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

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.