Stop focusing on the unlocked door

Would it make sense to be alarmed about a house’s door being unlocked, preaching to the occupant of the house about how they’ll be burgled or murdered if they don’t lock the door, if the house is on fire? I feel that’s what we’re doing with the cycle helmet and high visibility clothing issue connected to cycle safety.

This video is a vivid illustration of what I mean. The cyclist is clothed in high visibility gear, and wearing a helmet, riding a bicycle that’s in good condition, obeying every single traffic law, but still things go wrong. Why? The equivalent of the house fire is driver behaviour. Without any motorised vehicle on the road,  cyclist and pedestrian fatalities would drop to zero or near it. Driver behaviour is blatantly and clearly the primary issue in almost all vulnerable road users’ serious injuries and fatalities. We simply must stop demanding that vulnerable road users be perfect before we turn our attention away from them and towards the core of the problem: driver behaviour.

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.

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?

Mr bus driver, you scare me

A few weeks ago, it was raining and I decided to take the bus to school. It was very full, so I stood right at the front beside the driver. At a stage, he remarked that there were a lot more people than usual taking the bus. I speculated it might be the rain. “For instance, I wouldn’t usually be on the bus, I’d be on my bicycle.”

“That’s one good thing the rain did today then,” he guffawed, “getting one of you off the road.”

This demonstrates a problem which I think is rampant: drivers view cyclists as nuisances to barely tolerate, rather than extremely vulnerable fellow road users who should be afforded a lot of patience, consideration and the benefit of the doubt where perhaps their actions annoyed you. After all, you’re sitting in a metal shell, not even able to see the road right in front of you. Surely it makes sense to give the benefit of the doubt to someone who is much closer to the road, much more exposed and receiving much more stimulus to work with. Even if you were to disagree with a cyclist’s actions, the fact that they’re so many magnitudes more vulnerable than you are in your car or truck should surely buy them some patience and consideration.

Instead the attitude to cyclists sucks unbelievably, with the bus driver’s sentiment echoed to an alarming degree. In light of the fact that attitudes are already hostile to cyclists, it is disheartening to read of Boris Johnson’s… let’s just call it what it is – his STUPID remarks in response to the spate of cyclist deaths in London recently. It’s frustrating to see someone like him being that irresponsible.