Share the Road, Jerks

I just stumbled on this post on GOOD (via Sightline’s excellent newsletter), and I have terrible mixed feelings about it.

I ride my bike pretty much everywhere, all the time, in San Francisco. When I ride, I grumble and glare at cyclists who bike aggressively through downtown, at high speed, running red lights, blocking crosswalks, listening to headphones, and eschewing helmets. Generally, I think these cyclists give biking a bad reputation with drivers. On the other hand, there’s something about my rule-following, careful-cyclist perspective that feels a little like not wanting to be assertive because it might provoke your abusive spouse.

Part of what makes urban biking (in the U.S.) dangerous is the fact that drivers just aren’t on the look out for cyclists, and in many cases are outright hostile towards us. The behavior advocated in the post* seems designed to provoke and exacerbate this conflict, rather than help defuse tensions and make the roads a shared public space for all kinds of transportation.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week, as I’m currently in Guangzhou, China. It’s a huge city, with tons of traffic — and tons of buses and bicycles and tricycles and electric bicycles and two-seater contraptions I don’t have names for and trucks and, essentially, any kind of transportation device you can name, many of them carrying absurdly large/long/precarious loads. And all of these vehicles manage to share the road, along with hordes of pedestrians.

Here, and in many places in the world, when cyclists enter the fray—weaving and pointing and asserting themselves and, yes, sometimes shouting—they do so on the same footing as everyone else.  I’d like to think that’s because there’s a shared sense of responsibility for avoiding accidents and not killing everyone else on the road. That’s the idea behind some of the shared-space roadway experiments happening around the world, after all.

But, the statistics don’t show that that’s what’s really happening. The kinds of traffic patterns I’m loving over here aren’t, it seems, actually safer. While the melee of transportation methods I see here might feel less hostile (honestly, to me, they feel more boisterous and joyful and collaborative), traffic fatalities in lower- and middle-income nations are a significant public health issue, according to the World Health Organization, with pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists the primary victims. (In fact, the UN has declared 2011–2020 as the Decade of Action for Road Safety, “with a goal to stabilize and then reduce the forecast level of road traffic fatalities around the world by increasing activities conducted at the national, regional and global levels.”)

But honestly it seems to me that it’s pretty simple: in cities, motorized vehicles are something of a problem. It’s cars, motorcycles, and electric bikes that are killing people. Cities are for people, and safe urban roadways move at speeds that give humans time to react to other moving bodies on the road. What feels safe to me here, in China, is that (at least in the places where these things share space), the cars aren’t moving faster than the bikes — at least not by an order of magnitude, which they often are in the U.S. — and bikes aren’t moving an order of magnitude faster than pedestrians.

Instead of teaching cyclists to “act like a car,” take up a lot of space and be rude to other road users, can’t we make sure everyone on the road is acting like a human?

* OK, I don’t disagree with all of it. Yes! Check rear-view mirrors for faces, and make eye contact with other road users! These are good tips. But making yourself unpredictable to “scare” drivers, “yelling like your hair’s on fire” and “pissing off a few pedestrians” aren’t the kind of “Share the Road” behavior we need.

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