Tomorrow the Institute of Advanced Motorists plans to issue a press release claiming that 57% of cyclists jump red lights. It seems the rest of the world is quite rightly focussing on the harmfully inflammatory and counter-productive nature of their openly dubious claim. With that covered, I’d like to take the opportunity to say why I think cyclists ignore red lights. It’s a design issue.
Anyone automatically claiming that each and every occurrence of red light jumping is ‘dangerous’ or ‘stupid’ is being closed minded. Our world comprises infinite shades of grey yet our systems can typically only accommodate black or white. Common sense is something traffic lights can neither appreciate nor accommodate.
The sooner our road planners make proper allowances for the humans that use their systems, as opposed to treating their job as maintaining the efficiency of a large scale plumbing project of pipes, valves, volume and flow to which humans are an inconvenience, the sooner ridiculous inhuman issues like this can fizzle into irrelevance and die the death they so very deserve. There is nothing inherently dangerous in riding past a box on a stick with the bulb behind the red lens lit.
The cyclist light jumping issue isn’t the fault of cyclists – it’s the fault of a decades old design experiment that has gone badly wrong. As the existence of desire lines trampled beneath our naturally pythagorean human nature perfectly illustrates, for any system to work it must serve the needs of the user. Currently, our road network doesn’t do that very well, and it’s an issue that has only relatively recently been tackled with work like that pioneered by a design hero of mine, the late Hans Monderman.
Those who design systems with the idea that the end user is stupid will very quickly find their system doesn’t work. There are idiots in any situation, and the idea that our world should be built around those lowest common denominators is a fallacy. If you treat everyone as an idiot, everyone will behave like an idiot because the system encourages – nay – relies on it. Treat everyone as the intelligent human beings they overwhelmingly are, and things can actually start to work.
Common sense soon hits a glass ceiling on the current road network, above which lies illegality. Being less likely to get caught for minor and harmless transgressions on a bicycle means the humans riding them are more compelled to resort to common sense and behave naturally. Having the liability of a traceable number plate and two tonnes of metal around you prevents such natural freedom.
The main danger for the aware and alert red light jumping cyclist isn’t the actual red light jumping. It’s the retaliatory acts of jealousy and resentment by those who witness it from behind nearby steering wheels. The culture of hate and intolerance it breeds is the far greater daily threat to the cyclist. But that hate is focussed on the wrong target. Drivers shouldn’t be angry at the cyclist for making natural human progress; they should be angry that the system – to which we are all expected to adhere and the one in which they feel helplessly trapped – isn’t allowing them the same natural freedom.
Of course, every cyclist can stand patiently at every red light without any attention paid to its validity (or obvious lack thereof) merely so as not to aggravate the driver behind, but that would be letting human stupidity and ignorance dictate our group dynamic when intelligence and enlightenment is much better positioned to do the job.
I was once a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists. In fact I was asked if I’d consider becoming an observer, to teach the System of Car Control to new recruits. Unfortunately the inherent contradictions of an organisation dedicated to using a system based on common sense and alertness within the confines of a system that so often seems to positively discourage the deployment of either quickly got the better of me and I turned my back on it.
By definition, the IAM is committed to a system proven to be entirely broken. That they’re trying to fend off the moribundity facing all motoring organisations by becoming one of the loudest voices in the increasingly relevant world of utility and transport cycling is something we should all oppose. A motorist’s approach to moving around isn’t what cycling needs.
Most people will agree that the most satisfactory systems are those that are totally intuitive, they are those that need no user manual. The current edition of the Highway Code has 152 pages.