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Reform Magazine | August 23, 2017

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Editorial: Are we cyclists admirable or appalling?

steve_tomkinsIn the year that I’ve been at Reform, I’ve been cycling into the office – a 50-minute journey – and home again, as is only to be expected.

When I mention this fact to people, which I do at every opportunity, their responses tend to follow the same pattern. First comes: “Well done, you. I couldn’t do that.” But sooner or later: “Mind you, cyclists in London…” Cue stories of their reckless disregard for rules and other road users.

Are we cyclists admirable or appalling? I suppose the truth is: “A little from column A and a little from column B.” Cyclists keep down their carbon tyre print, minimise congestion and care for their health. Some, though not all, rather dilute the wonderfulness of this by misbehaviour that ranges from going the wrong way down a one-way street, to ploughing through a crowd of pedestrians on a zebra crossing.

It’s fair to say the average cyclist behaves more anti-socially than the average motorist or pedestrian. But why would this be, considering most cyclists are also motorists, and all cyclists are also pedestrians?

I think there are two reasons for this bad behaviour, which apply to many other areas of life as well. One is that doing good permits us to do bad. Psychological research in 2010 found that candidates were more likely to be dishonest with money shortly after buying environmentally-friendly products. It seems we carry a kind of double-entry moral ledger in our heads, so that if we do something we find admirable it gives us permission to do something we wouldn’t otherwise approve of, balancing the books. This sounds like a good description of cyclists who feel that travelling green gives them licence to ignore red lights.

The other reason is rather simpler. Unlike cars, bikes are unidentifiable; unlike pedestrians, they can get away quickly. In other words, cyclists break the law because they find they can get away with it. How many drivers would obey speed limits, red lights, parking laws and alcohol restrictions, if no one ever got caught?

My opinion of who I am is based in large measure on how little dishonest, inconsiderate and anti-social behaviour I see when I look at myself. If it turns out my main reason for avoiding those things is simply that I’ve learned the consequences of getting caught, perhaps that opinion of myself is a little generous.

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This article was published in the April 2014 edition of Reform.

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