In Other Road Users We Trust (Because We Have To)

Let’s face it, walking out the door and getting on the road as a
user of any transportation mode — from feet to bike to car — is an
act of faith. To a certain extent, you have to trust the other people
out there to follow the rules. Sure, you’re always on the lookout for
those who are disregarding traffic laws, but if you really thought no
one was going to be playing along, you probably wouldn’t dare to set
foot in the public space.

That implicit trust — the necessity of it and the fragility of it — is the topic of today’s featured post from the Streetsblog Network, by Boston Biker. It’s a long post, worth reading in full, but here are some of the most salient points:

214233924_8ed81fa52f.jpgPhoto by Joe Nangle via Flickr.

If you think about it, almost all of our traffic control systems are
either lights, or paint, or other similar “symbolic” control devices.
You trust others and they trust you. On an average trip you are placing
your very life in the hands of hundreds, if not thousands, of total
strangers… The reason why you are alive to read this is because no one
has crossed the center line, or run a red light, or any of the many
other things they could have done easily and killed you…

This is why I think people who drive cars get so upset when cyclists
run red lights. It is not because cyclists are breaking the rules (everyone does that, and often),
it is because they are breaking the shared trust. It is offensive to
the group because that trust is what keeps them alive. If you are a
cyclist and you run red lights this is not something you should brush
off lightly…

This idea works for just about any person driving/riding any kind of
transportation. Car drivers run red lights also, they also make turns
with no signals on, bikers go the wrong way down streets, pedestrians
walk out against the signals…etc…etc. The point is each and every time
anyone does this, not only are they breaking the rules, they are
breaking down the shared trust…

So how do we rebuild this trust? The same way you build any other
kind of trust. Slowly, and deliberately. Stop at that red light, walk
with the signal, use your turn signals. It is going to take time, and
it is going to happen slowly, and you will not be able to get anyone
else to do it with you. You have to set that example. Every time you
stop at a red light and you make it clear you are going to follow the
rules, the person in a car next to you can see that at least some
bikers don’t run reds. Every time you yield to a cyclist when you are
making a left hand turn in your car the cyclist gets just a little
grain of trust back in drivers. Every time you wait till the walk guy
comes on to cross the street you show other walkers how it is done. It
is the only way I can think of to make any real kind of steps towards
rebuilding the shared trust in Boston. The nice thing about this system
is that it is free, and the more you do it the better things get. There
are other ways (better infrastructure, better enforcement) but they all
cost a lot of money, and can not be implemented tonight on your ride
home.

Idealistic?
Sure. But I’ve been riding and walking like this lately (I’ve always
driven like this). Partly I’ve been inspired by the Biking Rules initiative of Transportation Alternatives, partly inspired by a desire to get home to my family in one piece.

For
the most part, my experiences have been pleasant and I have felt safer
overall. A couple of times pedestrians have thanked me. A couple of
times, drivers have kindly indicated it’s safe to make a left turn in
front of them. In general, I feel less angry and stressed. Maybe I’ve
changed a few minds about bikers along the way.

Sure, I
still get yelled at — most recently by a woman who stepped out in
front of me mid-block from behind an SUV. I was riding in the bike lane
and I came to a dead stop three feet away from her, but that didn’t
stop her from berating me as "one of those bikers who just thinks they
can do anything." Her last words to me were, "Go ahead, go hit someone
else."

I guess I haven’t won her trust yet, and she hasn’t
won mine. But as someone who has been riding a bike in New York for my
whole life — and has seen amazing improvements — I’m willing to give
it time.

More from around the network: DC Bicycle Transportation Examiner on a new study about bike helmets and safety. Discovering Urbanism on the legacy of the late landscape designer Lawrence Halprin. And Sustainable Savannah wants to transform DeRenne Avenue from something that divides the city to something that unites it.

  • Regarding your encounter with the angry pedestrian: One of my more bizarre encounters while driving — I was pulling out of a shopping parking lot and stopped short of the sidewalk at the driveway. A pedestrian walking on the sidewalk in front of me stops, looks at me through my windshield and begins loudly lecturing me that “I’M TRAFFIC TOO! GET USED TO IT!”

    I have no idea what I did or didn’t do to deserve his wrath, but he certainly didn’t make my day. Ah well, it takes all kinds.

  • i agree with the main thrust of this post completely — bikers need to stop endangering the lives of drivers.

    and, no — there’s nothing idealistic about what has been described above.

    there are many reasons drivers are angry at cyclists — that we break the rules is just one of those reasons.

    white folks used to get mad at black folks just because black folks ‘broke the rules’ and sat down at lunch counters in the segregated South. that anger had nothing to do with trust — it had to do with ‘undesirables’ getting treated fairly, and that was threatening to white people. white people had so much power for so long, and here came these black people just trying to act like they had an equal right to…….lunch counters.

    the same dynamic is being played out today, except instead of lunch counters, we’re fighting over public space, in particular our streets. drivers, who once completely dominated these streets in every conceivable way, are being forced to deal with ‘undesirables’ — walkers and bikers — and in doing so they’re seeing their stranglehold on power slip away, and they don’t like – they don’t like it one bit.

    so they get frustrated, and angry, and irrationally hateful and vengeful, and that’s why they are so often violent. the unfair and illegitimate laws of today are just like the racist and illegitimate laws of the past — they need to be done away with, and the all-powerful car drivers of today, like the all-powerful white folks of the past, need to join the rest of humanity in decency.

    I have a dream…

  • Mark

    Peter – you’re right about drivers not wanting to share space, though I think the analogy to the civil rights movement is not quite apt! If you read the venom that sometimes gets published in the Chron, I think that a lot of suburban drivers don’t like people on bikes because they’re convinced that cyclists are poor. So it’s more of a class issue – although with the number of $1500 or $2000 road bikes that I see during my daily commute, the drivers should be put off that wealthy cyclists are getting their way!

  • zsolt

    I’m not completely on board with the analysis. It is not about trust. I don’t, and never will for one nanosecond trust anyone on the street to do the right thing, sorry.

    Following the rules is more a “quid pro quo” situation. It is true that violating the rules frustrates the others, but when it comes to bikes, it’s not just about that. Drivers tend to excuse other driver’s reckless behavior more readily than they do the same with bikers. There is something more visceral in their reactions to cyclists.

    Derision of cyclists in the U.S. goes way back. And I think Peter raises some great points too. Drivers feel that their stranglehold on “their” streets is slipping away, very true. This must be very frustrating and the reason why the first time some bike infrastructure is being discussed we get to hear about bikers running stop signs. As if that ever disqualified cars from getting billions of dollars of subsidies!

    I wonder how many drivers contemplate, perhaps subconsciously, that something just doesn’t click, that maybe sitting in a two ton vehicle all by themselves, is not the best idea after all. In the last Boneshaker Almanac, there was an excellent interview with the (now ex-) Zero Per Gallon guy. He had a great perspective on this. He said something to the effect that every honk we hear, every finger we get, is really a cry for help and liberation. They are miserable! If drivers would have a grand old time, why would they care? Why would they throw bottles at us? He wasn’t suggesting to provoke drivers or break laws, just pleading for US to be more sympathetic towards drivers. It made an impression on me.

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