Who is this street made for? Image from radialsblog.com.
The Virginia Capital Trail Foundation just released a great little video called “I’m a Cyclist!” It conveys in an upbeat and very Richmond-focused way a basic fact that is easily forgotten on the road: people on bicycles are people — and all kinds of people at that. I’ve considered getting one of those jerseys with “I’m a Dad” on the back to convey the same message. But why is that necessary?
People in traffic — especially in motor vehicles but sometimes using other modes too — find it easy to forget that they are sharing space with other human beings. A person on a bicycle (or a pedestrian or other car driver, for that matter), all too easily becomes something less than that — an obstacle, an irritation, an “idiot,” or worse.
Bicyclists seem to be the “other” (a lesser being, not where they belong) even more than pedestrians precisely because we share space with cars more; and more than other motorists because, well, we’re not fellow motorists at the moment and we go a bit slower.
The basic, usually unstated notion that people on bicycles are not equal and don’t have the same right to the road underlies a lot of the arguments against bicycle infrastructure. This is the only way I can make sense of the statement that seems to come up in every debate of this sort: “I’ll be okay with this when bicyclists stop breaking the law.” I won’t go through the whole rebuttal again, but of course people who see themselves as drivers (and not bicyclists) would never say that about other drivers, would they? It’s hard in this country to imagine the inverse situation, but doing so underscores the point: if roads were made primarily for bicycles, imagine bicyclists saying, “We shouldn’t widen this road to make room for cars because they don’t always come to a complete stop at stop signs.”
Cars themselves limit our perceptions of other road users too — by putting us in our own little world, hiding our faces, making us unable to communicate with others much. And that in a very high-stakes, very social activity of getting around on public streets. If you think of it this way, it’s really kind of crazy: let’s put you inside a machine that weighs many times more and can travel many times faster than a human body can on its own; and even though this makes your movement much more dangerous to yourself and others, you’ll be constrained in your hearing and sight, and the primary means of communication you’ll have are one loud sound and a couple of lights.
The Message our Streets Send
It also doesn’t help that our society and our roads themselves discourages motorists in particular from seeing bicyclists and pedestrians as equals (much less the comparatively vulnerable road users they are). Try to imagine what it would be like if our streets were made to give pedestrians and people on bicycles the same or greater priority as cars. They would look very different. As it is, a majority of our streets call out to pedestrians and bicyclists something close to: “Tough sh*t. Your safety is less important than the speed and convenience of those bigger and faster than you.”
People who live on Forest Hill Avenue on the opposite side from the Forest Hill Park had to fight hard, for example, to just get some blinking yellow lights to help them cross the street to enjoy one of the best features of that neighborhood. And it’s less than fully clear that those lights help much. What if — gasp — we had crosswalks with lights that actually stopped traffic every quarter mile or so on a street like that? I can hear the traffic engineers already: “But that would slow down traffic!” Exactly.
Which brings me to a little preview of sorts. Based on some reading and a couple of experiments, I’m working on a series of posts focused on safety and speed. Spoiler: slower is better and really not much slower. More on that soon!