The bicycle theory of social change

Something odd is happening on the streets of London. Cyclists are obeying the law in droves. On my daily cycle from home to work, it’s rare now to see anyone jumping a red light, or cycling the wrong way up a one way street, or cutting across a busy pavement.  Not unheard of, of course (so please don’t bother telling me about the exceptions), but rare.

The laws haven’t changed, but the behaviour has. So being a little bored with cycling the same route every day for 3 years, I started wondering why this might be. Two possible reasons. It might just be volume. When there are more people on bikes, they all seem to become more law-abiding. One cyclist on their own at a relatively empty junction will often still jump a red light. But once there are three or four, the power of peer pressure seems to keep those feet off the pedals and encourage almost everyone to stay put until the lights change.

Secondly, I wonder if people are starting to see the laws a bit differently. As cyclist deaths received more publicity, it seemed to me that riding got better. I don’t think it’s just because people are scared – any cyclist knows that crossing a busy junction during the pedestrian wave is much safer than waiting until the lights change and all the cars and lorries are thundering off as well. Instead, I wonder if it’s because cyclists feel that there’s more in it for them to obey the law. They want to be protected from bad and illegal and careless drivers – well, they have to do their bit too. And there seems more point in obeying a law that has something in it for you, rather than one that’s just an irritating inconvenience.

So that’s my theory of social change as demonstrated by London cyclists. Peer pressure and a bit of a tweak to the social contract underpinning a legal system can actually make people obey the law. Any lessons there for tax evaders?