On the Role of Frustration — and of Dignity — in Transportation
A few weeks ago, I went biking to the New Forest National Park, a 220-square-mile sanctuary of wildlife and livestock, forest and heathland, and natural and cultural history first established as a royal hunting ground in 1079. Countless miles of (largely flat) bike trails and quiet country lanes make the New Forest a fantastic cycling destination. And, it’s only five miles from my flat in downtown Southampton. It’s a dream!
Biking out of the city is relatively painless. For most of the way, the route runs along a raised and separated two-way bike path that follows a major arterial road and the River Test. To cross the River and head west into the park is the Redbridge Causeway, a highway bridge whose southern sidewalk is formally-designated as a bike path. Since November, however, the southern sidewalk has been closed for construction (the purpose of which is unclear).
The detour, directing pedestrians and cyclists to the causeway’s north sidewalk, is winding and circuitous, requiring three road crossings, a bridge, and a tunnel. While the south sidewalk was still simply a sidewalk, its designation as a bike path was accompanied with a relatively-generous width (about 10 feet) and a well-maintained traveling surface; the north sidewalk, in contrast, is very much not designed to be comfortable for people walking and biking. It is much narrower (about 5 feet in width) and the traveling surface is in much worse condition.
Anyway, as I was coming home, nearing the end of the causeway where the sidewalk narrows and its condition worsens particularly, and it begins to follow a bit quieter off-ramp. If the coast is clear, I usually will take this chance to hop down into the road and off the sidewalk. I tried checking behind me for vehicles coming down the off-ramp, only to find that I wasn’t going to be able to join the roadway.
Then, I realized I was coming up a bit too quickly behind someone walking ahead of me. In the course of a lot of things running through my head at once (I had just gotten my brakes replaced and they were really loud, so I had gotten in the habit of trying not to brake; it looked like he was on the phone, and the road is loud, so I didn’t think he would have heard my bell, so I didn’t ring it; in any event, I was still hoping to hop into the road but the curb ramps that would have made that comfortable were quickly dwindling), I made the snap decision to squeeze by the man on the sidewalk, without warning. I went for it, coasting in between him and the road.
I didn’t touch him, but I came closer than I should have.
I definitely should have just rung my bell, or called out, or slowed down, or any number of things. It was a bad situation, and I made a wrong call. I was grateful I didn’t make contact, but I still didn’t do the right thing.
That should have been the end of it, but as I was winding my way through the circuitous detour, the man ran to catch up to me and cornered me in the tunnel. He was clearly startled and frustrated, rightfully so, and took it out on me, giving me a piece of his mind. I tried to explain myself, apologizing again and again; he was mad, and just wanted to get his point across. He didn’t touch me, and I didn’t really think he was going to, but he did reach into my space to ring my bike bell to educate me on how it works, for next time. I did somewhat get the sense that his anger was directed more towards improving my cycling etiquette than towards simply being mad at me, but, either way, I didn’t really appreciate the interaction; I’m sure neither did he.
The rest of the day, I felt guilty and embarrassed about the whole situation. The more I thought about it, though, the more I became simply frustrated.
I was frustrated that the better cycle path on the south sidewalk had been closed for three months with no advance notice, explanation, or end in sight. I was frustrated that the result was that cyclists and pedestrians on the main cycle route out of Southampton had to compete with each other for a pitifully-insufficient amount of poorly-maintained sidewalk space. I was frustrated that two people who were doing good things (I was biking! He was walking! Neither of us was driving! We were both making travel decisions good for our health, the local roadway network, and the planet!) were put into a situation primed for frustration-laden interactions like the one I experienced. I was frustrated that the local authorities had clearly favored some travelers over others in their decisionmaking, and I was frustrated at how unfair it all was.
It’s impossible to avoid examples of how the current transportation system facilitates frustration, picks winners and losers, and promotes conflict. We see it, for example, in the viral videos that make their rounds (at least among transportation communities of which I’m a part!).
One demonstrates a crosswalk that “pops up.” The video explains the purpose:
“We have all been there, crossing the road and having a near-miss with an impatient driver. Well now those days are gone!”
Only in a transportation network that picks winners and losers and promotes stress and frustration would anyone ever need a pop-up crosswalk like this.
Another introduces a cyclist who was so fed up with people walking in his path that he installed an air horn on his bike. It works splendidly to get everyone’s attention, but only by escalating conflict with every pedestrian in his path. The last example in the video stuck out to me in particular. Here, the cyclist comes up behind someone walking in the cycle lane, but it’s clear the sidewalk has been taken over for construction; I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the “pedestrian detour” directed the walker into the bike lane. As you might imagine, the walker isn’t too pleased about the air horn, and he and the cyclist get in a physical altercation. With our transportation network built as it is, it’s not surprising, but it is tremendously sad, to see the lengths to which this cyclist felt he had to go to do away with the source of his frustration; it’s not surprising to see pedestrians, startled by the airhorn, express frustration at the cyclist; it’s not surprising that, in one instance, this led to physical violence.
A third is from the perspective of a motorcyclist who has stopped a driver for — I think — cutting him off at a roundabout. The motorcyclist is yelling at the driver, the driver doesn’t really respond, the motorcyclist kicks the car’s side mirror, and the driver accelerates into and over the parked motorcycle before racing away. I wouldn’t be surprised if the driver did do something that made the motorcyclist feel unsafe, even if he did so accidentally. Whatever the (unseen) details that led to this interaction, it’s clear the motorcyclist is frustrated, and he’s determined to take that frustration out on the driver; as a result, the interaction turns violent. Only in a transportation network that places individuals in stressful situations, that favors some over others, that makes traveling a matter of life and death, would this situation occur. And this type of interaction isn’t all that surprising or unexpected.
I think I’ve made my point clear: it’s frustrating how frustrating our current transportation system is. It’s frustrating how woefully insufficient it is at facilitating movement without frustration. It’s frustrating how seemingly everyone is frustrated, and it’s frustrating that everyone is frustrated with each other (“It is acceptable,” comments Dr. Ian Walker of Bath University, “to sit in a pub and say things like: ‘Bloody cyclists, we should run them off the road’”; “What’s smug and deserves to be decapitated?” asks one op-ed in The Times, half-jokingly, introducing the idea of stringing wire across country lanes — a few years later, such incidents of sabotage against cyclists were very much real).
Even in a society so oriented around driving, in which car ownership is so normalized and seemingly-critical to being a prosperously-contributing member of a community, it’s not like the transportation system makes driving all that pleasant of a task, either. (Traffic, like the weather, is ideal small talk because there’s always shared frustration over which two drivers can bond.) Congestion, a geometrically-preordained aspect of many local transportation networks, has an especially-negative impact on people who drive: one study, for example, found severe congestion was correlated with increased rates of domestic violence.
I think it’s easy to forget that the transportation networks we currently have did not happen by accident. They developed gradually over time as the result of complex and interrelated forces, sure, but, ultimately, they are the result of a finite series of human decisions. We — our ancestors and communities and government leaders — made the networks on which we currently rely. That also means, importantly, that we have the power to change it to be better.
We don’t have to accept the system as it currently is. We don’t have to sacrifice so many of our loved ones to traffic violence (in the US, someone is killed every 14 minutes, and that someone is disproportionately-likely to be of a socioeconomically-marginalized community). We don’t have to take our lives in our hands when we travel, exhausted by the stress of such necessary risk-taking. We don’t have to be so frustrated, ready to explode in a (violent) rage at the slightest provocation. We don’t have to think of our fellow travelers — our fellow humans — as enemies. Because we built it, we can change it.
As we think about changing our transportation networks, however, we must do so intentionally.
To me, one value, above all else, would, if taken to heart by those who build and manage our transportation networks, go a long way to making our systems better for the people at their heart:
Dignity for all, not some.
Transportation should be a human right — people will always need to move. (You sometimes hear that more movement is not always better for society, but, to me, that’s a cop-out; we probably can’t accommodate much more automobile travel in our cities, sure, but there are plenty of more efficient and sustainable ways for people to get around). And yet it’s impossible not to notice that our transportation system is not designed to make moving safe or comfortable for most people. It’s baked into our engineering standards, that make it difficult for elderly people to cross with enough time at a walk signal. It’s baked into our planning practices, that result in snow or garbage piled onto already-narrow sidewalks. It’s baked into our zoning and land use standards, that enforce automobile-dependency and encourage congestion. It’s no surprise people are frustrated!
And to me, it’s clear that they’re frustrated because the mobility networks on which they rely systematically deprive them of their dignity when traveling.
What might be different if our transportation planners, designers, and engineers in charge of our mobility networks considered dignity of all travelers to be fundamental?
It would force us to rethink almost every aspect of the systems we use to get around with an eye towards leveling the playing field, respecting every traveler, and facilitating safe and efficient movement. It’s easy to identify how this could be implemented in practice:
- When we design bus stops without benches or shelters, or without safe and close crossing locations, we deprive bus riders of dignity. Wouldn’t it be nice if we, instead, dignified traveling by bus by making basic amenities and safety features standard at every stop?
- When we use zoning and land use planning to encourage sprawl and automobile dependency, we deprive those who can’t afford a car of dignity. We deprive those who sit in congested traffic of dignity. We deprive those who would choose not to drive of dignity by depriving them of the ability to make the choice in the first place. Wouldn’t it be nice if we, instead, reconsidered the spatial arrangements of our neighborhoods to promote — to dignify — choice?
- When we use car-oriented flow metrics to evaluate transportation network functioning, we systematically deprive non-drivers of dignity. If a bus of 30 people and a car pass through an intersection, car-oriented flow analyses take the volume as two — is the person driving alone 30 times as valuable as the bus riders? What if we, instead, considered — and dignified — people, and not cars, in transportation decisionmaking?
- When we close bike paths and force pedestrians and cyclists to share too-narrow and poorly-maintained sidewalks, we systematically deprive both groups of dignity. What if we, instead, gave all people the space they needed to travel safely and comfortably? (With respect to my close call on the Redbridge Causeway, I wouldn’t have to avoid cycling to the beautiful New Forest due to anxiety over crossing the narrow sidewalk again, and I wouldn’t have to hope, when I do go, that I don’t see anyone else out exercising).
- When we rely on predominantly white, middle-class, and male planners and engineers, we run the risk of systematically depriving other groups of dignity. For example, a circumstance that I may grin and bear but ultimately accept — a too-short walk signal, for example — may be one completely impassible for someone else. What if we, instead, dignified and uplifted diverse groups within transportation planning and engineering processes?
I could list examples for days. To me, once I started viewing transportation through the lens of dignity, it became impossible to look away. And to me, the link between transportation networks that systematically-deprive dignity and rampant frustration is fundamental: we are all so frustrated because we are forced to compete for the right to space and attention and safety within a system that does not respect us.
Over the past several years of engaging with the transportation community, I’ve developed many “rules for planning,” which I’ll likely share in future posts. That said, the most important one, I think, has to be:
Dignity for all, not some.
Planners and engineers, taking this mantra to heart in their work, could make a world of difference to how people get around.