Why Are Cyclists So Selfish?

Stop commuter competition and show courtesy by becoming an A.C.E.

Posted Oct 27, 2019

Why are cyclists so selfish? It's a good question, I think, and one grounded in my experience as a pedestrian, a car driver, and also a cyclist!  In the interests of full disclosure, I am a cyclist who uses a bike as my main form of transportation. I log the most miles on my bike within the city than I do using any other mode of transport by far. Since I began my whole “slow my life down” project, I spend far more time in a saddle or on my feet than I do in a driver’s seat. I bike, I walk, and I drive. And, like most of us, I’ve seen some pretty shocking stuff in all three arenas.

The idea of cyclists and cars competing for space on the roads, while worth talking about, is not the focus here. No, what I want to talk about is cyclists in their natural environment--on shared multi-use trails and paths. There are more and more of these trails popping up everywhere. They are a great way for cyclists, walkers, and runners (amongst others including horses!) to get away from the potential danger of moving right beside noisy cars and instead be in a safe environment.

And the bit about safety is key because that is a main attraction for many. Multiuse trails are supposed to be safe for folks to use without fear of imminent crash by car metal. But safety, as in any venue requires some attention and some courtesy. In Japanese martial arts this principle of courtesy is central and goes by the term "rei".

"Rei" essentially contains thanks/gratitude/manners/etiquette/bow/courtesy. Whew. That's a lot. But for me the best all encompassing concept is courtesy. So we perform "rei" physically when bowing to a partner we are going to test our skills against and with in martial arts. That expression of "rei" includes trust that we will consider the safety and dignity of our opponent in our physical actions.

To truly show "rei" we need to be aware of others around us and how our actions may affect them. Although the martial concept of "rei" was probably not what they were trying to riff on, most jurisdictions with multi-use trails have signs that indicate that folks are supposed to show courtesy to others by sharing the trail (goes for everyone) and by ringing a bell or calling out before passing folks (this is mostly aimed at cyclists).

It is this bit of courtesy that is shockingly and staggeringly absent from the behavior of far too many (really it's most) cyclists. When I've been walking on multi-use trails I hardly ever hear a cyclist warn me as they pass. This is a problem because startling a pedestrian is a great way to get them to accidentally move in front of your speeding cycle. I got so frustrated by this I decided to collect my own "data" in my city.

It was so discouraging I only kept count on 2 walks. On one "exposure" of 1 hour, I was passed by 89 cyclists. One cyclist rang a bell before passing. On another walk I was passed by 47 cyclists. No cyclists called out or rang a bell. That's 1/89 and 0/47 which comes out as way below even 1% of cyclists showing even the most basic effort at courtesy or awareness.

When I am cycling and being passed by a cyclist I also almost never hear a shout or bell. Same issue as above. Regardless of what happens or doesn't happen, it shows zero courtesy and is dangerous.

Available to observe cyclist in their natural environment. on trails and different routes that people take off traffic. I've come to the conclusion that cyclists have no regard for anyone else. Ultimate selfishness. It's as if folks and bikes into navigate traffic is if their avatars in a video game rather than real agents in real life.

In my 2011 book "Inventing Iron Man" I wrote about the role of technology in amplifying human ability. I made the point that a lot of training would be required to actually use a suit of armor like Iron Man's exoskeleton. That's because such technology is going to amplify whatever you do. So if your skill is poor you're just going to have really powerful poor skills.

If you show no courtesy, you are now doing so with the potential for real damage. I bring this up because technology is anything that changes our abilities whether it's a martial arts weapon that enables you to be better at defending yourself or a bicycle or a car. If you are self-centered and unaware and not the greatest skills your danger is amplified because of your use of technology.

But why is this how we operate? I think a big part of the issue is anonymity. Many cyclists (and pedestrians) are isolated from their senses when listening to music on headphones or wearing sunglasses or visors. Perhaps it's no wonder no one is showing courtesy to others when they truly might feel like they are an actual avatar in a game rather than a physical creature amongst others. 

A lot of folks on multi-use trails are trying to get somewhere by commuting to work or with other destinations in mind. They are trying to get there as fast as possible and with as little interaction as possible. Manfred Milinski argued that our reputation and our efforts to sustain it serves as a kind of "universal currency" guiding our human social interactions. The transient and anonymous nature of cycling at speed while separated from the environment by headphones and sunglasses mutes the need for concern about reputation and creates instead "competitive commuters". This is, ironically, the very thing many cyclists are trying to avoid in the form of car drivers by using trails!

So what's to be done about this? Well step one is seeing the problem. The actions you could take are part of what I want to call "being an A.C.E.". This means, get some Awareness, show some Courtesy, and Enjoy the experience. It may sound hard but it really isn't, and it's much better than showing the world you're instead something else that begins with an "a"!

I'm a big believer that life is a journey not a destination. Regardless of your own philosophy of commuting or traveling, you still have to take a journey to get where you are trying to go. We can make that journey the most positive possible when we show courtesy for everyone involved. And this goes way beyond cyclists. They were the example I used to illustrate, but this is a species-wide problem.

Please just show some basic politeness and consideration for others. Give it a try you just might find it makes your journey towards your destination a little bit more enjoyable. And who doesn't want to A.C.E. something anyway? 

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2019)