Bike Week Conversations

One element of civil streets is conversations.  This is Bay State Bike Week in Massachusetts where I live.  As a commuter cyclist I’ve been going to some events to promote Civil Streets.

Yesterday I was talking to David Watson, the Executive Director of MassBike, about the Respect campaign and how it differs from a same-roads-same rules campaign for bicycles.  Most would agree that obeying all the traffic laws will be a good personal policy for both personal safety and the general image of bicyclists and pedestrians.  But most of us also break the law sometimes or possibly very often.  At times could this law-breaking be harmless?  If so, when?

If a tree falls in the woods and no-one hears it, does it make a sound?

If you break a traffic law as a pedestrian, bicyclist or car-driver and it doesn’t bother anyone, does it matter?

I think the key element here is does the activity bother anyone?  If it does, something that may seem harmless (I ran that red light after carefully looking both ways) actually really annoyed the three bicyclists and twenty car-drivers who watched the bicyclists run the red light while they waited. 

Some of this is a broken-windows syndrome: 

Everyone runs red lights. 
Cars break the law too. 
The system is broken therefore why should I follow the rules? 

The broken-windows syndrom really exposes itself as more and more people bicycle or walk or drive because these problems become cultural and mode-rage intensifies.  I see my own perspective shifting when I’m on a bike, walking or in a Zipcar, I adopt the viewpoint of the driver walker and bicyclist and get angry at those other road users.

Talking to other cyclists, I often hear, “I wish cars would do a better job of sharing the road”.  I do believe that overwhelming majority of cars do a great job of sharing the road.  But if 5% of the cars don’t share well, we have a real problem– and those 5% paste the reputation of all the other car-drivers out there. 

This same rule of guilt by association also applies to bicyclists and pedestrians.  Furthermore as we lobby for more facilities this guilt-by-association does not help our case for better facilities.   We hear “why encourage more of this behavior”.

So where does Civil Streets fit in?  At another event I ran in to Cathy Cagle, Mass DOT’s Director of Sustainable Transportation.  She saw the sticker and said “this is the behavior that matches a complete street”.   I read this comment to mean, if we have an environment that supports walking, bicycling, transit and city-scale driving, the way we interact needs to adjust.

Civil Streets then is about achieving great design that encourages better behavior and a change in law that facilitates good behavior.  In the meantime, what can we do to foster better behavior?  My hope is by showing the sticker each of us will up-our-game and be a little kinder to our fellow road users of every stripe.

The other very-important-purpose of the sticker is to flesh out what constitutes good behavior, design and laws.  The conversations around this bring us together and hopefully result in a kinder more civil street.

About mark

Urban Planner
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