Mittwoch, 10. Juli 2013

City Life

It was one of the first findings of the modern science of sociology:  People in big cities don’t look at each other.  The size of a human settlement seems to be inversely proportional to the sociability of its inhabitants.  Another basic of sociology is that communication is the mother of sociability.  Eye contact, looking at each other, is the mother of communication. People who do not look at each other (and who are NOT connecting via electronic devices) are not communicating with each other.  

What is true for any city in the world gets an extra twist when you live in a city where the inhabitants are strictly divided into three tribes, each defined by its kind of locomotion:  Pedestrians, Drivers, and Cyclists.

Drivers are encapsulated in their cars, surrounded by steel and glass, and making eye contact with them is difficult, even when a car is standing still. While in motion, the speed of the car makes it impossible.

That is why the traffic code was invented.  It is a rare example for global unity, that traffic code.  Its basics are the same all over the world, even though we are not driving on the same side of the road everywhere.  Things like traffic lights and right of way are more or less the same wherever you go.  The idea of the traffic code is to enable traffic flow and to minimize conflict between traffic participants, even if the usual human means of conflict resolution, namely communicating with each other and negotiating, are not available.  This goal is achieved by making everyone’s behavior predictable:  As a pedestrian, I can be confident that I will be able to cross a busy road the next time my traffic light turns, because the drivers will stop when their lights are red.  As a driver, I can be confident that wherever a sign tells me that right of way is mine, the driver crossing my path will have been informed by a corresponding sign that they have to yield that right of way.

So everyone will agree that the traffic code is a good idea.  It has turned our cities into places of safe coexistence for pedestrians and drivers.

But while the whole world agrees that the traffic code is a good thing, the third tribe in German cities does not seem to do so.  Sit down for some ice cream or cappuccino at a street café in any German city or its pedestrian zone and watch the traffic go by for a while – chances are you will see some cyclist or other running a red light, near-missing someone at a zebra crossing or slaloming around the people on the sidewalk or even around the tables at your café.  Scan the papers, media websites or social media, and you will find irate comments on cyclists’ behavior.  In fairness it has to be said that they seem to endanger themselves just as much as they endanger pedestrians in general, children and small dogs in particular.

Sociologists have come up with a few theories as to why it is that cyclists in German cities seem to reserve a right for themselves to decide ad hoc whether they will abide by the traffic code or not:

The “Decline of the West” Theory
This is only one symptom for the general deterioration of morals and of manners, and it won’t be long that this society will fall apart completely.  Nobody adheres to any rules any longer, and it all started with the unruly hordes of the Sixties. 
This theory is upheld by people who think that rules are there to be obeyed for their own sake.  A view widely held by, but not limited to, those who are older than the unruly hordes of the Sixties are now.

The “Green is Good” Theory
Cyclists see themselves as holier than thou, the driver:  “Every bicycle on the road is one fewer stinking, poison-emitting car!” 
Widely supported by people who do not believe everything their green politicians tell them.

The “Trust is good, Control is better” Theory
The only reason drivers abide by the rules is that they are always identifiable by their license plate. Give cyclists license plates, and they will behave themselves.
This view is held by people who do not think very highly of their fellow humans in general.

And then there are those who are just simply annoyed with people dashing past them on the sidewalk, either loudly ringing their bells or swooshing by noiselessly, face straight ahead without so much as looking at whoever is there, standing in what they seem to think is “their” way.  It is this feeling of being ignored that annoys them, even if they are seasoned city dwellers who do not look at anyone themselves and so should be used to the phenomenon of not being looked at in a city.