In the middle of London Road in Brighton yesterday I had a very unsettling experience. Approaching a set of traffic lights I slowed to avoid the group of pedestrians that had just stepped out into the road in front of me, when one of the group stepped deliberately back into my violently braking path to shout “RED LIGHT! RED LIGHT!”
I looked up behind her, where the light shone out, calmly green. “No… look!” I said, stupidly. “It’s green! Look!”
“Yeah, green for us! Red for you!” she shouted, not turning round. I gesticulated and flapped, spluttering protestations, willing her head to turn round before the lights changed and end this weird misunderstanding. The green changed to amber and still she didn’t look round, shouting “Bloody cyclists!” as she stamped off the road, and dragging myself together I eventually wobbled away, still protesting feebly to myself and the spectators watching impassively from the pavement.
It was so perplexing because she clearly didn’t really care whether it was green, red or what. She wanted to shout at me, and which of the three bulbs was illuminated was not going to influence her decision in the slightest; I was one of those bloody cyclists that run red lights and take the piss and she was going to give me a piece of her mind.
There are a lot of articles doing the rounds about bloody cyclists that run red lights and take the piss, about drivers that knock cyclists off their bikes and brag about it on the internet, about the terrible war for the left-hand two feet of our nation’s roads. They talk about hazards and rule-breaking, inconsiderate behaviour and the general impossibility of two types of vehicle using the same roads. The most-aired argument is that this is all caused by SOME PEOPLE who just don’t respect other road users, and how terrible it is that this inconsiderate minority with its reckless behaviour is causing friction and resentment without which the two groups could live in peaceable harmony.
In my opinion, that harmony is something of a fairy tale. We thrive on a little conflict. Drivers hate drivers, drivers hate pedestrians, cyclists hate pedestrians who hate other pedestrians, all of us navigating our overcrowded streets hate anybody else that happens to bump up against our little bubble as we make our desperate way from A to promised B. 2013 is a place with a hell of a lot of people in it and our vague sense of entitled irritation gets directed at anyone that gets too close; all the reasons and wrongdoings we spout are just stories we tell to justify our little tantrums without having to confront the fact that it’s nobody’s fault in particular, there’s no-one to blame, life just is a bit of a pain in the arse sometimes and especially so when we have to mess about negotiating ours with other people’s.
Cyclists are a good scapegoat because they’re Other. They’re visibly in the same space but a different thing, they aren’t just some other people, they are making a direct choice that makes it possible to talk about them as if they constitute an entity. They also seem somehow to impart a sort of splashed, vulnerable smugness. I mutter every time another cyclist whirs past me (as they often do, as I have had near-flat tyres for coming up to two weeks) in neon reflective safety bling and crash hat, resenting their boy scout neatness and the martyred insinuation directed at the cars around them.
This is probably partly projection, because I do feel a little smug as a cyclist. I get to zoom around in the fresh air with blood pumping hard, riding the boost of feeling better when I arrive than when I left, and weather the odd bit of weather that leaves me feeling rugged and adventurous. My bike’s so battered that I don’t feel any anxiety leaving it locked up wherever I am, it’s been carrying me around since I was 14 and even took me across France and its age is rustily showing. I feel like a calf-muscle warrior among the roaring juggernauts, and they probably see me as an irritating and irresponsible fly. But the thing is that I’m OK with that.
It seems to me that people have to hate one another a little bit in order to stay sane. The traditional thing these days is to have a grumble about everybody on the tube glued to their iPhones, but it’s not as if before their invention everybody was chatting freely across carriages, suited commuters chatting with old ladies about their childhood in Nigeria and sharing cough sweets around. No, we read books or papers or adverts or anything or stared into space to avoid each other’s eyes because it simply isn’t possible to engage with that sheer number of people, we have limits and put up walls to make our interaction with the outside world manageable.
In the wider world we build our walls according to what we designate to be ‘us’ and what we call ‘other’, friendship groups, ideologies, politics, visible characteristics, you name it, we pick a side and we make it our anchor. Advertising companies began to make mileage out of this in the sixties when they invented the concept of Lifestyle, giving oneself that personal definition borne of discerning (consumer) choices. I am this. I am not that.
So sure, hate cyclists, hate drivers, hate whoever you like. We all do it because we have to. And if somebody shouts at you in the street, try not to take it too hard.