We are born with legs, not wheels, but to look at how most of the roads in our cities are laid out now, you might think the opposite. Most of our older cities evolved from small settlements in which the majority of people walked to where they needed and wanted to go. Horses were expensive and traffic moved around human walking pace, so streets were very much places for (and full of) people. Something has changed, the whole concept of cities and towns has been inverted so that they are designed and adapted primarily for the convenience of the drivers of cars and trucks: the world turned upside-down, from a planning point of view. I think this graphic sums it up nicely:
This article by Hunter Oatman-Stanford [click here] provides an interesting and fairly comprehensive summary of how this transition came about in the USA, subsequently copied in most other countries. While I have not had the opportunity to research the corresponding history of the same process in the UK, it is interesting to note the role of the automotive and oil companies in changing both legislation and the public agenda so that people’s attitudes reversed what would make sense from a reasoned perspective:
“Common law tended to pin responsibility on the person operating the heavier or more dangerous vehicle,” says Norton, “so there was a bias in favor of the pedestrian.”
“If a kid is hit in a street in 2014, I think our first reaction would be to ask, ‘What parent is so neglectful that they let their child play in the street?,’” says Norton.
“In 1914, it was pretty much the opposite. It was more like, ‘What evil bastard would drive their speeding car where a kid might be playing?’ That tells us how much our outlook on the public street has changed—blaming the driver was really automatic then.”
I have to admit that, even though I favour, and campaign for, safer and easier pedestrian and cycle/human-powered streets, my own first response might be close to the former, simply through having become conditioned to the currently dominant paradigm of motor vehicles having the default right of way.
“The real battle is for people’s minds, and this mental model of what a street is for. There’s a wonderful slogan used by some bicyclists that says, ‘We are traffic.’ It reveals the fact that at some point, we decided that somebody on a bike or on foot is not traffic, but an obstruction to traffic. And if you look around, you’ll see a hundred other ways in which that message gets across. That’s the main obstacle for” people who imagine alternatives—and it’s very much something in the mind.”
With a change in technology comes a change in culture, “the medium is the message” as Marshall McLuhan [link] famously said. The motor car, in particular, has brought this about in a spectacular way but with a host of negative consequences that increase as our roads and societies become ever more crowded. Changes are needed to move forward and reduce both the pollution, congestion, health problems and casualties. We need a new view and shift in priorities in a number of areas, not least among traffic engineers and local government officers. There is also a need for another shift in attitudes among politicians and others who set the agenda for public debate and the focus of budget spending and action, as well as the public generally. We need to enter, preferably willingly, another phase of culture change. This ‘car culture’ has become successfully and deeply embedded and politicians are wary of alienating ‘the motorists’ so political will is hard to generate to enable the necessary regulatory changes to be brought about. There are still organisations who have an interest in maintaining the status-quo, though the commercial imperative is perhaps reduced compared to the early 1900s, when car manufacturers saw threats to their desire to expand their market from public suspicion and hostility to the still rare presence of private cars.
But we’ve seen significant culture shifts in other equally embedded areas, including those backed up by other powerful vested interests such as the tobacco and alcohol industries:
- sudden legislative changes on smoking in indoor public spaces is a good example, with surprising success and remarkably little resistance, even in places like Ireland, often viewed as a country with a relaxed attitude to obeying these sorts of laws.
- introduction of compulsory use of seat belts in cars
- attitudes to homosexuality, from illegality to tolerance or even equality
- attitudes to discrimination on the basis of race, gender, disability etc. [viz the current situation in UK where Civil Partnerships have been recognised in law for a while now and where same-sex marriage is looking likely to follow, despite being controversial]
- attitudes to gender roles.
While all of these may be ‘works in progress’, and whatever your views on these specific examples, they have been initiated and achieved through a mix of vigorous, often very courageous, campaigning by surprisingly few people. They have also been enabled by a growing political will to make them happen despite the democratic risks. So, what are the key factors that tipped the balance? What needs to be done or happen to enable such a similar shift in relation to the car, especially private cars, in our cities?
I think it needs a number of things to be tackled simultaneously and with a clear, strategic vision, not a strength of most British governments in my lifetime, most of whom have enacted contradictory policies that result in the characteristic British ‘compromise’, or muddled mess. To take the situation for people using bikes, we see in this country fragmented infrastructure, especially for safer and easier cycling, some of which is downright inconvenient and even dangerous. We have a regular failure to apply existing laws on driving behaviour so that penalties are inconsistently handed out [see CTC’s Road Justice Campaign – link] and have no deterrent effect. There is frequent, misinformed and inappropriate focus on the behaviour of a vulnerable minority rather than that of the majority driving motor vehicles and a recurring ‘tribalism’ on all sides that reinforces mutual ignorance and maintains a bad situation for everybody. At the same time, our Olympic and Tour de France cyclists are (rightly) applauded and given celebrity status, even Royal honours… but then they weren’t really seen as ‘traffic’, so that’s okay then.
This is certainly not a question of a mythical ‘war on the motorist’ – another tribal slogan – most of the ‘Cyclist ‘ tribe also join the ‘Motorist’ and ‘Pedestrian’ tribes on a daily basis (three different Tribes before Tea… what a busy day!). The beginning is to make a determined shift of political and planning priorities to create an environment in which all of us should be able to feel safe and relaxed about using a bike, if we wish or need, to carry out everyday journeys and, especially, to feel relaxed about our children doing the same, without the need for more than mandatory working lights and reflectors to ensure we can be seen at night. Cycling and walking and public transport, especially in a city, should just be designed to be the easiest and quickest ways to get around using a coherent, convenient and well-maintained infrastructure, whether that is the existing roads or sensibly segregated sections.
Then a coherent and sustained public promotion of the desired attitudes that support safe behaviour by all road users, with the onus clearly on those with more power to maim and kill – yes, I support the concept of ‘presumed liability’, see my earlier blog post on this.
A change in language habits is also in my view desirable, it has been done before in the interests of race relations and various forms of discrimination and I do not advocate the “political correctness gone mad” extremes that most of us will have read about. However, language shapes and reflects thought and attitudes and breaking down some of the tribalism I referred to above can only help us all to regard ourselves and each other more simply as People who happen to be using a variety of means of transport, mostly for entirely valid reasons. Hence I try to avoid referring too often to ‘cyclists’ in meetings, or indeed ‘motorists’… I am both at different times, I carry my attitude to others with me.
So is this idealistic? To a degree, yes, but it is achievable – others have done so [NL, Denmark, Sweden and “Vision Zero”…] and it is desirable for a lot of public health, environmental and economic reasons. Without an ideal, a vision, how can we aim clearly in a direction that will lead us forward?
British Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement that “we’re all in it together” remains true, despite having become tarnished by the politically manipulative use of it. We do all have to share the streets in town and country, sometimes we will need to change the design of these streets to make it safer and just easy to travel on them, mostly it needs us to leave tribalism behind and have a neighbourly attitude to each other.
Safe and peaceful journeys to you.