|Free ice cream* in my bike tunnel on a hot day: encouraging!|
You might assume that as the temperature in Phoenix rises, so would anger and impatience on the roads, but that seems not to be the case. On my Wednesday commute home, I pulled up to the four-way stop, clearly second in line to the gold Lexus to my right. Full stop, put one foot down, looked over at the driver. She, sharp dressed fresh from work and with golden blonde hair to go with the Lexus, waved me through the stop, and since there was no other traffic to contend with, I took the offer, smiled at her, and rode on. And I thought, what a nice gesture, a small kindness toward a stranger on a bicycle.
A little farther along, as I approached the dreaded steel trench plates** in my bike lane, I began to plan my merge out into the traffic lane to ride around them. I heard oncoming traffic behind me, more than one car it sounded like, and slowed down because I just figured that they would blow past and then I would ride out around the plates. Just to check, though, as I approached the spot where I would turn out As Traffic Permits (ATP), I looked back over my shoulder at the cars, which were arriving in the zone of the plates just about the same time as me as I suspected, and check this out: the lead car slowed down enough, clearly and obviously, so that I could ride out around the steel trench plates without slowing down much. Seriously incredible. Traffic more than permitted! Traffic made a magnanimous gesture of altruism toward a cyclist.
I felt like the driver of that car cared enough about my well-being to consciously slow down in order to permit me clear and safe passage around the steel trench plates that I really do dislike strongly, and prioritized that care above their own rush to get home. They slowed down enough so that I would clearly understand the gesture and take the opportunity. Wow. In all seriousness: wow.
I waved vigorously my intent to take the opportunity, which I did, and it all worked beautifully. Maybe it was the effects of the Cherry Garcia raising my consciousness, maybe such acts are more common than I think and just go unnoticed. But I thought: has Pervasive Altruistic Behavior (PAB) broken out? Has everyone gone happy-crazy, and decided to go out of their way to exhibit kindness toward strangers, to pay it forward, backward, sideways, every which way, with no thought of payback? And, what if?
I've tried experiments in full-on altruism while driving, to see the effects. One time, for example, I was leaving a full concert parking lot at the end of an all-day Ozfest (long time ago), so the drivers were potentially, well, you can imagine what the drivers could be like trying to leave a full parking lot after a long day of Ozfest. Suspecting that it would be a madhouse, I said to my friend, "I'm going to do an experiment in driving altruism, and just let everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, go in front of me, when I see a chance to let them, without causing undo delay to the people behind me." I was a waving maniac. I stuck my hand out the window, waved EVERYONE on ahead. And it was like a magic ticket out of that parking lot. Totally strange, the opposite of what you would think. Soon as we got out, my friend turned to me, and said, "What the heck was that? How did that work?" And I really don't know, except that somehow the act of not cutting off other people, not rushing to fill every gap, being generous about letting everyone go ahead, created more opportunities and gaps to get out, rather than fewer. At least in that case.
So, what if PAB broke out on the roads? Well, for one thing, all it would take would be everyone deciding to do it. Total immediate cost in taxpayer money or any other source: $0. If everyone suddenly became kind to everyone else on the roads, always letting the other guy go first, always waving cyclists through four-way stops when no other traffic was around, always slowing to allow cyclists to avoid steel trench plates and other obstacles, always watching out for vulnerable road users and giving them full and safe passage? Everyone, taking care of everyone? What if? What if PAB was so powerful that motorists would slow down to a safe and controllable speed anywhere that cyclists or pedestrians might be? A voluntary 30 kph on all surface streets?
In reality, I would place the odds of spontaneous and persistent PAB quite a bit lower than even widespread TCS (True Cycling Support, see previous post) in the USA, which is also pretty improbable. So this is not a message stating that I actually expect PAB to occur and stick. However, as part of my thought experiment (and again this may still be the free Cherry Garcia talking), what would happen if I ride my bicycle around expecting that not only is PAB possible, but that it might break out at any moment? What if I rode around demonstrating care for all human beings, and expecting the possibility of the same in return? What would happen? And whatever happened, would that be such a bad lens through which to see my fellow humans? That we all have the capacity and even the possibility of being kind to one another?
This is subjective PAB, or sPAB, and I think it could be a powerful tool. Even if I know I don't live or ride in a PAB world, what if I ride with an sPAB mindset? An illusion, but surely a delightful one. sPAB does not expect kindness. Pure kindness does not expect or require kindness. sPAB welcomes kindness, recognizes it, appreciates it, reciprocates it.
I know it's extremely unlikely, but also that it would be free, so I have to wonder, why not? What's stopping us humans? And what if I acted, thought, and rode, as if the answer to that last question were: nothing. Be kind to everyone, expect nothing in return, and see what happens. Maybe, just maybe, you'll get out of that crazy parking lot faster than you ever imagined. Maybe a car will slow to permit you to arc out around some steel trench plates without slowing down. Perhaps an sPAB ride would be indistinguishable from a PAB world. In fact, because an actually PAB world would introduce moral difficulties that might render PAB ultimately unworkable or unmaintainable, sPAB may have more merit anyway. sPAB for example allows for practical limits like also expecting that PAB is smart and doesn't offer to wave a cyclist through a yield into a busy traffic circle that is already full of traffic, causing the cyclist to also be kind and deny the offer, causing a kindness standoff resulting in a global gridlock.
Also, PAB would seem to go against many basic instincts. I know that. It's still possible to wonder what-if, to look past that and get into sPAB mode. As-if we could be kind to one another, on the roads. Imagine that.
*or, at least, as-if there were free ice cream in my bicycle tunnel
**these multiple trench plates in the bike lane, with no signage, if it's not clear, is a raunchy, discouraging, and even dangerous way to treat cyclists. They are an excellent example of nasty maintenance of bike facilities that renders them pointless, and causes them to become abandoned bike facilities over time, as cyclists become conditioned to being treated thus, don't like the feeling, and chose to become non-cyclists as the fallback plan becomes the main plan, again. See also the post about closing the PIMA MUP for a year to raise a noise wall. In a LAB GOLD city, btw. (the MUP, not the plates, which are in no LAB metal PHX). If oil companies maintained bike facilities, this is how they would do it.