Popularity breeds contempt - why more cyclists on the roads is annoying to cyclists

August 15, 2018

Over the last few years, I’ve observed the number of commuter cyclists in London going up and up. We’re no longer a rare breed, and that has to be a good thing. The more people who cycle, the more normal cycling becomes, the more investment in cycling infrastructure becomes, the better cycling gets for us all. So why does it induce a strange secret resentment in me? Why is it that the more cyclists there are on the roads, the more it feels like I’m in competition with them?

In a way, we are in competition for resources. On the cycle superhighways at rush hour, there’s a lot of traffic, and other cyclists get in our way - we need to be more patient than we used to. It’s easy to get annoyed by someone wobbling along slowly on a Boris bike, or someone who doesn’t realise that if you’ve overtaken them before, they shouldn’t push in front of you when you’re stopped at a red light.

Just as with car traffic, if everyone else just got out of my way, I could go much faster. I think there’s more to it than that, though.

Perhaps it’s related to the feeling among some music fans that we prefer it when our favourite bands toil away in obscurity. We like to feel as if we’re members of some kind of elite, an exclusive cognoscenti who are somehow better than the common herd. If the common herd have discovered our secret, then it loses some of its value, making us want to zig as others zag.

Or perhaps there’s something about large groups of people that makes us slightly uncomfortable.

In general, the sense of fellowship with other people doing an activity seems to be inversely proportional to the number of people doing it. On a countryside walk, you’ll give a cheery greeting to everyone you pass, but get back to the city, and you’re more likely to scowl at them suspiciously. Part of it may be that the sheer weight of numbers makes it too tiring to be friendly to lots of people, but more than that, there’s something about being part of a small group that engenders positivity and trust towards the other members of that group. We feel like we have something in common with them, and we think that they’re probably decent human beings, purely by dint of being members of the group. We see it with expats who are friends with people they’d never tolerate back home.

As the Freakonomics podcast asked about the “small-scale utopia” of Esperantists, “could that sense of trust and community be retained if the microcosm were scaled up?” It may well be that we can’t deal with groups larger than Dunbar’s number. If the group is small enough that we can know everyone, we’re more likely to trust the other members, even if we don’t actually know them. Once the group is bigger, our default setting changes and we no longer have an automatic trust of other members. I’ve seen it in so many scenarios - for example at meetups and conferences, the larger the event, the more likely I am to spend time with people I already know.

As car drivers or bus passengers, we don’t feel much of a sense of community with others in the same boat as us. Maybe cyclists in the city are now common enough that the same is true. Maybe we do inevitably lose something when a group gets bigger, even if we gain some other things. Even still, I’m glad I commute by bike.