How To NOT Promote Better Streets For Bikes & Pedestrians

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A couple weeks ago, I came across an article that advocated for better pedestrian and cyclist safety. While nobody wants people to be unsafe and nobody likes seeing death and destruction, there are a few clichéd things the article does that I see all the time, and they’re not good for the cause the author (and others like them) advocate for.

In this article, I want to explain why the urbanist echo chamber is holding back progress, both by alienating the public and by turning pedestrian safety into a needlessly divisive issue. Instead of preaching to the urbanist choir, more effective communication is badly needed for the broader public.

Before I dig into the problems, I want to make it clear that the article I linked to makes some very valid and important points. The best one was that there are often a few streets that are far more dangerous than others, and with some creative engineering, these streets can be made a lot safer. It also makes the point that this shouldn’t be a “drivers versus pedestrians” problem, as nobody fundamentally opposes reducing needless deaths.

But, before a reader can get to these points, they’re bombarded with things that impress urbanists but cause most people’s eyes to roll (right as they click the back button). Let’s talk about a few of these strategic communication errors.

“Traffic Violence”

One big one is the use of the term “traffic violence.” I get that there is a great deal of dangerous and even deadly force involved in a car accident, especially when you’re not in a car yourself. But, to use the word violence implies intent. 

The dictionary definition of violence is either “behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.” or “the unlawful exercise of physical force or intimidation by the exhibition of such force.”

While there are certainly situations like road rage where traffic violence is quite real, someone doing something stupid that accidentally hurts someone simply does not meet the definition of the word “violence”. It’s bad, and it’s something we need to prevent when possible, but when we call things violence that are not violence, people notice that.

Drivers know that the misuse of the word against them as a class is driven by malice and hatred. It’s a form of bigotry. So, like all petty bigotries, drivers respond to it by discounting the rest of the message the speaker is trying to convey. Once such a divisive term is used, anything good you may have to say after that falls on deaf ears.

Attacking Vehicle Choice

If there’s one thing Republicans have proven over the last few years, it’s that people hate having their choices taken away. Going after abortion, the LGBT community, and even freedom of speech was so detrimental to the conservative cause that even a midterm election that should have been handily won was pink foam instead of the predicted “red wave.”

But, when one is sitting outside of the conservative milieu, it’s easier to see that error than when one lives inside of the conservative echo chamber. Instead of seeing the inevitable result of pushing unpopular and divisive public policy, many of the most committed Republicans are still crying election fraud. They simply can’t believe that with all of their friends online hating Democrats, abortion, and transgender people that their side could possibly lose an election.

These urbanists make a very similar mistake, and can’t see it for exactly the same reason. The fact is that Americans love trucks and SUVs. Is it silly for a guy who works in a cubicle, never tows, and never drives on dirt to drive an F-250 around? Sure. But, he’s hardly alone in making that choice. Millions and millions of Americans want “bigger and more lethal” vehicles, and because the vast majority of them have never hit a pedestrian and never will hit a pedestrian, the idea that they need to switch to a weird little wedge car is seen as an unreasonable attack on their right to buy a vehicle of their choice.

When urbanists try to tell all of these people that they shouldn’t be allowed to own the vehicle they chose, we shouldn’t be surprised when they reject the entire urbanist message.

Calling For Speed Limiters On Vehicles

But, there’s an even more crazy thing urbanists like the author are calling for that make drivers feel like their freedom is under even greater attack: calling for vehicle speed limiters.

Here’s the thing: when someone buys a car, they want it to be their car. They control it. And, as George Carlin said, everyone who drives slower than us is an idiot and everyone who drives faster than us is a maniac. We all speed a little, but again, very few drivers have ever struck a pedestrian or caused a major accident. So, when urbanists ask us to install a cybernanny in our car, that’s a big turn-off.

Even if the urbanists are 100% right about everything, it won’t matter without public support. You might be able to get away with speed limiters and pickup truck bans in the most urban parts of California and New York, but everyone else is going to fly you the bird at election time and fight you tooth and nail between elections.

Alternative Tactics To Try

Instead of trying to make people feel like shit and feel like they need to give something up, safety advocates instead need to tell drivers what’s in it for them! Here’s what I would do if I were an urbanist:

  • Instead of talking about pedestrian safety, talk about how we can make streets better for everyone (including drivers!)
  • Instead of talking only about making room for bikes, talk about how bike infrastructure and protected lanes helps keep bikes out of traffic lanes and out of drivers’ way.
  • Instead of only focusing on how intersections can be made better for pedestrians, we can also point out that fewer conflicts means the intersection is easier and less stressful for drivers.
  • We can also point out efficiency advantages to safer streets, talk about how going a little slower (due to engineering changes, not punitive cybernannies) can get you there faster in the end, and otherwise talk up efficiency. After all, safety is more efficient, so let’s sell the efficiency.
  • Stay away from advocating for divisive policy that turns it into a “drivers vs pedestrians” battle. 

Featured image by Jennifer Sensiba.


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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1996 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba