By Martin Vogel
My trusted advisor tells me my blog posts are “very eclectic”. I don’t thinks she intends this as positive feedback. She’ll be unimpressed, then, by this tangent into the world of cycling. Bear with me. It’s a tale of incivility, self-delusion and reluctance to accept responsibility. An exploration, if you will, of the banes of modern life.
James Daley, a columnist on cycling in The Independent, offers an account of how he mowed down a middle-aged lady who crossed the road in his path on the Thames Embankment:
“My arm was all cut up and bleeding, and as I gathered my bag and bike out of the road, I said nothing – trying to compose myself, while waiting for the pain to subside. The lady I’d hit was in her fifties, but surprisingly, she bounced back on to her feet almost immediately, and didn’t seem to have come out of the collision too badly. While her husband threw a few menacing glances at me, she apologised profusely.
“As I rode off, I turned back and told her she should be more careful when she was crossing the road. And she agreed.
“When I told this story to my friends, they were horrified – not out of sympathy for me, however, but out of shock that I’d mown down a middle-aged woman rather than slowing down.”
As a cyclist myself, I tend towards the sedate, continental style of riding rather than the lycra-clad speediness that I suspect Mr Daley favours. But I’d be disinclined to judge him for being involved in an accident with a more vulnerable road user. I understand all too well how you can make an assessment that the pedestrian in front of you will vacate the space to which your heading, only to find in the intervening seconds that she stands stock still in order to let you pass. I’ve only narrowly avoided collisions in precisely such circumstances.
I did have misgivings though about his unapologetic (and somewhat cowardly) hectoring of the pedestrian as he rode away.
His frank acknowledgement of the horrified reaction of his friends to his behaviour seems to prefigure a redemptive journey whereby he rediscovers his empathy for other human beings. But, alas, he seems to learn nothing:
“Incidents such as this are becoming more and more common, because pedestrians underestimate a) how fast bikes are travelling and b) how much it will hurt if they end up being run over by one. And more and more are learning the lesson the hard way… Given pedestrians’ ignorance and complacency when it comes to road safety, it’s no wonder many cyclists on our roads are so angry and aggressive.”
What interests me here is that this seems symptomatic of a pervasive incivility in the urban environment to which I have become increasingly sensitised since leaving organisational life. It’s particularly evident during the morning commute, a time when the tensions between work and personal life are most telling. I think it’s bound up in some way with how the stresses of working life dehumanise us.
I began to think seriously about it during my own daily cycle ride to school with my five-year-old son. We travel through narrow side roads, congested by over-sized off-roaders. I began to notice how drivers would take off at speed to advance a small number of yards, and battle with and swear at each other to stake their claim to space on the road. Mostly I was struck by their extraordinary lack of consideration for a cyclist going slowly uphill with a small child on the back of his bike.
As I watched them scowling and losing their composure, I wondered what kind of lives they were leading which would cause them to behave in such boorish ways. I suspected that a different part of themselves would be horrified to see the people they became behind the wheel.
But then I remembered that I used to be like them, anxious to close down a few inches of road between me and the office or jostling to get onto the escalator at the tube station as quickly as possible. Since leaving my job, I was doing the daily commute on the school run without turning into a stressed ogre. So I wondered if it might not be the conditions of the journey so much as the prospect of its destination that was causing people to behave inconsiderately.
The plague of incivility in modern society and the dehumanising character of organisational life have become pre-occupations for me, ones to which I will no doubt return here. The capacity of organisations to destroy human relationships is well-documented. The management thinker Peter Drucker famously said “The only things that evolve by themselves in an organisation are disorder, friction and malperformance.” This is why an intervention such as coaching can be valuable in the workplace; it helps people step back from the imperatives towards disorder friction and malperformance and reconnect with their own sense of purpose and decency.
But what about pervasive incivility. Is it a purely UK phenomenon? Or even just a London one? It’s not one I’ve previously associated with cycling. For me, cycling represents an escape from the tensions to which people subject themselves in their cars or on public transport. Yet James Daley seems to see anger and aggression as a given of the cyclist’s experience in London.
There’s no logic or consistency to this righteous rage. Just self-justification at all turns. Had Mr Daley been involved in a collision with a car rather than a pedestrian, would he be blaming himself for underestimating how much it was going to hurt? To ask the question is to answer it.
We seem to be experiencing a breakdown in our capacity to see others as we would see ourselves. Recovering a sense of our selves at work is part of the answer.