I received that message this week. It came in two parts. The first part was delivered by a polite and efficient Somerville, MA police officer, in the form of the below ticket. I had blown right through a red light.
The second part was the irony that hit me as his blue lights were flashing: Just last week I posted this blog post, about how far we’ve come in Boston toward a safe and respectful bike commuting environment, in part because cyclists tend to follow the rules far more regularly than they did in the past.
I am guilty. No question about it. It doesn’t matter that the move I made was safe – to me and others – and likely promoted efficiency because I got out of the way of traffic before the waiting cars started moving through the intersection. I violated the rules that we have developed to govern our competing demands on a shared resource: our roadways.
I am blowing the whistle on myself for a few reasons, but principally to make a simple argument: the rule of law is not only necessary, but immensely helpful. We should respect it. Now, to those reasons.
First, the experience gave me the opportunity to reflect on how subjective we all get when using the roads. I bike, and I drive. When biking, I am often amazed at how quickly I fall into the mindset that all drivers are the problem, and when driving how quick I am to note the bad moves of the cyclists on the road. You may know what I mean.
Test yourself: are you, or is any one, really capable of innately respecting the rights of all users of a shared resource when we are users ourselves?
Which leads to the second point: this is why we have laws. They govern situations that humans are not entirely capable of governing in the absence of law. The rule of law is, in my view, one of the greatest human inventions yet. It is the fundamental underpinning of so much of a civil society, including the rational sharing of scarce, common resources subject to multiple demands, for the greater good of all.
Resources like clean water. Like marine fisheries. Like clean air for all who breathe. Like a healthy economy for the welfare of all. Like justice. And like safe streets and other public investments in transportation.
If we don’t like the rules we should not flaunt them, we should work to change them. Some innovations worth watching are now in the works. France, for example, appears to be experimenting with new rules that would allow cyclists to go through red lights in some situations, where clearing the intersection of cyclists before cars start up might actually make for safer conditions.
I don’t know if that’s right or wrong. But I do know it was wrong for me to adopt that rule for myself. Civil society, operating under the rule of law, can’t work that way. Open respectful debate, and thoughtful engagement in our democracy and participation in the governing process – that’s how we develop the rules we use to promote the general good of the body politic.
We at CLF are engaged in that sort of work in every one of our states, to promote what we and our members (and many more) believe is the general good of society, and we’re proud to do it. Especially in the election season that is now upon us, we invite all to join in the process on whatever issue excites you. It’s good for all of us, and necessary if we’re going to address the challenges we face effectively, and together. And that’s how it has to be done.