by Our Bicycle Lives
I love the unmitigated joy of cycling freely about the wide roads and residential streets of London. But here’s the snag: unless on an exercise bike in the gym, none of us cycle in a vacuum. And sharing rights and spaces means negotiating and compromising. It means navigating the maze of interpersonal relations and conflicting emotions: elation, frustration, fear, euphoria, excitement, loathing. And anger. It is difficult to admit that, even if I am not behind a wheel but above two, I too suffer from the social disease that is road rage. Because anger is ugly.
I know my anger doesn’t come out of nowhere. It is always a knee-jerk reaction to someone’s inconsiderate or dangerous behaviour. ‘No way!’ ‘Un-be-lie-va-ble!’ Getting angry is my self-preservation mechanism. Still, I am not proud of an aggressive emotion that is on the same basic level as ‘an eye for an eye’ and other biblical tactics. Yes, ugly and lame. And pointless to boot. Like The Kid With A Bike in the 2011 Dardenne brothers’ film, I am the prisoner of my anger. Anger breeds resentment and ultimately, like all negative energies, it fuels itself.
As a cyclist, every day on the road reminds me of how little and powerless I am, a small fish in the big sea of traffic. If my reaction wasn’t ineffectual and words didn’t fail me, they would be lost anyway in the roar of the engines. Here is the paradox: while Transport for London’s motorist culture victimises us and pushes us to these extremes, I find no channel to vent my anger. I can’t beep my horn angrily, my swearing goes unheard, my glare unseen. Although enjoyable, the Rant – o thou the dreaded word! – leaves a bad taste in the mouth, that of stale anger, like a dinner gone cold. I wish I could emulate my housemate’s cool and collected way to deal with an abusive driver. After catching up with her at the next set of traffic lights (of course!), she calmly said: ‘Excuse me, are you the lady who said the F word to me back at the junction?’
But I owe a lot to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution: I have adapted. Just like mammals will only have good colour vision if the survival gains outweigh the energy costs, the physical act of cycling (and a lethargic blood pressure) works as a local anaesthetic that blunts senses I don’t use, smell for example, and sharpens others like hearing and sight. It also raises my anger threshold: it makes me impervious to all but the most blatant disregards for my personal safety. I am immunised against sudden bursts of temper. The furthest I will go is to mutter ‘Idiot’ under my breath.
The anger that other road users direct at me, their intention to cause me harm remain, however, rather formidable. If a driver swerves to scare me, it may be of little consequence to him but it may seriously hurt me. I am terrified at the unpredictability of the primal human, just like I am terrified of walking through a herd of cows: you can’t reason with them. That’s the worst effect of anger: it cuts all communication avenues between ‘us’ and ‘them’. It positions us on opposite sides of the London battlefield, like chess pieces, and the only way to diffuse it is to die, which cyclists have done pretty well of late (sixteen fatalities in London last year). At this juncture, empathy of any kind helps: from the bus driver who saw the taxi reversing into me, from the pedestrian whose friend stepped in my path and forced me to an emergency stop. From me to a young cyclist who needs to share her story: ‘Did you hear him? He said that if I touched his car, he’d bang my head in.’ If, amidst the tensions that isolate us, we manage to reach out to our fellow travellers, we will stand united.
But for the broader, deeper, far-reaching anger, the only justifiable one, the political anger at our decision-makers who year after year put smoothing traffic flow over the safety of vulnerable road users, the nation-wide anger at dozens of avoidable deaths, the indignation and the outrage, they welcome the refuge of a web page that will give them a voice, volume and resonance.