the logic in that at all. Maybe some of those smaller side street reds but basically a dumb idea in some of our major intersections. And this crap about the roads built for cars and not for bikes, yeah maybe a little but the light system is built for everyone to be safe and to know whats coming. I bike every day and I drive, and I have almost hit a buch of mornons running lights all over the place. So now your saying while I am driving I now also have to look for bikes coming out of intersections where I have a green and they have a red? Makes ZERO sense to me at all. Perhaps instead of practicing breaking the law to “make a point or stand against it” ALL people should be practicing patience at those lights. And if your in a rush perhaps you need to re-think how you budget your time.

  13. By Mark on Oct 30, 2009 | Reply

    I’m sure you’re aware that when someone on a bike gets hit by a car, the cyclist gets blamed, even if the car driver is 100% at fault. There are so many examples – but here’s a nice one:

    A truck driver makes an illegal right turn, hits a cyclist, puts her in the hospital with serious injuries, and he gets cited for nothing more than making an illegal right turn – $120 fine. It’s not in this particular article, but the truck driver dragged her bike for several miles after hitting her.

    That’s why, as a cyclist, you want to go through red lights if you judge it to be safe to do so. So you can get ahead of the drivers who don’t know and don’t care the you’re there. And then they can’t put you in the hospital.

  1. 4 Trackback(s)

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