The utilitarian lollipop lady - On commuter etiquette, cycling, safe routes to school, and nineteenth century moral philosophy

October 30, 2016

As I was cycling to work recently, I had to stop and wait while a lollipop lady held up the traffic. After the first wave of kids had crossed, she stayed there, waiting for a few more to get to the crossing. A queue of traffic was starting to build behind me, frustration rising in all of us keen to clock on.

It felt like she was being a bit overzealous - didn’t she see that we had places to go and people to see? But then I caught myself. Surely the safety of children on their way to school is worth far more than a few seconds delay to my commute. There’s more to life than me getting to my destination as quickly as possible without impediment.

It’s hardly the trolley problem, but commuting does have its own ethical questions to consider. Most of the time, I think that transport policy should be influenced by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill - the aim should be to get the maximum number of people to their destinations as quickly as possible.

If you’re racing to get on a tube or bus, is it OK for you to hold the doors and slow down the progress of everyone already on board? In case you hadn’t got the message, the answer is no, by the way. The time you’ll save should be weighed against the time your actions will cost other people. It’s also why we should give way to buses - the time each of those bus passengers will gain outweighs the time you’ll lose. And besides, it’s good to be kind to each other.

Later in the same journey I got stuck behind the Southwark Bike Train in one of the cycle superhighways. It was starting to feel like one of those days.

There’s something that seems slightly paradoxical about the recent rise in the popularity of cycling. The more cyclists there are on the roads, the more it becomes like public transport. We become less likely to view other riders as fellow travellers on the same path, and more likely to see them as objects getting in our way, or rivals to be overtaken. Nobody dislikes cyclists more than other cyclists.

Maybe it’s just fatigue induced by population-density, similar to the way that we’ll say hello to other walkers on a countryside path, but the same behaviour on a city street would be viewed with suspicion. But I think there’s more to it than that - we’re dehumanising each other. Rather than taking a purely utilitarian view, we also need to consider other people in their own right, rather than as means to our ends.

This isn’t just on the roads. In so many areas of life, we risk a lack of empathy. The way that politics is going scares me, because even on the left, there seems to be a swing away from respecting others. We’re in danger of heading into a set of gated communities, both online and in real life.

We need to have more empathy - instead of a sea of faceless others, we should try to think about our fellow travellers as human beings trying to achieve goals. We aren’t surrounded by pedestrians, drivers, and cyclists, but by people walking, people driving, and people on bikes.