In Other Road Users We Trust (Because We Have To)

Let’s face it, walking out the door and getting on the road as a user of any transportation mode — from feet to bike to car — is an act of faith. To a certain extent, you have to trust the other people out there to follow the rules. Sure, you’re always on the lookout for those who are disregarding traffic laws, but if you really thought no one was going to be playing along, you probably wouldn’t dare to set foot in the public space.

That implicit trust — the necessity of it and the fragility of it — is the topic of today’s featured post from the Streetsblog Network, by Boston Biker. It’s a long post, worth reading in full, but here are some of the most salient points:

214233924_8ed81fa52f.jpgPhoto by Joe Nangle via Flickr.

If you think about it, almost all of our traffic control systems are
either lights, or paint, or other similar “symbolic” control devices.
You trust others and they trust you. On an average trip you are placing
your very life in the hands of hundreds, if not thousands, of total
strangers… The reason why you are alive to read this is because no one
has crossed the center line, or run a red light, or any of the many
other things they could have done easily and killed you…

This is why I think people who drive cars get so upset when cyclists
run red lights. It is not because cyclists are breaking the rules (everyone does that, and often),
it is because they are breaking the shared trust. It is offensive to
the group because that trust is what keeps them alive. If you are a
cyclist and you run red lights this is not something you should brush
off lightly…

This idea works for just about any person driving/riding any kind of
transportation. Car drivers run red lights also, they also make turns
with no signals on, bikers go the wrong way down streets, pedestrians
walk out against the signals…etc…etc. The point is each and every time
anyone does this, not only are they breaking the rules, they are
breaking down the shared trust…

So how do we rebuild this trust? The same way you build any other
kind of trust. Slowly, and deliberately. Stop at that red light, walk
with the signal, use your turn signals. It is going to take time, and
it is going to happen slowly, and you will not be able to get anyone
else to do it with you. You have to set that example. Every time you
stop at a red light and you make it clear you are going to follow the
rules, the person in a car next to you can see that at least some
bikers don’t run reds. Every time you yield to a cyclist when you are
making a left hand turn in your car the cyclist gets just a little
grain of trust back in drivers. Every time you wait till the walk guy
comes on to cross the street you show other walkers how it is done. It
is the only way I can think of to make any real kind of steps towards
rebuilding the shared trust in Boston. The nice thing about this system
is that it is free, and the more you do it the better things get. There
are other ways (better infrastructure, better enforcement) but they all
cost a lot of money, and can not be implemented tonight on your ride
home.

Idealistic? Sure. But I’ve been riding and walking like this lately (I’ve always driven like this). Partly I’ve been inspired by the Biking Rules initiative of Transportation Alternatives, partly inspired by a desire to get home to my family in one piece.

For the most part, my experiences have been pleasant and I have felt safer overall. A couple of times pedestrians have thanked me. A couple of times, drivers have kindly indicated it’s safe to make a left turn in front of them. In general, I feel less angry and stressed. Maybe I’ve changed a few minds about bikers along the way.

Sure, I still get yelled at — most recently by a woman who stepped out in front of me mid-block from behind an SUV. I was riding in the bike lane and I came to a dead stop three feet away from her, but that didn’t stop her from berating me as "one of those bikers who just thinks they can do anything." Her last words to me were, "Go ahead, go hit someone else."

I guess I haven’t won her trust yet, and she hasn’t won mine. But as someone who has been riding a bike in New York for my whole life — and has seen amazing improvements — I’m willing to give it time.

More from around the network: DC Bicycle Transportation Examiner on a new study about bike helmets and safety. Discovering Urbanism on the legacy of the late landscape designer Lawrence Halprin. And Sustainable Savannah wants to transform DeRenne Avenue from something that divides the city to something that unites it.

  • A perceptive piece. You could also call it a social contract or the honor system. As I never tire of saying, many drivers are without honor. Having seen people behaving better in other countries — where the social contract is stronger — I would add that drivers aren’t the only guilty parties around here. New York road users in general are deficient in this respect.

  • Really? You agree that these things are based on trust? I don’t. I think they’re based on reasonable expectations (which, in turn are built on experience, general cultural expectations, notions of legality, and so on). That’s quite different than trust. I don’t, in any meaningful sense, trust other people on the road. I’m just used to dealing with them.

  • Jed

    So BB has a magic crystal ball that allow him/her to divine the innermost thoughts of the Driver.typicalis, the ones unknown even to the driver, the ones that animate all further attitudes and actions of .typicalis towards other road users. And BB has further contrived a magic system of conduct that will guarantee (or marginally improve) my safety and the efficiency of the road for all users? And all I have to do is let my wheels lock at every stop signal and wait around inhaling CO so that the .typicalis can maintain some feelings of superiority or equality? Yeah… whatever.
    Cars and bikes do and should operate according to different schedules of rules because they operate in a thoroughly different manner with thoroughly different consequences for their ill use.

  • Mark

    This Boston Biker person is hopelessly retrograde. We are seeing a gradual acceptance of the notion that the rules must be different for bikes. Think about the Idaho rolling stop rule, now adopted in Portland. Think about bike lanes on separated grade, or bike lanes painted green to draw the attention of motorists. Look at California changing its environmental laws so that car traffic flow is not the main driver behind approving a bicycle project.

    Or on a more basic level: think about how jaywalking has long been accepted in New York, by necessity.

    Does the writer really think that by strictly following traffic rules that were designed to maximize the flow of car traffic, riding your bike will magically become safer? No chance! Drivers will still ‘door’ you or rub you out into parked cars at a stop sign or turn through your path because they know you can’t hurt them.

    Changing the rules for bikes and educating drivers is the key.

  • Doug

    You might also argue that some of it is based on fear. Drivers stop at lights and stop signs not just because they are concerned about hitting someone else but also because they are concerned about getting hit by someone else and dying. We judge the risk of getting speeding tickets based on where we are, where we are going, when we last saw a police car, and more.

    Cyclists may run red lights because in some cases they judge it as safer to get through an intersection quickly than to have to start from a standstill. Or, they may find that getting ahead of traffic makes them safer.

    Or it may be based on a — perhaps misconstrued — perception of statistics. While there are a huge number of fatalities and accidents on the road every year, the vast number of drivers, bikers, and peds still never directly experience the true statistical dangers of being on the road. We humans are not so good at assessing real risk.

  • J:Lai

    This strikes me as totally naive. I agree with dporpentine. People follow rules because they believe there will be negative consequences if the rules are broken. Take away enforcement, and rules become meaningless.

    Also, just because something is a law does not always mean it is the right thing to do.

    Should Rosa Parks have just follwed the rules and moved to the back of the bus? Maybe then the klan would have seen that she follows the rules, so they would have stopped lynching people.

  • This is inanity. I learned in defensive-driving courses to assume the worst on the roads and plan for it; for instance, to increase following distance in dark or rainy conditions to make sure I had time to stop suddenly. If I was trusting the guy in front of me, I would be tailgating.

    Similarly, it’s my opinion that cyclists run red lights because it gets them a headstart, away from the pack of cars stopped at the light, and cyclists feel safer with more distance from moving traffic, even traffic moving in the same direction.

  • I came here to post what Mark said.

  • Geck

    I like what Mark said too. Bicycles fall somewhere between pedestrians and cars. In some circumstances car rules should apply, in others pedestrian rules should apply, and in others bicyclist should have their own special rules. Always forcing them into the motor vehicle rules will limit the usefulness and appeal of bicycling as a form of transportation. But until that happens, it is wise to consider how we are perceived.

  • a cyclist

    i’m a biker and am tired of being the last guy in line to get to use the bike lane and i am tired of being invisible/ignored. cars outweigh me and peds always have the right of way and own jaywalking as a privelege. when u disrespect bikers, they may rebel.
    First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. Ghandi

  • Sara

    It’s a nice thought, but I second (or third, or fourth) Mark’s comment. The rules were not made for promoting anything but car traffic. I don’t trust other drivers; that would be poor biking (the opposite of defensive driving/biking). Following them would often make me less safe.

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