Turning traffic against itself

Here’s another post which I wrote months ago, but wasn’t sure of the quality. I still think the idea is sound (focus on how Dutch-style cycling infrastructure would benefit the vast majority of people, who don’t currently use a bike) so here it is anyway:

I’ve been having a think about one of the great dilemmas which faces anyone campaigning for better streets, which is this: Millions of people drive, and many of them can’t even imagine life without a car — so how do we reduce reliance on driving without alienating people who drive?

And I have an idea: turn the drivers against each other. Actually, that makes it sound like something bad, when really we just need to tell the truth.

All that’s needed is to focus on all the ways in which Dutch-style street design can improve conditions for driving (rather than the usual cycle campaign tactic of wagging our finger at them, talking about rights, and telling them that cycling is safer than gardening). People are generally self-interested, so why not use that to create safer streets for all?

I’m sure we’ve all heard the phrase “you’re not stuck in traffic, you are traffic” and yet the general consensus remains that it’s the other drivers who are causing all the problems. And this is the key: the other drivers.

So car drivers shouldn’t be blamed for causing congestion – it’s the other drivers who are at fault.

We shouldn’t tell people how great it would be if they themselves used a bike, we tell them how great it would be if the other drivers were riding bikes instead.

And so the driver would think, “it’s the other drivers who are selfishly making short single-person journeys by car – they should be riding a bike or walking, instead of getting in the way of my journey which couldn’t possibly be made by any other means. Their journey would probably only take ten minutes by bike. If only the government would provide facilities to make cycling safe and pleasant for those people who are in my way, then they could ride a bike instead, and that would make my very important car journey so much quicker and easier!”

And there’s more:

“Plus, not only would Dutch street design mean fewer traffic jams, it would stop those other drivers from using our street as a rat-run! All those other drivers drive so fast down our street, it’s dangerous. Stopping rat-running here would be great.”

And eventually:

“The government is taking so much money what with road tax and fuel tax – they’re forcing everyone to sit in traffic jams just so they can make more money from us poor motorists! I think I’ll walk to the local shop, or maybe get the bike out of the garage…”

And so on.

Surely that’s an easy concept to push? Everyone hates sitting in traffic, finding a parking space at the shops, the school run, etc. — but we have the solution! We know what needs to be done to massively reduce traffic jams, inactivity-related health problems and road deaths, while improving air-quality, neighbourhood friendliness and house prices (yes I know rising house prices aren’t necessarily good, but you know it sure seems to sell a lot of newspapers). Plus, we have an entire country as evidence.

And all the government has to do is create some DfT guidelines so that good quality cycle infrastructure must be installed whenever roads are resurfaced or redesigned. In ten years we’d have so much!

“The main reason traffic congestion is so bad is because there aren’t any decent bike paths. We drivers have got to get those other drivers off the road!

Could it work? Could the UK’s car drivers come to see the benefit of – and even start to call for – better infrastructure for bikes?

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19 Comments

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19 responses to “Turning traffic against itself

  1. Great idea! Even if you can’t get them to join you at least you can reduce opposition. It also shifts the idea from cycling campaigning to congestion clearing, a much easier cause for motorists to support.

  2. Jon

    A similar idea I had for arguing for Dutch style street design: drivers hate cyclists. They absolutely hate cycling next to us. So why not focus on the fact that Dutch style street design takes those cyclists off the road? Explain that cyclists don’t want to be there either and would rather have a safe path to work.

  3. Seems reasonable to me. Part of the reason I ditched the car (for most of the time) for my commute was that I was sick of sitting in traffic, not knowing how long my journey would be one day to the next (sitting on the bus on the same route is just as frustrating unless I am coming home well-refreshed or it is raining). My journey is now reliable. Of course, being relatively short and cycleable helps, but I am now at a point where I miss it if I have not cycled for a couple of days – still, bus for the next couple of days as it is snowing like a git and here in wintry outer-London, footways and cycle tracks are left to freeze (main roads are kept clear though!)

  4. David Bates

    I thought I’d love all this new cycling infrastructure, but all these new cyclists keep getting in my way!!!! :-)

  5. dilys

    Every driver is a pedestrian. If the streets are safer for their families they will campaign for the improvements. Drivers are as diverse and disunited as cyclists; there is just a lot more of them putting more into the economy than cyclists.
    I’m sure this idea isn’t new.

    • I quite agree, modern infrastructure will come from a broader “better streets and roads” campaign, not from a cycling-specific one. I’ve another post on the way about how Dutch-style public space design helps so many people, and how we should focus on that. (Elderly groups, for example, are often opposed to “cyclists” but Dutch streets are so much better for older people.)

      I’ve read evidence (can’t remember where) that says the amount of tax (fuel, VED, etc.) paid by motor vehicle users doesn’t cover the full cost of motoring, so in effect, every non-driver is subsidising motorists – so our car culture actually hurts the economy. But either way, people feel as though they’re paying a lot, and the vehicle and fuel industries have a lot of influence.

      • dilys

        I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that motorists taxes do not cover the full cost of motoring. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that HGV are under paying compared to the damage they do.
        Politicians take notice of people with an organised voice and sufficient votes to sway elections. We do not have that and our organised voice has been barking up the wrong tree for many decades.

        • Quite right! We’re in agreement, then :)

        • Scared Amoeba

          Your suspicion is correct, the full costs of motoring include externalities – that is costs not paid for by motorists.

          Motorists are being subsidised by the taxpayer. Every registered car in the UK is subsidised to the extent of 2,000 Euros (on average) per year due to non-payment of external costs. 2008 figures. This is despite paying car-tax and fuel duty.

          The True Costs of Automobility: External Costs of Cars
          Overview on existing estimates in EU-27
          Final Report
          TU Dresden
          Dresden, October 12th, 2012
          http://tinyurl.com/c67dwq3

  6. inge

    Drivers are putting more in the economy? In inner cities shops and markets, cinemas, musea, etc etc. benefit more from a cycling culture than from cars . The parking place for just one car is enough for 8 to ten bikes. Imagine half a car park for people doing their shopping by bike. A lot of customers to boost the economy not just once a week but everyday! It makes a city or village so much more livable and vibrant when people meet each other in the streets instead of being locked up in a metal box.

  7. dilys

    Drivers pay a tax on new cars, tax on fuel and a road fund licence. All of these go into the economy and make motoring organisations a force to be taken notice of by politicians. Didn’t the government just drop a scheduled increase in petrol taxation?

    Personally, I no longer have a car. I travel by bike, bus and train but I am not blind to reality. We cyclists are fragmented and too poorly represented to need to be taken notice of, at the moment. Common cause with pedestrians may take us forward, imo.

  8. inge

    Yes, so? You missed my point about contributing to the economy entirely. All people buying something, anything, are paying taxes going into the economy. Maybe your government should tax the driving and owning of cars extra because of the pollution and congestion they cause.
    The British bike blogs I read are written with a keen sense of reality, sharpness and a hopefull view on the cyclepaths that will be , one day.

    • dilys

      Where are you Inge?
      Are you enjoying a cycling culture where you live? We aren’t here excepting in a few locations and even then the provision is patchy.
      We go a lot on hopeful. It is all we have besides resigned acceptance.

      • inge

        You almost make it sound as if I am laughing at you because Britain doesn’t have (yet) what the Netherlands and Denmark have. I am not! But I see how people in your country are fighting to get a better infrastructure and it isn’t easy, I see that too. But don’t despair, nothing stays the same way forever . If enough people WANT change, it will come. And that is what all these bloggers are doing, raising awareness to the real possibility of livable cities . Cyclist (not the VC kind) and pedestrians have a common cause and I hope they will work together to get what they want and need.

  9. I think that you’re heart is definitely in the right place.

    I have had these conversations before, and I don’t seem to get anywhere.

    In my limited experience, motorists are very thin skinned, and they take any comment that motoring is not awesome, personally. Its like that woman with an abusive boyfriend. She will complain all she wants, but don’t you dare say anything bad about him.

    Clearly, I don’t have all the answers and I’d like this idea to be explored further.

    My main tact is that motorists are merely mitigating things by building infrastructure. The default is hiking and mountain biking which are safe and cost nothing. Only when expensive roads are built at public expense do we need bike paths and sidewalks to protect us.

    Keep up the good work. I’d like to hear more about your idea in practice.

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