Rules of the Road

Watching the world from a coffee shop is as old as coffee itself. The personality of a neighborhood comes out through the outfits and vehicles, set to a soundtrack of cool jazz and artsy pop music. Just a few seconds in that gaze might give the wrong impression, that there’s a strict type which dominates an area, but approach an hour or two and time starts to expose the forest and all of its interconnected parts.

I’ve sat in this place hundreds of times, arguably perpetuating my morning habit because of how enjoyable it is. A love of (and physical dependence on) coffee has come from an effort to get back to that spot in the window, reading a book and looking out. You can take in a whole lot about culture and society just by opening your eyes and attention, two things coffee is great for. It’s from here that I’ve noticed how rigid our rules can be, and by proxy, how rigid we can become.

No one likes to get the short straw, feeling that everything should be equal but somehow the powers that be have decided that someone ought to get a little bit less than the rest. It pushes people to try their best within the system, or to risk it outside. I see it constantly at the airport, where business travelers rightfully show up to the gate at the end of boarding, cruising past hoards of leisure travelers who are told to board the plane last. It’s not a problem, somewhere within the rules of the airline. The latecomers have earned themselves that right, and the others seem totally content about conceding. But the minute a similar traveller, someone with the same group number on their boarding card, tries to sneak past and steal our overhead space, the anxiety builds. Rules have been put in place for a reason. Flippantly pushing them to the side does nothing but lead to anarchy. If they’re playing dirty, maybe we should too.

I was riding my bike recently when a similar thing happened. A lady was riding alongside me for a few blocks, constantly riding slow but at every light coming to a stop just ahead of me. There weren’t many others on the road, so at each green light I would let her ride ahead then speed past. We approached a road that’s slightly under construction and I wondered how she would handle it. The left side of the one-way street had been closed for sidewalk repairs with big cement dividers and a mesh fence blocking that section from our lane. A truck was already waiting at the red light and we were all going to be forced to turn right.

The lights in London, this one and many others, have three different phases. Two sections of time for the cars on either road, and a third for pedestrians only. As I approached the light, I moved ahead of the truck and put myself in a spot to make the right turn. That’s when I saw the lady who had been pushing my buttons for the last half mile angle her bike onto the sidewalk and slowly weave through pedestrians and onto the crosswalk. It’s a classic move, usually reserved for males under 20, and I was half surprised, half frustrated. If everyone did this sort of thing, and I certainly could, traffic and pedestrians would be thrown for a major loop. Sidewalks would be crowded with bikes, pedestrian crosswalks would no longer be a safe space, sooner or later the cars might take the same approach. Modern society couldn’t handle this sort of change.

Quite frankly, the intersection with all of the construction was a tricky one to figure out. Unless you have Cru Jones-like biking moves, you’d probably be sitting behind the truck for at least one run of the lights, getting hit with a faceful of exhaust. This woman wasn’t following the rules, but she wasn’t in the same position as me, physically on her bike or mentally on the road. She deserved a little breathing room, a little less stress in her morning commute.

We’ve created a myriad of rules to keep our interconnected lives in order. We can’t walk into a store and take a gallon of milk without paying, start fights with strangers on the street, or drive our cars on the wrong side of the road. Rules and laws seem to stretch into every fiber of life, dictating what is allowed both within and beyond the walls of our homes. And these rules have become so ingrained in our being that we create a view of the world that looks off-color without them. To a cyclist, the renegade on the sidewalk is the unfair cheater that brings anxiety to the rule followers.

Depending on the location, rules usually live on a spectrum. London is particularly chaotic when it comes to the streets. No one has an issue with jaywalking and even I jump the gun at a red light to avoid confusion with cars.

On my ride the other morning, I wasn’t in a rush and was comfortable sneaking to the front at the tricky stop light. As I made my right turn and cycled around the woman who had just thrown a wrench into the rules of the road, I usually would have had a feeling of success. Even playing fair, I still managed to get past her. Nice guys do finish first. But instead I felt happy for her and as certain as ever that this was the way things should be. Someone like me, who at that place and time was completely comfortable following the letter of the law, did so in order to afford her the chance to use the sidewalk. Of course we couldn’t all do that, it would be mayhem. But some rules are made to be broken, even if only sometimes, by some people.