The jocks and the nerds

I can think of few better metaphors for our roads than my kids’ school. It was established more than 100 years ago, the building erected with spacious passages, if you consider the maybe two or three hundred pupils it catered for at the time. School, back then, was really for nerds (forgive the stereotyping in this article, it’s to prove a point): your more brain-strong than body-strong types, and of course they were all male.

As the years rolled by, school changed. It became common for more than just nerds to finish to Leaving Certificate level, so the school got fuller and fuller. The demographic changed from nerd-heavy to nerd-light. The doors were opened to girls, too. Additions were made to the school building, but there’s legacy infrastructure that catered to a very different need. Those spacious passages are actually really narrow, now that two or three times the number of pupils need to move through them.

Consider, now, the experience of nerds, the behaviour of jocks. The rowdy, energetic, strong, and often physically big jocks are by their very nature intimidating to nerds. Some of them are perfectly polite, but simply unaware of how they make life difficult for the smaller nerds when they stride down the narrow passage as if they own it, unconsciously offering the nerds the choice between being shoved aside or shrinking out of the way. Others delight in their power, and will go out of their way to intimidate nerds, veering just ever so slightly closer as they push past, laughing when the nerd is shoved or steps aside. Even in small, petty doses, power gives a big high. Still others are aware the nerds feel intimidated, but believe might makes right, and the nerds must just deal with it.

Then there are the nerds. Their life can be made a complete misery by the daily ordeal of trying to get books from their lockers while big, rowdy, often intimidating and loud jocks stream past. Being bumped into; for the girls, unavoidably coming into physical contact they would usually avoid, with boys they didn’t choose to rub against (and who most likely didn’t choose to rub against them, sorry, but the passage is so narrow, or perhaps they were even shoved into the girl when they themselves would rather have avoided physical contact).

It strikes me as illogical to solve this problem by getting the nerds to wear a bright waistcoat marking them out as nerds, and helmets to complete the uniform. When it comes to road safety, visibility is an issue, especially at night, but the inherent visual marking of vulnerable road users with what can be classified as a uniform has wider implications for social group issues, which are extremely powerful inhibitors to sustainable transport uptake. One can absolutely achieve visibility without using the standard, ugly, meaning-laden high visibility vests.

We’re stuck with the infrastructure, though, but here’s a thing. When I was at school in South Africa, moving from class to class was not just this wild free-for-all. You walked single file, in a row, and teachers stood outside their classrooms to police this rule. People who walked two abreast were nailed and could be punished, so it seldom happened. It’s hard to imagine this happening in Irish schools, it would require a fundamental shift in the paradigm from which people think when they enter the building. The same is true for our roads, though the countries to compare would be The Netherlands and Sweden, among others.

The solution to the problem lies in addressing the behaviour of the powerful, not in coaching the vulnerable to stay out of their way. Like all kids have a right to use those passages without stress or fear, just so all people have a right to use the roads without stress or fear. It’s not happening right now, so we have no choice but to make big changes. If you drive, you are the jock. Be aware that your mode of transport is inherently dangerous and intimidating to those around you, and drive accordingly: carefully, slowly, patiently, giving vulnerable fellow road users a wide berth to show you’re not going to harm them, and for the love of all that’s holy, stay out of their designated space.

You can be a jock without being a dick. It’s time we started aggressively insisting that everyone using the roads makes that their mantra.

Full of stars

He’d parked the van across the footpath, pulling up until the footplate at the back door touched the wooden gate of the entrance beside the shop. The footpath was wide in this spot, but this van was one of those extra long ones. It blocked the entire footpath and stuck out beyond it, the width of the parallel parking spaces lining the street. To get around it, I would have to walk in the street itself. He was sitting in the van, so I caught his eye and did a what now? shrug. He understood, which means he was not unaware that his conduct was problematic: he gestured generously to the road in front of him, where he felt I should be walking. I shook my head, and he wound down his window.

“Hi, sorry you’re blocking the whole footpath, I can’t get past you,” I said.

“There’s loads of space right there.”

“You mean in the road?”

“Yes.”

“That space is for cars, not for pedestrians. The footpath is for pedestrians.”

“Oh come on, it’s not as if there’s any traffic.” He gestured to the empty early-morning street.

“You are parked illegally, why should I have to walk in the road to accommodate that? You’re the one breaking the law.”

“Yeah whatever.” He wound his window back up.

So what was I to do? Because like David Bowman in Space Odyssey entering a mysterious monolith and uttering that stunned declaration of sudden understanding, my study of the problems surrounding sustainable transport uptake brought me understanding of how the base attitude of “I follow traffic rules when I judge it to be necessary” is directly responsible for hundreds of deaths. Everytime you park on a footpath; everytime the light is red for you and green for pedestrians but you pull away because feck it, you can’t see anyone crossing the road; everytime you park on a yellow line; everytime you see that sign saying 60 but hey, everyone else is doing 80 – you carry on your shoulders that driver going too fast to see that child. You push down on the pedal that saw that young man flying across the tar to his death. You help create the paradigm of “follow the rules if you feel like it” that kills, maims, widows, orphans.

The van driver was right, I was almost certain to be safe walking in the road for the ten steps or so that would see me past his massive obstruction. Almost, compared to certainly if I were able to walk on the footpath. But doing so would be agreeing that he has a right to decide on my behalf what is safe and what is not. Walking in the road, even if there’s no traffic, is uncomfortable. It’s unpleasant. Why should I accept that experience to facilitate him breaking the law?

So what did I do? Well, I went to the back of the van, and saw it was pulled as flush to the gate behind it as was possible. But it had a footplate running the breadth of the van, so there was a small gap he couldn’t avoid leaving, with all the will in the world. I climbed onto it and squeezed past his van. It was unpleasant, but it was absolutely worth it. I did not walk in the road just because he decided that’s what I should do.

What upset me all day yesterday is that the vast majority of people would likely think I was being ridiculous, unreasonable. Making a big deal out of nothing. I’ll tell you where there was a comparable situation: in Apartheid South Africa. Black people were not allowed to walk on pavements, or they had to step off the pavement if it was necessary to make way for white people. You could apply the same argument: why make a fuss, it’s a small thing, just don’t let it bother you. Well, it bothers me. And it should bother everyone.

A thought experiment

Think of a road near where you live, work, or study. It should be a reasonably busy road, but not a highway, and if all such roads near you have well designed, separated cycling infrastructure you can stop the experiment right here. Got one? Good. Imagine yourself cycling along that road. Try to really immerse yourself in the experience, what it would feel like to pedal along that road, nothing between you and the traffic surging past, no barrier between you and the roar of engines.

Do you think it’s safe?

Now imagine yourself cycling along that same road, but all vehicles powered by an engine have lost the ability to go faster than 30km/h. So about twice as fast as a leisurely cycling pace, even pedal to the metal.

Do you think it’s safe? Safer than your previous scenario?

Next, imagine that same road, and you’re cycling along it. Feel the air on your face, but listen: silence. Imagine every car, van, truck, bus has disappeared. Nothing’s wrong, it’s just the way it is for this stretch of road, there are no engine-driven vehicles on it.

Do you think it’s safe? Safer than scenario one and two?

Maybe you’re an experienced cyclist, and nothing scares you. Try then to put your child, or an elderly parent in that same scenario: first as it is, then as it would be if all traffic moved at a maximum of 30km/h, then as it would be if no motorised traffic shared the road with the cyclist in your imagined scene.

Considering your judgement of the safety of a cyclist on a busy road in your environment with the only variable being motorised traffic, what do you think is really the biggest threat to cyclist safety? The perception that cycling is not safe on our roads is a major barrier to its uptake, meaning one of the most accessible ways to combat air pollution, congestion, diseases related to sedentary lifestyles and many more issues is being blocked by safety fears. And the threat to safety is motorised traffic.

I want you to consider one last scenario. Take yourself back again to that busy road you chose for this experiment, and again picture yourself (or a vulnerable loved one) cycling along this road. Traffic is at the levels you’d normally expect for that place, and all engines work as they do in reality. Picture one weird difference, though. Every single motorised vehicle is driven by a clone of you. They drive like you, think of other road users like you do, react the same way to stress such as congestion as you do. None of your clones are aware of the identity of the cyclist.

Is it safe?

I am tired of thoughts and prayers

I just opened Facebook, and the first post I see is: “Thoughts and prayers to the victims of the attack at the Christmas market in Berlin, Germany.” The sentiment is understandable, and I know so well that we feel powerless to do any more. We feel shock, alarm, horror at the thought of the sorrow those affected are feeling, and our go-to response is prayer and anguished thoughts. Praying and thinking of the victims is all we can do.

It isn’t. We can do more. We feel helpless because we can’t directly do anything for the victims of the attack, and are blind to how much power is in our hands that we simply leave idle. Every one of us can take concrete action against the fear, hatred, division that lies at the heart of this and any other action taken with the aim of killing and maiming fellow human beings.

Begin by understanding. Terror doesn’t just spring up out of nowhere, it has a cause. That cause is complex, but it can only be withered and made to die if we first understand it. You cannot eliminate parasites in your garden unless you first understand what the parasites thrive on, and how to make your garden an environment that no longer sustains them. To be clear: the parasites are not the terrorists, the parasites are the factors in their lives that convinced them to become terrorists. Those factors are in your hands. Your community is shaped by your behaviour, and that community as it stands is producing people who choose terror. Connect, because it is so much harder to kill someone you are connected to, whom you experience as a caring fellow citizen than someone who looks at you with hatred and judgement, or with indifference. Stop praying and start connecting with those who are disconnected in your community.

Community includes where you live on the internet. Stop supporting sensationalism. Whatever your view, seek out reporting that eschews name-calling and emotional rather than factual reporting. Clamour for some solution to the fake news epidemic – and don’t think your side isn’t susceptible, fake news has caught everyone of every political persuasion in existence. We are just too starved and slavering for anything that confirms what we already think, so when we see that person we thought was no good said or did something stupid or horrible, we don’t question it because we want to believe it. Fake news is feeding a monster you and I create every day by asking for our preconceived ideas to be fed and confirmed. Being right is such a high, we love being told that we are spot-on. Stop praying, and start resisting your own craving for your biases to be confirmed.

Renounce anyone who dares step in the direction of dehumanising whoever you consider to be The Other, whether that other is elites or immigrants or city dwellers or rural dwellers. Dehumanising is the first necessary step to convincing ordinary, everyday people like you to consider atrocities normal and justified. It is a crucial step in literally every genocide ever studied. Stop praying and start pushing back against dehumanisation.

Away from the keyboard, step out of your comfort zone and act contrary to hate. Here’s a thought: instead of only offering thoughts and prayers, I am offering one act aimed at working towards connectedness in my community, especially with anyone I see as “The Other”, for every person killed or injured in the Berlin attack. One kind thing, but not just a kindness to make me feel good, something I put thought in to honestly try to connect with someone I don’t feel connected with.

I’m tired of thoughts and prayers. I’m ready for actually doing something that will change my world.

#NoMorePrayers

 

 

Accessible magic

One morning last week the world was painted with a brush dipped in frost. I cycle past a primary school on my way to college. After weaving my way through the mess of cars trying to push their way as close as possible to the school gate, I crossed into a park right beside the school. There’s an estate on the other side of it, which means a good few families can opt to walk along the winding tarred paths through the park with their kids. To watch these littlies interact with the suddenly slippy world was simply delightful.

The excitement on those glowing faces, as they slid their feet along and slip-slid to school. What an amazing experience it must have been! The sensation of cold on your cheeks, of the snug warmth of your coat, hat, and gloves, of Mom or Dad’s safe hand whenever you needed it for a moment before dashing off to explore the unfamiliar familiar once more. The balance lessons, as this slidey world met your feet. The stimulating sights as you explored the delicate ice patterns on grass and leaves, as you listened to the crunch of frost beneath your feet.

Is it not heartbreaking that this burst of pure joy is denied most of the children in Ireland? That most of them were instead locked away, on their journey to school, inside a metal box cutting off all these awesome sensations, these valuable stimulants for growing little brains?

Imagine if these parents were given an environment they felt was safe for them and their children to negotiate outside the padded, isolated loneliness of their moving prison. Imagine if society prioritised family wellbeing and adapted hours and expectations to allow the parents to walk or cycle to school with their littlies before going on to work.

Wouldn’t that be grand.

Drivers, drains, and brains

My route to college includes a road with a Z bend: sharp right followed immediately by a sharp left. That exact section of road also has a number of recessed drains probably about twenty metres apart. Therefore, even cyclists who don’t believe in the merits of vehicular cycling* have to move to a position in line with where motor traffic’s closest-to-the-kerb tyre would run.

On Thursday two car drivers overtook me on the turn, one giving an oncoming driver a near heart attack because overtaking on a blind bend is not a good idea. No accident, but a close call. What took the cake was that I joined a queue of waiting traffic at the T junction about thirty metres after the bends… right behind both cars that had overtaken me dangerously.

Now, I get that people are frustrated by cyclists slowing them down to a fraction of the speed they are capable of and allowed. What intrigues me is what foundational thinking framework is lodged in the mind of a driver that results in them making the split-second decision that overtaking the cyclist is worth the risk of one of the most dangerous types of collisions: head-on with a vehicle travelling in the opposite direction. The situation Thursday highlighted the pointlessness of this risk: these drivers gained literally nothing. I don’t believe in overtaking traffic on the left, but it would have been my legal right to do so and to cross that intersection before them. As it was, I stayed in the queue of traffic, so they risked collision, injury, death for the sake of making a right turn at best thirty seconds before me.

There is no logic here, so what prompts such folly? I am convinced that dangerous road user behaviour doesn’t start with the moment in which poor decisions are made. Therefore, changing such behaviour will not start with addressing the moment in which poor decisions are made. The key lies in shifting the springboard from which these decisions originate. I believe also that this behaviour is most visible in road user interactions involving cyclists, but that the “bakermat” – the place of origin – of a lot of dangerous road user behaviour resulting in injury and death is the same.

Imagine if we could address that core, if we could shift the launch pad to direct decisions into a safer trajectory. It could save so many lives.

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*Vehicular cycling means you cycle as part of the traffic stream, placing yourself in line with other vehicles for visibility and predictability (our eyes are in the front of our heads, so cycling as close to the kerb as possible takes you out of the line of sight and focus of drivers, and violates the Road Safety Authority’s advice to “Be Safe, Be Seen”. It also places you in the lane with the highest number of obstacles, increasing your risk of swerving into oncoming traffic – drain covers, holes, debris, pedestrians stepping into the road without looking which yes, happens unbelievably often. A British qualitative study mentioned cyclist unpredictability as a major stressor for drivers, so putting yourself in a lane where you’re more likely to swerve unpredictably does drivers no favours, even if they don’t realise that). Segregation (separated cycle lanes) seems to work better for cycling safety, but in a situation where you have no other choice but to share a surface with motorised traffic, many argue it is the safest practice.

Say it with clothes

As part of research for my Honours thesis I have looked into clothing as a form of communication. I’ve long suspected that what we wear speaks as loudly as our words, and it was a pleasure to see that confirmed in academia. Clothing can tell those around us about our affiliations, our activity, even something about our personality. Just look at advice for dressing for an interview to see how much what we wear matters in shaping what others think of us.

What specifically intrigues me, though, is how what you wear speaks to you. It can, to a large degree, shape what you feel about yourself. In the years I worked as fulltime parent, when social isolation was one of my greatest enemies, I had a rule to never wear track suits. My aim was to always dress casual but nice. I often got it wrong, but looking back, days that I didn’t dress well, I didn’t feel good about myself inside.

I also, over the years, discovered the power of clothing in helping against the occasional bout of the blues. Colour psychology is important here: on a day when you have to drag yourself out of bed, choose brighter colours, and those on the warm side of the spectrum.

Finally, I discovered that when your view of yourself is a little off track, you can start dressing the way you see yourself, which reinforces the skewed self-image, which reinforces the dress tendency. One of the most uplifting things I did in a recent phase of reconsidering the direction I was heading professionally, was to realise I was dressing like someone I wasn’t. Part of recalibrating myself involved reconsidering my wardrobe. I started loving what I wear again. Every day, choosing my outfit for the day is a joy. It’s a way of being creative, a way of expressing myself, of sharing my joy in being me with everyone around me.

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