There’s a scene in the Matrix where Keanu Reeves’ character Neo is in a crowd of people pushing and shoving, when suddenly a beautiful woman in a red dress walks past, catching his eye.
Neo’s mentor Morpheus suggests he looks back at the woman, at which point she has turned into an Agent, the scary villains of the movie, and is pointing a gun at him. Morpheus says:
“… until we [free them], these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”
The lesson from this scene is that in any ingrained system, the structure of which has been conditioned from birth, is so powerful that people will fight to keep it, even if the system is damaging to them.
It’s a great movie but how does this relate to cycling?
One morning I was riding my usual route to work and I’d reached a particularly nasty junction at the top of Bute St where it meets the Hayes by the Golden Cross pub. It’s basically a toucan crossing followed immediately by a shared pavement with a blind left-hand corner. I’d crossed over and was dodging a group of pedestrians dragging heavy suitcases, whilst trying to negotiate the blind corner, only to be confronted by a delivery lorry blocking the pavement and a car being driven out of the lane behind the pub.
I took the only escape route open to me and took to the road to pass the lorry, only to receive a mouthful of abuse from a passing cyclist.
Far be it from me to stereotype anyone, but this person was dressed for battle; on a mountain bike, helmet and all the other inappropriate gear. After catching him I asked politely what the problem was, and he informed me (between expletives) that I should have “effing looked” before pulling on to the road, and that I’d “nearly effing killed him”.
Now I admit that he may have had a point (not about killing him of course), if rather crassly communicated, but in my defence I WAS looking. Looking at the pedestrians, their suitcases, whether they were going to do something unpredictable; looking at the lorry completely blocking the pavement and how to get around it; looking at the car and wondering if the driver was going to actually give way to the people. I was also using my hearing, but listening for cars on the road – you know, the things that kill – not bicycles.
Design leads behaviour, and the design of that junction for cyclists & pedestrians, coupled with the institutionalised tolerance of rule-breaking by motorists, directly led to our confrontation. In these situations, however, it is much easier to blame the person in front of you, lazily assuming that they’re a bad person who has deliberately misbehaved.
All these things flashed through my mind, but of course you only get a couple of seconds to reply in these situations. I merely said that rather than blaming each other perhaps we should be working together to get some decent provision for cycling, where you don’t have to dress for battle or fight each other for a scrap of pavement. This was angrily dismissed in another string of expletives, with a parting shout that “you should follow the effing rules”.
This man is the woman in a red dress. He is dedicated enough to ride a bicycle but he sees it merely as an extension of a car. He is exactly the sort of person who would benefit from safe, segregated infrastructure but will fight tooth & nail to keep the ‘might is right’ hierarchy that has always existed on our roads.
He insists on following the rules even though these rules only benefit motorists, at the cost of anyone attempting active travel. Rules that motorists are more than happy to break, with barely any repercussions, but with consequences that are often life-changing.
The thought that there might be a better way has never crossed his mind, and if anyone suggests this or challenges him he will shout them down in a string of expletives.
He needs to be unplugged from the Matrix, but is far from ready. The question is: how do we stop him, and others like him, from being our enemy, and eventually become prepared to fight for change?