Share the Road. Actually.

In January, I agreed to go on a local radio show after a months of tiresome back and forth on Twitter with the radio host. The majority of our online debates centred around how cities should function, from sidewalk snow clearance to cycling infrastructure. I figured an in-person conversation could be more productive, and perhaps would even allow us to find common ground. I was wrong. The interview ended up feeling more like an interrogation. The environment was hostile, to say the least. However, I did feel like I benefitted in one way from the interaction. I left with a very clear sense of what I think the phrase “Share the Road” should really mean. In the interview, the host stated that sharing the road meant sharing responsibility; that cyclists and drivers should all follow the rules of the road. I emphatically agreed that everyone should follow the law, but suggested that the true definition of sharing the road meant… actually sharing it.

Sharing the road should involve the allocation of space to different modes using the appropriate infrastructure to ensure that space is protected for that particular mode. This means physical separation. Painted bike lanes do nothing to ensure that cars don’t take up the space that should be dedicated to the use of cyclists. Paint is a suggestion, at best. As much as a posted speed limit is. We know full well that people don’t take well to suggestions; asking nicely is useless. And, the threat of a ticket doesn’t seem to be a deterrent either. I live on a busy road (pictured above) with a posted limit of 50 kmh and I can tell you that drivers rarely follow that law. If we want people to behave in a particular manner, we need to design for it. The physical space needs to communicate how it should be used. These are basic design principles.

“If we want people to behave in a particular manner, we need to design for it. The physical space needs to communicate how it should be used.”

Despite likely knowing better, cities continue to push the archaic message of sharing responsibility, under the guise of “sharing the road”.

Last month my friend Brian Doucet, an urban planning researcher at the University of Waterloo, captured the video below:

The video has since garnered over 100K views, and a significant amount of attention. It clearly demonstrates how paint, or sharing responsibility, couldn’t possibly save a cyclist from getting injured or killed by a driver. When the Manager of Transportation from the Region of Waterloo was asked to comment on the video, he said “It’s everyone’s responsibility to share the road.” How depressing is that? It’s one thing for a radio host to take this stance, but, when it’s the Manager of Transportation – a trained professional with a lot of influence on our roadway design – there is much to be concerned about.

Using shared responsibility as some kind of strategy to keep vulnerable road users safe is lazy in so many ways. And, dangerous. As far as I’m concerned, it’s coded victim blaming and serves to create a narrative that cyclists don’t follow the law. Cyclists are painted as complicit in their injuries and deaths, in what is an environment that prioritizes driver convenience and comfort over the safety of vulnerable road users. Most often, when cyclists break rules, it’s because they don’t feel safe. If you see a cyclist break the law, it likely means something is wrong with the built environment. People who cycle on sidewalks are an indicator species for terrible urban design.

“People who cycle on sidewalks are an indicator species for terrible urban design.”

Focusing on shared responsibility should be the last step in any strategy to ensure road safety. Our efforts should be on using design to change behaviour. A mediocre media campaign telling cyclists to follow the law is ineffective and inappropriate.

Shared responsibility isn’t specific to road safety. I was curious about what the research said, and came across a field of criminology called victimology. It turns out that a lot of work has been done to highlight the issues around shared responsibility in different kinds of crime, including assault and theft. Timmer and Norman (1984) discuss the idea of victim precipitation, which is the notion that a crime an individual experiences is a consequence of their actions, and therefore the solution lies in addressing the individual. They suggest that “the victim precipitation explanation functions as an ideology which blames the victim and diverts attention from the structural causes of the crime.”

Using this lens on road safety, we can see how a “shared responsibility” campaign can be used by a municipality to ignore the structural causes, i.e bad road design. It’s a way for cities to skirt the responsibility (and the bill) to ensure safe streets. Timmer and Norman go on to say: “to prevent crime and criminal victimization, the structure of society, not potential victims, must be reformed.” In the talks I give, I often speak about how it is easier to change the environment than it is the person. Placing the focus, and the associated burden of safety, on the person creates a lot of problems and, ultimately, is not effective. It does more harm than good. We must change our streets if we want to keep people safe.

Last month, I conducted the following Twitter poll:

The survey is not perfect. I’m in the midst of a PhD in cognitive neuroscience, where I design questionnaires regularly, so I know there are flaws with this. But, I think that it does provide insight. More than 5500 people voted in the poll and around 80% fear for their lives more than once a month. Even if the number was 10%, that would still be 10% too much. We shouldn’t have to regularly contemplate death because we choose to get around our cities in an environmentally friendly and healthy way. Cyclists are doing governments a favour, when it comes to health and the environment. Governments can return the favour by building the infrastructure to keep us safe. Sharing responsibility will do nothing to mitigate the fears that people have.

“We shouldn’t have to regularly contemplate death because we choose to get around our cities in an environmentally friendly and healthy way.”

To keep people happy and safe on our roads, we MUST share them. But, that means sharing the actual space, not just the responsibility. Cities will continue to push the shared responsibility message as a solution to road safety, and we must speak out and demand better from them. It will take a lot of effort on our part to shift these ingrained ideologies, but we must persevere. The lives of many count on us.

3 thoughts on “Share the Road. Actually.

  1. As a family we park the car as much as possible in the warmer months in favour of walking, cycling or using electric scooters. This year I’m teaching my 6 year old son how to ride his bike safely on the road. Last weekend we were coming home on a residential street and the car behind us was in such a hurry to get wherever he was going that he pulled out to go around us… only we were 2 houses from the stop sign so we ended up next to each other at the intersection. Us, on our bikes, in the right lane. Him, in his car, in the left lane facing oncoming traffic. Thankfully, no one else was around but it gave me an opportunity to teach my son the horrible lesson that he constantly has to be aware and to treat every car like they’re going to hurt you. I’m so sad this is something I need to do. Separate bike lanes, even though our family is lucky enough to have other mobility options, would give this parent such peace of mind and help me get my son on a bicycle without having to teach him safety through fear.

  2. The criminal connection to victim blaming is interesting. Both the Region of Waterloo and the City of Kitchener believe in Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). And the WR Crime Prevention Council actively works to address the root causes of crime which is an antidote to victim blaming.

  3. Great article, thanks Robin. I think it is important to note that many cyclists aren’t merely choosing to get around by bike based on a love of cycling or strong environmental conscience; rather, biking is their only reasonable option when car ownership is out of reach and transit service is poor or nonexistent. Many motorists assume every cyclist is just out there for exercise and leisure with an unused car or two sitting in their garage or driveway

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