Why sharing the road will never work

It’s all about systems.

Human beings are fallible. We all make mistakes. Some people are very selfish, some are very altruistic, some are careful, some are careless. Nobody is perfect.

I’ll make a couple of examples, abstract as they may seem. (They have nothing to do with cycling, but are here to demonstrate why society needs systems.)

Stalin takes advantage of a poor system

In Russia, after the Communists had taken power in 1917, a very selfish person was given a job in the Party that didn’t have enough controls on it. Lenin didn’t trust Stalin, and gave him the apparently minor role of General Secretary – essentially, he was head of the HR department. But there were no checks on this role, therefore the job had too much power and Stalin was able to hire and fire people at will, making him the de facto boss.

Had there been more controls on the job of General Secretary – say, all appointments had to be voted on by the politburo, or something – then Stalin wouldn’t have been able to fill the Party leadership with his cronies.

The system failed in this instance because it didn’t account for the fact that you can’t trust everyone. Checks and balances should always be present.

Savile and the absence of a system

To pick a more topical comparison, the recent scandal surrounding Jimmy Savile at the BBC in the 1970s and 80s is also the failure of a system.

Any large organisation is going to have untrustworthy people working there. There is no way to employ thousands of people and guarantee that they’re all wonderful human beings. The BBC, Microsoft, HSBC, Tesco, any large organisation – they will all have paedophiles and rapists working for them. There’s simply no way that they can’t. Even a CRB check simply means that the person hasn’t been caught committing a crime (yet) – it doesn’t mean that they have committed no crime, and it’s no guarantee that they won’t.

Which is why we must have systems in place to minimise the risk of misbehaviour, and to minimise the damage of misbehaviour should it occur. The BBC should have had a system of managing guests on site, especially for minors – signing in lists, no guests allowed in dressing rooms, all minors must be accompanied by guardian at all times, etc. Having the right system in place helps to reduce and mitigate mistakes and misdeeds made by imperfect human beings.

Ourselves and the system on our streets

And that brings us to our roads. (It had to come around to this eventually!)

It’s the system that is at fault. Any system which allows people to behave in a dangerous manner that puts others at risk isn’t fit for purpose.

The idea that we can train everybody to never break the rules is ridiculous. It’s just not feasible to expect to change the habits and lives of millions of people by putting up posters or running TV ad campaigns. The road system must be changed to reduce and mitigate bad behaviour.

There’s a woman in Doncaster who is upset because she’s just been dumped, and she’s driving home crying and angry. There’s a man in Inverness whose wife has recently died and he’s been drinking too much, but he’s driving while tipsy anyway. There’s a young man in Kidderminster who is under peer pressure to drive too fast around a housing estate. There’s a tired lorry driver in London who is under pressure from his bosses to make deliveries faster. There’s a middle-aged woman in Swansea who is reminiscing about a holiday, while driving to the shops.

Do “share the road” campaigners really think they can reach all these people and the millions like them? Do they really think that everyone will see these campaigns and change their ways permanently?

The thing is, people are fallible, they do make mistakes. Most people’s minds are on other things while driving. This is how humans behave and all the “mutual respect” bullshit will never change this.

But what we can change — and quite easily, too — is the environment, as the Dutch have done. They adjusted the design of their streets and roads so when the hurt woman is thinking about her broken relationship, any mistakes she makes won’t result in the death of innocent people. They separated the tired lorry driver from the people riding bikes so that he doesn’t run them over when the lights go green. They arranged their housing estates so that fast driving is impossible. They separate and protect children cycling to school from the woman whose mind is in Spain.

Of course, we will never entirely eliminate all human error and misbehaviour, but redesigning our roads will minimise the potential for damage when something does go wrong. A small error could be lethal when a bike is sharing the same space as a lorry, but the same error may have little or no effect when the bike is on a separated, protected cycle path. We only have to compare the death rate of cyclists in the Netherlands with those of the UK to see that whatever the Dutch are doing is much safer than “sharing the road” in the UK.

Changing the design of our roads is easy – the first and biggest step is getting the government to re-write the road design manual. It’s far easier to implement separate facilities for people on bikes, as we have already done for people on foot, than it is to try to change human nature or the habits of a lifetime, or to expect everybody to focus intently on their driving 100% of the time.

The Dutch system of separating traffic types is proven to be a far more attractive environment for cycling, and a far safer one too.

Of course, I’d love to share the road with a bunch of perfect, Stepford Wives-esque automatons who follow all the rules all the time. But here in the real world, when 99% of drivers are flawed, normal human beings with other things on their minds, I’d rather be on a high-quality Dutch-style cycle path.


Another parallel

Cycalogical wrote a post which humorously drew parallels between the Jimmy Savile controversy and the state of our roads today. Some might consider it to be in bad taste – sexual abuse is no laughing matter – but I think he makes a valid point. There are many things which were acceptable or tolerated in the past but aren’t acceptable today – racism, sexual harassment, children working as chimney sweeps, for example. Many things which are seen as normal today, such as the design of our streets and the resulting death and injury toll, may well be seen as unacceptable and bafflingly cruel in the future.

When describing Dutch-style cycling to ‘normal’ people (i.e. the vast majority of British people to whom utility cycling doesn’t really exist) they often have difficulty grasping the concept, as it’s not something that they have come across before. It’s like going back in time a few centuries and trying to explain indoor plumbing and sewage systems to medieval peasants.

“Ah, that’s too difficult,” they’d say, “it’s too expensive and there’s no space for sewers or toilets! We’re fine with crapping in a bucket and throwing it out into the street, thanks all the same. Deaths due to cholera are natural, just a by-product of our modern city lifestyle.” (It’s also interesting that the Romans had sewers, but that we became unenlightened again somehow and forgot about them. The Romans are the Dutch, for those not following the analogy.)

Likewise, today’s peasants citizens consider the road traffic deaths, and the deaths and illness due to air pollution, to be an acceptable part of the modern lifestyle. I think that future generations will look back on 2012 and consider us as stupid as we think the medieval city dwellers were, as cruel as the society that put children to work in mills and up chimneys, and as ignorant as those in the 1970s who turned a blind eye to sexual abuse.


Addendum, 12th November 2012:

My point about not being able to reach every driver also applies to those who suggest that if every single person who rides a bike followed all the rules perfectly then suddenly things would change for the better – it’s not going to happen! Please don’t fall for the government spiel about cyclists proving themselves as law-abiding before changes will be made, they say this because they know it’s an unattainable goal. You will never reach every single person who rides a bike and convince every red light jumper to change their ways.


Another addendum, 16th November 2012:

To save all those selfish and blinkered cyclists out there from furrowing their brows, sticking out their tongues, and jabbing at their keyboards with one finger, the title of this blog post should probably have been “why sharing the road will never work as a method of getting large numbers of people to start cycling” or maybe “why sharing the road will never work as a way to reduce cycling casualties and deaths”.

If you’re one of those happy VC fundamentalists who feels that sharing the road works just fine and you’ve been doing it that way since the dawn of time, then I’m pleased for you. But you can’t escape the fact that hardly anyone wants to ride a bike among motor vehicles. It ain’t working, nobody is doing it. John Forester has been trying to tell America that VC is great for 40 years now, without success.

If you want to debate this point, please begin by stating the modal share for cycling in your town or city, and the corresponding road traffic death rate for cyclists.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Why sharing the road will never work

  1. Great post. This share the road business really gnaws at me and you have explained the reasons why it will never work brilliantly. I simply can’t understand why it’s so hard to make some people understand.

  2. It’s hard to make people understand for THIS one reason: to accept that people in general “can’t just do a little better” is equivalent to giving up on the human race. It’s optimistic altruism at its most extreme. People who have MADE a bit of transition to what’s considered “a little better” — namely, more eco-friendly and less sheep-like in accepting the societal status quo — refuse to accept that others cannot (until they themselves decide they WANT to).

    It’s neither right nor wrong — just a bit naive.

  3. Wow. I’ve thought this exact sentiment for years. Never quite able to put it to words that don’t make me should like a crank, I applaud you. ‘Share the road’ is a flawed proposition. It’s like swimming with sharks or living among the grizzly bears. You may survive for some time but eventually you’ll be bitten. Great post.

  4. CyclingPeter

    “Of course, I’d love to share the road with a bunch of perfect, Stepford Wives-esque automatons who follow all the rules all the time. But here in the real world, when 99% of drivers are flawed, normal human beings with other things on their minds, I’d rather be on a cycle path.”

    But here in the real world we already have the technology to replace those flawed drivers with real automatons that follow the rules far more precisely. Restrict the driver’s role to inputting the destination and let the car decide how to get there safely while avoiding cyclists, pedestrians, and other vehicles. Driverless cars have already been extensively tested in a variety of challenging traffic environments and we could transition to them far more quickly than it would take to redo our whole road network.

    • As far as I can tell it will be at least two decades until the vast majority of cars are self-driving, so I’ll still keep pushing for Dutch infra in the meantime.

      But that is a really interesting point you’ve raised! In a world where cars were driven by computer, they would presumably all follow all the rules all the time. They would follow all those rules in the Highway Code that human drivers ignore – speed limits, and the bits about passing cyclists and stopping for pedestrians when turning. Amber gambling would be a thing of the past. When faced with a cyclist ahead but not quite enough room to overtake, the self-driving car would slow down and wait behind until a safe overtake manoeuvre can be made. It will never become impatient and attempt an unsafe pass, even if it must trundle along at 10mph for many miles.

      As a walker and a bike rider it sounds incredibly safe. But I wonder, will the users of these vehicles feel they drive too slowly and cautiously? I can see drivers changing to manual when it suited them, as the computer would be too damn law-abiding!

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