The “are you pregnant?” logic test

I like simple heuristics for complex questions. While they’re not substitutes for critical thinking, these rules of thumb are often a good way to identify the appropriate course of action.

You’re already familiar with my two-step approach to policy. Another one relates to asking women if they’re pregnant, ostensibly to determine whether they deserve your seat on the subway.

99 times out of 100, she is. But you’ll never forget that one time you’re wrong.

And it will make you question why you got involved in the enterprise in the first place. The potential benefits – congratulating a random woman? properly giving up your seat? – are far outweighed by the insult you deliver to the one who’s “practicing”.

To avoid this debate, now I’ll only sit on the subway if there’s at least one other open spot. I dislike assessing if someone looks “pregnant enough” or “old enough” or “injured enough”.

Eventually I realized this thought-process could apply to other areas.

Consider the other side of the coin: men who don’t offer their seats. Sure, there are a few inconsiderate persons out there. But if you get in a few faces, you’ll end up criticizing someone with a hidden injury. And imagine if everyone were a subway vigilante like you! That poor guy would always have to choose between being in pain and being harassed.

I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. “Reflect at the time,” says Marcus Aurelius, “that they go wrong through ignorance, not intent.” (Meditations 7.22)

So it went with a Twitter chain yesterday regarding salmon. (A “salmon” is someone who rides a bicycle against the flow of traffic – an act that is illegal and dangerous.) Stephen Miller, a writer at Streetsblog, showed confusion at one justification he had heard.

I refuse to salmon, but I used to make a sole exception. It was this one.

Salmoning the third-block homeMy apartment is one-third of the way down the block from Seventh Avenue. If I’m coming from there, I have three options: (1) ride an extra quarter-mile around the block, (2) walk my bike the 250 feet, or (3) ride the wrong way.

I told myself I’d only salmon if I saw the coast was totally clear: no cars or bikes coming, no peds who might cross the street, no parked cars ready to come to life. (All this to shave 20 seconds off a trip that probably lasted fifty times that!)

One day, it dawned on me: the potential downside is so much greater than the phantom savings. What happens that one time out of a hundred where I misjudge the situation? I could hurt myself or someone else.

But the repercussions of my act go beyond the immediate. Every time I’m on a bike, like it or not, I represent the entire cycling community. Every wrong thing I do reflects poorly on people I don’t know. Even if I ride perfectly the rest of the time, I still might be confirming an onlooker’s notion that cyclists break the rules. And no matter what half-assed excuse I offered, they’d be right.

Header: a few members of the all-powerful bike lobby.

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7 Responses to The “are you pregnant?” logic test

  1. Hi K,
    I’m not so proud that I can’t admit that I needed to look up the word – heuristics; before I read any further. I guarantee that once I find an opportunity to use the word in conversation 3 times, I’ll own it.

    I loved this piece. I laughed and I learned; both things I like to do daily.

    The quandary you described is similar to the one minorities face all the time. “Representing” and having to do that kind of “calculating” is wearing and worrisome.

    You are a credit to your people (cyclists).


    P.S. I was surrounded by your kind at the Red Hook Crit on Saturday. They really are very nice once you get to know them. ;-)

    • Keith says:

      Thanks, A! In fact, I always try to act as if I’m representing the human race. (I often come up short, but no one is perfect.)

      Yes, cyclists tend to be nice! I can’t say they’re “my kind”, though; I have yet to embrace cycling as a sport, especially on a fixie.


  2. Meagan Wasfy says:

    I used to regularly “salmon” down the length of Charles Street in Boston. Very sticky and not safe. Mostly out of fear rather than a noble desire to represent the biking community well, I now go up and over Beacon Hill, which is no small task. When I commute the right way down Charles, I’ve noticed that there is pretty much regular two way bike traffic down this one way road. Seems to speak to a need to address the issue with a bike lane. One third of a block though is just lazy :)

  3. Harley N says:

    Every time we ride a cycle, motorized or human propulsion, we surely do represent the entire cycling community. I cringe when I see others do stupid things because it is a refelction on law abiding me; and which can come back to you through no fault of your own with an already enraged cage wrangler or umbrella wielding pedestrian down the road.

    Ride like you are a Cycling Ambassador and set the bar for the mentally unembellished.
    And all this talk of salmon has me ready for Sushi right now.

  4. The same thinking applies, but far more realistically, to the act of driving in a city. People have a set of decent reasons (or excuses) for driving, but what about the one time out of a hundred where something goes horribly wrong and someone dies? With driving the scenario isn’t a hypothetical, it happens a few times a week in New York. I haven’t actually heard of a case of a wrong way cyclist even indirectly killing someone here, though it’s possible, as with walking against signals and many other things we don’t righteously condemn.

    Now compare the reactions to riding a bicycle in careful violation of one motor vehicle law, to driving – also typically in violation of laws around speeding, red lights, yielding right of way. The reactions to regular old human cyclists just trying to go somewhere without killing civilization (Walk your bike! Pedal 5 minutes out of the way! Be a real cyclist!) are off the charts. Holding cyclists, who are already pretty much on the right side of living a moral life as far as mobility goes, to a wildly higher and evidently unattainable standard. And what did the deafening chorus of clucking at *those cyclists* ever accomplish? Zero progress. Everything good that is happening now is thanks to accommodation of cyclists as humans, not robots or monks.

    The only thing we should be talking about is how to color the map’s red lines as green.

    • Keith says:

      Hi Nathan,

      Thanks for commenting. I agree with your sentiments on much of this – in fact, I had laid bare my thoughts on livable streets a week prior.

      While we’re working on turning those red lines green, though, we must remember that perception is just as important – if not more so – than reality. If we want popular support, we can’t be doing things that further cement our reputation in many minds that we’re entitled assholes to whom the rules don’t apply. What drivers are doing, and how their actions are received, is immaterial for this purpose (although certainly not in the larger scheme).

      My theory is that pedestrians view cyclists as human beings, and drivers as part of a machine. It’s easier to get mad at another person than at an automobile.


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