A discussion with a non-bicycling neighbor, who is neither pro nor anti-bicycle, got me thinking about what motivates road users to share the road. I’ve written about car-centric values and how they influence citizens’ views about the purpose of roads, but I haven’t specifically expounded upon individual experiences.
We’re all influenced by cultural norms to some degree. Even when we take an anti-establishment stance, we find ourselves immersed in a world where our day-to-day experiences are shaped by someone else’s idea of who we should be and how we should live.
This is most obvious in advertising and the entertainment industry, both of which sell images of things, rather than things themselves. In a modern western society, image is touted as holding greater importance than identity. In the digital world, image is identity, since a digital presence is nothing more than a compilation of words, photos, and videos which capture instants from lives of millions of people and archive them for the rest of eternity.
So, externally, we are our images. But from an introspective perspective, our identities may be quite different.
Most of us use a belief system to define ourselves. We may fulfill roles, established by ourselves or society, based on race, gender, age, education, religion or any other clearly defined category to which we may belong. It is in the context of any combination of these roles that we engage with the world around us.
Although drivers often seem to be a single breed, their roles, image, and identity will color their perceptions about the purpose of a road and the role of each road user within a framework of mutual cooperation. Whether they like it or not, road users must cooperate in order to coexist on the roads.
Having been raised in a car-centric society, most Americans will associate roads with cars. Cars can hold many meanings for drivers. They are seen as status symbols, as work vehicles, as a means of personal transportation, as recreational vehicles, and as vehicles used for hauling large items. Therefore, not every motor vehicle is on the road for the same reason.
Drivers of each of these vehicle types will see their driving role differently. This is particularly important when asking them to share the road with non-motorized road users. Each of them will see themselves in a different relation to bicycles and pedestrians, depending on their vehicle type and use.
Back to the idea of driver identity, it’s important to realize that the way a driver uses the road coincides with what sorts of things will influence him or her to share the road with other road users. When using roads for work purposes several things will stand out: time constraints, the safety of maneuvering large or dangerous cargo, and profit. When using the roads for personal transportation, time constraints will vary depending on the nature of the task at hand. The use of the vehicle will be personal or recreational, taking profit out of the equation. Safety will be an issue, but it will be on a more personal level, on the order of personal injury versus the public safety issues related to carrying cargo.
This leaves us with two distinct groups: those whose use of the roads is personal and those whose use of the roads is commercial. Despite some crossover between these groups, commercial road users primarily need rational reasons to share the road, while personal road users primarily need emotional reasons to share the road. For the latter, sharing is a matter of good will, and it relates to the convenience or inconvenience of personal motor vehicle travel.
Minority road users, such as bicyclists, can also be split into two groups. Some cyclists use the roads as part of their employment, to transport goods from one place to another, for instance. Cyclists also use the roads to commute to work.
Personal use of the roads by cyclists can be for recreation or to run errands. Or bicycles can be used as a sole source of personal transportation. So, like their driving counterparts, cyclists can use the roads for commercial or personal use.
Given the complexity of politics in any western society, it is difficult to balance the needs of all groups without being unduly unfair to one or another. Public roads are paid for by tax dollars. They belong to society as a whole, and are necessary to conduct business and to participate in modern life. Yet they must serve multiple purposes for a wide range of people.
In order to bring all of these people to the same point, in terms of agreeing to share the roads in harmony, we must appeal to them on both a rational and emotional level. Philosophically speaking, every member of a society which has public roads has an equal right to use those roads. Their purpose for using those roads is secondary to their right to use the roads.
In other words, rights trump purpose. Just because a driver is in a hurry — whether to deliver goods on time or to make an appointment — this does not outweigh a cyclist’s or pedestrian’s right to use the roads for another purpose, such as exercise, because such use is inconvenient for drivers.
Implied in the right to use the roads is the right to bodily integrity — more commonly known as personal safety. If one has the right to be on the roads, then one has the right to be on the roads without suffering harm. And, again, another road user’s purpose for being on the road does not outweigh any road user’s right to remain free from harm.
To get all road users to change their attitudes about sharing the roads, we must appeal to them on a rational basis first, by acquainting them with the rights and obligations of all road users. This educational process should be reinforced with penalties in the form of fines and criminal charges.
Then, we must appeal to road users’ emotions by personalizing road use. Road use, like any shared endeavor, is communal. As social beings, humans must participate in something larger than themselves — a society. Societies are formulated upon systems of mutual cooperation. And a degree of selflessness is involved in all cooperative human interactions.
Selflessness does not mean the loss of autonomy, but rather the expression of autonomy within the scope of possible road use behaviors, some of which may require concession for the sake of others. “Concession” is the key here. Each road user must be willing to concede, at times, for the mutual benefit of all road users.
At the point of concession, reason and emotion will conjugate to reshape road use attitudes to create a society where travel becomes a multifaceted experience not wholly dependent on motors, or fuel, or combustion.