What Cycling Has Taught Me about Rule of Law (and Other Social-Science Geekery)

I make my living as a political scientist, but my big hobby is cycling. I’ve been riding a bike for fun and for exercise off and on for more than two decades now, ever since I was a teenager and first got hooked on mountain biking in the woods behind my parents’ house in Carrboro, NC. Nowadays, I usually spend 10-15 hours on the bike each week, most of it on the roads in and around Washington, DC. I haven’t raced in a few years–a handful of crashes convinced me to get out of the formal side of the sport–but I still do a lot of fast group rides, some of which draw scores of riders when the weather’s nice.

When I’m on my bike, I try to push my work life to the back of my mind and just concentrate on the ride. That, and the exercise, are usually the point of the thing. Still, I’ve spent my entire adulthood training to think like a social scientist, and road cycling is an inherently social endeavor, so the mental firewall sometimes crumbles. When that happens, one of a few recurring themes usually comes to mind, depending on the situation.

1. Rule of law doesn’t mean that laws rule. Social scientists who study political and economic development talk a lot about the importance of “rule of law,” which boils down to the idea that sensible laws are predictably and fairly enforced. According to many development theorists, rich democracies like the United States have prospered in large part because they transitioned early from arbitrary and capricious regulations to rule of law. Poorer countries will only see their economic growth rates take off and politics stabilize, the thinking goes, when they manage to make the same shift.

Even in the United States, though, rule of law can be startlingly incomplete. When you’re perched on a 17-lb. carbon-fiber sculpture, trying to share the road with streams of 3,500-lb. hurtling steel boxes, you’re constantly reminded that the formal rules only tell a small part of the story. Most drivers exceed the formal speed limit most of the time. Almost no one comes to a complete stop at stop signs, even though that’s what the rules of the road tell you to do. (Cyclists are probably worse about this one than drivers, by the way, often blowing through stop signs where cars are already waiting.) A lot of people in Maryland, where I live, talk on hand-held mobile phones while they drive, despite the fact that the state passed a law last year banning that behavior. Some drivers expect cyclists to clear the road for them, even though the law in most (all?) states instructs cyclists to take the lane when the rider judges that it’s not safe to squeeze onto the shoulder. Significantly, this gap between formal and informal rules doesn’t just happen when the police aren’t around. On numerous occasions, I’ve had police officers tell me to do something not prescribed by law (e.g., avoid this road, stay on that bike path), apparently because they thought it was expedient.

If you tried to survive in this environment by counting on people to follow the formal rules, you’d be toast. Some of this is just ignorance of the law, but some of it–like speeding–is the result of informal practices that dominate the formal rules. Some of those informal practices might be more efficient than their formal counterparts, but surely some are not. So, even in places where “rule of law” supposedly prevails, many of our daily practices are still built around shared expectations based on unwritten and sometimes inefficient rules, and these unwritten rules can be very hard to dislodge when they are widely followed.

These observations have strongly influenced how I think about prescriptions for better governance in “developing” countries that are based on changes to formal rules. Some political scientists and economists place great faith in the idea that desirable social outcomes can be brought about by crafting rules that will give people incentives to behave in the ways we’d like. On paper, that idea makes some sense. In practice, however, this yawning gap between formal and informal institutions on the roads reminds me that real life is a lot more complicated.

2. Some people act as if (your) life is really cheap. There are a lot of bad or distracted drivers out there who unintentionally put themselves and cyclists at risk; whenever I encounter them, I might shake my head, but I’m not all that surprised. What do surprise me are the extraordinarily dangerous things some drivers will do to send cyclists a message when they don’t like how those riders are behaving on the road. As far as I can tell, these people just don’t think my life is worth very much, or they just don’t think about it at all.

A couple of years ago, I was on a big group ride in a semi-rural part of Montgomery County on a Saturday morning when a driver apparently got frustrated with waiting behind us for a safe place to pass. On a fast downhill, where our group had stretched into single file and was travelling at or above the 30 mph speed limit, this guy decided to try to pass, then abruptly pulled his car back to the right, splitting the line of cyclists right in front of me. A couple of seconds later, he hit his brakes hard, even though the riders in front of him were still flying down the hill at the same speed. I swerved just enough to avoid ramming straight into his back bumper, clipping the back-left corner of his car instead. My chin hit the trunk, then I flipped through the air and landed on my bum in the opposite lane. Lucky for me, no cars were coming the other way. Without a word and with barely a pause, the driver sped off to his house, which turned out to be just a half-mile down the same road. He pulled into his garage and stayed inside, even when the police came.

That’s just one of many close calls I’ve had on the road with drivers who seemed to be using their machines to tell me how they felt about my presence or behavior on the road. Sometimes it’s just a yell as they pass, but at least a few times a month it’s more: a swerve that squeezes me to the edge of, or even off, the road; a tailgater who could kill me with just a touch of the gas; a guy a couple of weeks ago who sped by, pulled over, jumped out of his car, and screamed at me to come fight him, apparently because I’d delayed him at the last traffic light. (I’ve been part of that particular scenario a few times now.)

It’s hard to imagine that these drivers would engage in these behaviors if they could think through all the potential costs of their actions. For starters, I’d like to think my life is worth something to them, if only in the abstract sense that most of us see human life as a thing worth protecting. Even in totally selfish terms, though, an incident in which I’m badly hurt or killed would be a huge inconvenience for the driver, too. The police, the insurance, the possibility of courts and even jail time–all of that’s going to be a much bigger hassle than the few extra seconds they might wait for a safe opportunity to pass me.

I sometimes think of these angry drivers when I’m reading theories of civil war and other forms of political violence. In the past couple of decades, a lot of the thinking about why civil wars happen where and when they do has centered on the assumption that violence is an instrument which organizations use to advance their political interests, and that individuals who choose to participate in that violence do so after weighing its expected risks and benefits. I still think both of those assumptions can be useful ones for purposes of theorizing about violence, but my experiences on the road have also taught me that those assumptions have stark limits. Sometimes, people threaten or use violence in ways that just don’t seem to take much account of the consequences, and trying to understand that behavior as the product of cost-benefit analysis can take us pretty far away from reality.

3. We all belong to tribes. Cyclists often ride in packs, and the conversation in those packs often turns to drivers. In those conversations, “we” (riders) are typically described as good people doing good things for bodies and our planet, and “they” (drivers) are often described as careless or even bad people who are thinking only of themselves and denying us our rightful place on the road. We share stories of injustices suffered by ourselves or other riders on Facebook and Twitter, and when one of us is threatened by a driver, others often rally around to protect him or her, even if it’s someone we hardly know. That time I clipped the back of a fast-braking car on my Saturday-morning ride, a dozen guys I’ve never seen off a bike stopped their day to make sure I was okay, then waited for almost a half-hour to talk to the police in hopes of punishing the driver.

Based on my limited knowledge of anthropology, I gather this is standard in-group/out-group behavior. We see ourselves as part of a social collective with a distinct identity and way of life; we identify external threats to that way of life; and we go out of our way to protect members of our collective from those threats, even in situations where it isn’t self-evidently “rational” to do so. This is exactly the kind of us vs. them behavior that political scientists and sociologists often describe when discussing “ethnic” or “tribal” groups, usually in pejorative terms. People in rich countries are supposed to have traded in these traditional identities for more “modern” ones, and that break with tradition is supposed to give them the freedom to make decisions based on efficiency instead of obligation.

In short, cyclists may not be an ethnic group, but they sometimes act like one. That cyclists can act like an ethnic group reinforces my belief that the constructivists are right about the origins and behavior of human communities. Supposedly “modern” humans are just the same old people plunked down in different contexts, “ancient hatreds” can get pretty intense pretty fast, and modernity–whatever that is–is not a cure for these quirks of our nature.

Leave a comment


  1. Michael Ross

     /  July 11, 2011

    Didn’t realize you were also a biker – so am I, a bit less seriously, and a lot less seriously since I moved to LA – which is ridiculously dangerous for us. Couldn’t agree more about the rule of law & tribalism, too.

  2. Steve

     /  July 11, 2011

    I ride 30-40 miles just about everyday on the W&OD trail and although I understand your post, my experience is so different than yours. I find most drivers at intersections are respectful and often yield to me (and other riders). I generally ride solo and go as fast as I can go on my hybrid Trek.

    What I don’t do is ride on back roads often. It even drives me crazy to see cyclists on roads with hills, curves and no shoulders. Sure I wish I could jump on my bike in my driveway but that never happens. I load my bike up and start on the trail.

    What I thought your article was going to touch on is the rule of law among fellow cyclists. Things like… you don’t pass on a cross street, don’t draft without pulling, racing the bike ahead, etc. I have found these rules are the ones that I find most interesting.

    Perhaps locking in on trails like the W&OD might offer some other valuable insights. Let me know if you ever want to go on a ride and see perhaps a different perspective.

    • Great point, Steve, about the rules followed by cyclists in groups as an interesting set of informal institutions. I think that one might deserve its own post, on what the variations in that code and struggles to enforce it tell us about how institutions develop in the absence of a state.

    • Chris Cleeland

       /  July 12, 2011

      “It even drives me crazy to see cyclists on roads with hills, curves and no shoulders.”

      Why does this bother you so?

  3. This is one of the smartest and adroitly written posts on bicycling and motorist behavior that I’ve ever read (and I read a lot if them). Thank you so much for contributing it to a conversation that too frequently devolves to “you don’t stop at stop signs.”

  4. Interesting points Jay. In the book Traffic, one of the reoccurring themes is how humans keep screwing up the engineers. At least after a few minutes of thought, I think that you both touch on similar ideas … of at least my interpretation of them.

    I like to think of people as being “bounded rational” instead of the textbook assumption. The situations you describe where people are clearly behaving in a manner that makes little sense such as risking life and limb to save a few seconds or the clearly misunderstanding traffic law by law enforcement let alone ordinary citizens are less surprising under the broader model. Thinking of people as bounded rational simple reminds me that human behavior is fuzzy and that people are predisposed towards certain errors or biases. Consequently, I find it easier to forgive people for various transgressions and (at least in my mind) it helps me bridge gaps across different “tribes.”

    FWIW, I don’t see the driver and cyclists tribes as being especially different. I just think that our labels — or tribe membership — allows us to focus on those differences and sometimes demonize the other tribe.

  5. n8

     /  July 12, 2011

    I’d suggest that you’re distinction between cyclists and drivers as tribal could also be characterized as a class distinction. A co-worker often asks me why I don’t think I make enough money to drive to work. He makes the false assumption that I can not afford to buy a car and drive to work. I’ve seen this several times even with the most expensive bike, that the guy riding it must be poor because he chooses a manual form of transport. I could go on to him about my belief that driving is more dangerous than riding, or costs more, or is purely selfish. But it’s more about a drivers sense of entitlement to go faster just because they own a car and have places to go and obviously, if you aren’t driving, you don’t.

    • Interesting – I’ve actually heard the opposite quite a bit around here (D.C.). With new bicycle lanes going in, there’s been quite a bit of noise about how it’s for the “rich white people” – as if everyone does choose to bike because it’s trendy. There’s always going to be people who bike because it is cheaper, and they deserve safe, efficient transportation infrastructure too.

  6. Stephen Nightingale

     /  July 12, 2011

    Well my experience is that people who ride in groups break more laws in proportion to the size of the group. I ride alone 95% of the time, partly because it is unproductive to ride at someone else’s pace, partly because I am ashamed at the things cyclists in big groups will do. Sure there are drivers who ‘buzz’ me, and drivers who gun the engine as they go by. Mostly though I think I get more respect as a lone rider following the traffic rules than if I were with a group that is almost guaranteed to have some riders breaking the rules. That is not ‘social’. That is anti-social.

  7. Nicely stated. I recently blogged about this topic – attributing the conflicts between motorists, cyclists and pedestrians to a loss of civility (i.e., failing to value the lives of other humans). Check it out at:


  8. Mark

     /  July 13, 2011

    Interesting post Jay. As a road biker who generally rides alone in a much less urban environment (though not without traffic) in NH, I have to say that my experience has been more like Steve’s. I do get the occasional engine rev or close pass but the vast majority of drivers seem to go out of their way to give me enough room and wait until it is safe to pass. I find myself frustrated with the behavior of my fellow drivers much more often when I am driving a car than when I am on a bike, by a factor of 10 – 1 at least. Maybe it has something to do with riding alone v. riding in a group, maybe it is a result of the lower population density,maybe both. Excellent post and discussion, keep them coming.

    • Thanks, Mark. I should make clear that most of my interactions with drivers are uneventful, too. With urban/suburban traffic, though, there are a lot of those interactions, so there are more opportunities for the sour ones. In a sense, this is also like social-science discussions of civil war and the like. When we talk about “ethnic” conflict, for example, we often refer to the groups as the parties to the fighting, when in fact only a very small portion of any group is directly involved in violence. It’s just that the interactions with those small portions lead to fears and prejudices that then shape interactions with the wider group.

  9. I have recently started a blog, the info you offer on this site has helped me greatly. Thank you for all of your time & work. “Americans detest all lies except lies spoken in public or printed lies.” by Edgar Watson Howe.

  10. Eric W

     /  July 14, 2011

    I really appreciate the author’s points in his post: I’d like to make a case here for the nature of the engineering of the roads being a big factor in the discussion.

    With a general increase in the amount of traffic, there are more decisions to make concerning other road users. And more conflicts about the expectation of the use of the available space. Eventually the design of the engineering of the roads, channels the traffic into conflicts over use. Such as who goes first at a four way stop. These frequent decisions to divert from the expected path – like stop signs and slow cyclists using the road lead one to a sense of frustration. Most drivers and cyclists know that feeling that “I’m not getting anywhere – there’s too much traffic”. I believe that’s the main issue that that drive the “us vs them” tribalistic actions and the unbelievably bad driving. It’s mainly from the stress of the number of traffic related choices about driving.

    Eric W

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