Over recent months, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in the media and on the web. It seems that there’s a mini war on between cyclists and…. well, everyone else: A London cyclist has set up her own website to target all the wankers she meets while cycling; the bike blog on the Guardian periodically chastises bad drivers; the letters pages of newspapers play out a battle between irate pedestrians, irate cyclists and irate drivers, all fed up of each other.
The media – and the net – love conflict, but I’m happy to say that my personal experience is somewhat different to the one being played out at the moment. Yes, it’s true that there are genuinely bad drivers out there, whose speed or carelessness put lives at risk and leave me grateful when I arrive unscathed at my destination. And it’s also true that I’m not impressed with pedestrians who cross the road with their ears – not bothering to look for something coming towards them because they can’t hear an engine.
Yet in recent weeks, I’ve also noticed that there’s something much more positive happening when I cycle the streets of Manchester; the fleeting connection I make with other people. When I’m walking somewhere, I only sometimes meet the gaze of other pedestrians walking past me. But when I cycle, something different happens. Every time I pass a bus stop, I find myself meeting the eyes of those waiting for a bus, and I smile at them. More often than not, they return the smile. I smile at mothers pushing their toddlers in pushchairs. They too smile back. I smile at elderly dog walkers and at groups of teenagers. Often, they too meet my gaze and a brief connection is made. To my surprise, sometimes people even wave and mouth hello. I can do this because, though I’m frequently cycling fast enough to get me to my destination relatively quickly, it’s still not too fast to observe what’s going on around me. I definitely couldn’t do this if I was in a car. Meanwhile, the fact that it’s so fleeting means that it doesn’t feel as awkward as it might be if I were walking past exactly the same people.
In the past week, I’ve also noticed that it’s not just pedestrians that I’m connecting with. For every inconsiderate, speeding, careless driver, there are plenty of drivers who are not only aware of me, but who are making concessions. But “rush-hour driver slows down and leaves gap for cyclist to safely turn right” is not going to make headlines. And nor is “white van driver reversed and waved happily at the cyclist so she didn’t have to swerve into traffic to avoid the nose of the van”.
Perhaps it’s the attitude that I’m cycling with that’s facilitating these incidents. Perhaps it’s my bright pink anorak that’s making people smile. Perhaps it’s my grim determination while cycling in the rain. Whatever it is that’s making people smile back and connect with me, these fleeting interactions are feeding a positivity about human nature that, all too often, is painfully absent when I read the paper or listen to the news. So, while I totally understand the need for a good rant and for websites like 101wankers, there’s also a place for somewhere to counter that too, to remind us that sometimes human beings aren’t all bad.
But then there’s no mileage in a website called “101 people who’ve made me smile” is there?