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.
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.
— Stephen Miller (@miller_stephen) June 9, 2013
I refuse to salmon, but I used to make a sole exception. It was this one.
My 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.