Considerate Cycling 45: Normal People

Inconsiderate behaviour in public (however we construe inconsiderate behaviour) is a normal background noise in all our lives. We exhibit some and we experience some. Sometimes it feels worse, sometimes better. My point in this blog is that righteous indignation at bad behaviour on the roads has no practical value and might be a barrier to the improvement of public happiness. I am suggesting that we need a better common sense understanding of “normal” and we need to think about better ways to reduce road conflict and the anxiety and the damage that arise from it.

Let’s suppose, for the sake of analysis, that an unwanted level of inconsiderate behaviour is a normally distributed feature of human nature. 68% of our population, let’s guess, will shelter in the normal zone of doing their imperfect best. Some will show us a way of being better than expected and some will disappoint us. Let’s guess at 13.5% in each of those categories. Beyond them perhaps, a tiny fraction of the population are saints or criminals who will contribute exceptional altruism or unacceptable danger. A wide range of naturally occurring attributes (like height and weight for example) seem to be distributed in this predictably symmetrical sort of way. We call it the “normal distribution”.

Here is a picture of the normal distribution of the propensity towards considerate road behaviour in the adult population. The labels might be unexpected, but the shape of the normal distribution is a familiar sight:

The coloured space under the curve represents a whole set of people (let’s say the adult population of Bristol). The horizontal axis represents the extent to which people deviate, in one direction or the other, from the considerate mean.

For the purposes of this blog I am assuming that you (the reader) and I (the writer) are normal people. The odds are with me on that assumption. More than two thirds of the population are close to the norm, so you and I probably are too.

Let’s focus on the other people. More specifically let’s think about the 27 or 28 in every 200 (the 13.65%) who are the “bad people” and the “criminals”. Let’s focus on their road behaviour. Let’s be more precise and think about them on their way to work in the morning.

Here are some of them:

That looks a bit jumbled and inconclusive but we do have a more precise image of one Spring day in 2011 because every householder in the city was asked, as part of the decennial census, how each person in the house got to work on that day. 192,154
adults made such a journey, with 99,695 driving, 38,832 walking and 15,768 cycling. Others traveled by bus, train, motorbike, bus or other means. I shall assume all of those groups are normal in their shares of considerate and inconsiderate people. It’s a reasonable assumption. Here is a picture of the bad people and the criminals who were driving, walking or cycling around Bristol last Tuesday. They are same people (mostly) who were doing the same sorts of things on the day of the 2011 Census.

Normal Bad Behviour on Census Day 2011 In Bristol By selceted Modes Of Travel To Workdata taken from Table CT0015: 2011 Census: Method of travel to work (alternative), local authorities in England and Wales

The criminally inconsiderate people who were driving, walking or cycling are hard to see. In the flow of 67,793 cars and vans there will only be 249 with extreme tendencies, and the chances are that things go smoothly enough an any given day and none of them do any harm. But let’s not be complacent. There were 97 criminally inconsiderate people walking to work and 39 dangerously inclined people on bikes. There were also quite large numbers of people whose tendencies we had already agreed are likely to be “bad”. Over 20,000.

Let’s remember that Bristol is a small place and that in the light of the numbers of inconsiderate people we think might be travelling through the city it’s not surprising that there were 2,075 reports of road traffic accidents in the the 12 months between August 2011 and September 2012. On average, there were 5 reports per day over those 12 months, with a peak of 6.5 each Thursday and a calmer 2.9 on Sundays.

What this all means is that nervous people are right to be nervous. On any given working day there are likely to be 5 incidents actually recorded by the Police on Bristol roads where someone gets hurt. Occasionally it’s even worse.

So what do we do? Shout at the bad people? Make them take tests? Tell them to use air bags in their vehicles? Close the crossings, traffic lights and pavements?

No, these are silly rhetorical questions. What we do is consider the situation intelligently and then spend a lot of money on reducing the number and the severity of conflicts between dangerous vehicles and vulnerable people. We ask law makers and law enforcement officers to intervene wherever and in whatever circumstances the conflicts are known to lead to casualties. We ask them to stop treating collisions as normal and therefore acceptable. We ask them to start seeing collisions as common but unacceptable and legislating then prosecuting wherever is necessary. We reduce speed limits, we reduce access to some streets, we take cases to court. We set up instruction and refresher training courses for road users who ask for it or who show by their convictions that they need it.

More importantly we build roads and pathways and reorganise streets so that the total volume of conflicts is dramatically reduced. If there are a lot of motor vehicles that might reasonably expect to move quickly, we make sure that walking, cycling and other vulnerable modes of travel can complete journeys without coming into direct contact with them.

If we did such bold things systematically, and with a measured plan (as a lot of similar countries already have) the five a day rule could be a thing of the past. Even the bad and criminal people would a) have less to be angry or anxious about as they travel and b) only be likely to have collisions with their equals in momentum. (some further reading)

In every other modern endeavour we notice where things go wrong, we work out ways of reducing the risks, the hazards and the severity of the outcomes and we spend some resources on dealing with them. We also recognise that this process has to be sustained – renewed and refreshed at each level as time brings improvement.

So why not take one of the last bold steps for a post-industrial city and catch up with fellow cities in Europe and accept the normal distribution of human failings. Let’s remake our roads, pathways and streets to reduce the conflicts. Let’s enforce the rules we have set for sensible behaviour and not let the agents of the law accept that collisions are inevitable simply because they are so common. Let’s arrange for children to be able to cycle to school and to have cycling and road craft as part of their curriculum. Let’s make some new rules (a universal 20mph in towns and cities for example). Let’s also make it compulsory or easy for people who need to learn better ways to do so, whatever mode they chose.

To put all that another way, we can’t stop people being normally inclined, but if we act wisely in relation to urban travel we can reduce the harm done by the normally occurring lack of consideration and the violence that follows from it.


4 thoughts on “Considerate Cycling 45: Normal People

    1. The data I had to hand were for the place I live – a city. So that’s the only reason. I wonder if the same analysis would apply in rural areas? Theoretically it would, but the numbers of cases might make it difficult to confirm. Both the types of people involved and their purposes in driving, walking or cycling might be different.

  1. I don’t agree that the odds are with you on the assumption that you and I are both close to the norm, unless you know that you are close to the norm yourself. If we each have a 68% chance of being close to the norm, as you assume, then the chance of us both being close to the norm is 68% × 68%, which is only 46%.

    1. Nice work! I didn’t check. I hoped to flatter my readers and hide my own villainy. Taking what you say, the bookies might conclude that it’s only you are odds-on to be OK on the roads. 🙂

      However, I hope you can agree that the general approach has some merit. The hypothesis that mode of transport determines individual disposition is not an attractive one. I don’t think that I’m a better person when I cycle or a worse when when I drive.

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