Sharing Our Roads
Arlington's a crowded urban community. So why can't some of the people on our roads act like that?
“Get off the !@#$%^& road!”
“!@#$ you, I have just as much a right to be here as you do.”
And so goes a rather sizeable proportion of most on-road cyclist/motorist conversations. It doesn’t accomplish anything, except perhaps raising the blood pressure of those involved and setting the stage for a more aggressive conflict the next time a similar interaction occurs.
It’s stupid, pointless, and childish. And I’m guilty of it. On both sides.
I’m going to move into the first person for this column, because I think it might be useful to personalize things (in fact, I think personalizing it is key to solving this, but we’ll get to that later). The point is, I’ve played both of the roles above. Shortly after I moved to Arlington from Atlanta (in the mid 90s), I found myself in a situation where a pedestrian appeared (to me) to purposely obstruct my forward vehicular motion, and I made my dissatisfaction plain through the subsequent operation of my car. Is that unclear enough? Good. Because I’m not entirely clear on the statute of limitations. But it was clear enough to the police officer who happened to be sitting behind me, who started off the subsequent conversation by asking whether or not they taught us how to drive in Georgia (the answer is no). I’ll close this story out by saying that I deserved a far worse penalty than I got.
Nearly 15 years later? I can hardly recognize the me that was driving down Fairfax Drive that day. It was the me that hadn’t yet realized that streets are for everyone. The me that didn’t quite get that communities are, in large part, defined by their connections. The me that didn’t really understand that we should – we must – share our roads.
It’s been a slow but sure transition away from that me. I’ve moved from being unable to imagine a daily life without a car to one where I’m wondering why I even bother with a car. Though still – I admit – the present me has (ahem) occasionally taken the second line in the opening dialog. I’m doing my best – with some success – to omit its colorful start.
It’s not that I think my path should be everyone’s path. We all have different commuting and transportation needs. There are innumerable complicated explanations of our own individual transportation requirements. When one of us looks over at the other, in traffic, we really don’t know why the other is there. I can’t fathom driving to K Street from Arlington every day, but I’m not going to condemn those that do. We’re all on the same streets, for reasons likely unknowable to the other.
The Arlington County Board recently adopted the “Streets Element” of its Master Transportation Plan. Arlington’s Complete Streets program recognizes that streets should serve everyone. Driver, cyclist, and pedestrian: every citizen deserves a safe passage through her community, and streets should be designed with that in mind. This is – among Arlington County’s counterparts – a rare bit of forward thinking, and they should be well congratulated for it.
Unfortunately, government recognition is but one of several pieces of the complete transportation puzzle. Arlington County can stripe all the bike lanes, paint all the sharrows, and design all the bicycle boulevards it wants: but if the people who live here aren’t willing to share these common spaces, it won’t work.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column about a pending legislative bill that would give cyclists an additional 12 inches of margin between passing cars and their bodies. It's a relatively minor change in the law, and even if it doesn't pass, I suggested that it would be a good idea to give a little extra margin of safety when passing cyclists. The very first response from a commenter? “[W]hen cyclists stop riding in the road when there is a clearly available bike path right next to the road I will start to treat them more courteously.“ And I - as a cyclist who is beyond tired of the worn-out and unsupportable myth of the scofflaw cyclist being claimed as the obstacle to better relations – responded with my own share of aggressive snark. As the comment thread evolved (devolved?), it was clear that most of the non-cycling participants in the discussion hadn't the first clue about the legal rights of cyclists in Virginia. But did that change anything?
Sure, outlining the way in which the object of your immediate annoyance is wrong feels good at the time. And it may even be true in the long run (though really, it’s not the cyclists that are slowing you down). But that sort of aggressive back and forth doesn’t really accomplish anything. In the same way that the idiot in front of your car is always the person who doesn’t know how to drive, and the guy behind your car is always a tailgater, it’s often too easy to dehumanize other people who are sharing the street with you. And that's where we go so very wrong.
You know that’s who’s in the car behind you, the bike next to you, or crossing the street in front of you, right? A human being. It could be your neighbor, your lawyer, or the guy that makes your sandwiches at lunch. I don’t know anyone – motorist, cyclist, or pedestrian - who heads out into Arlington’s streets with the purpose of inconveniencing others. But I do know a lot of people – family, friends, and acquaintances – that are just trying to go about their daily lives on them, and experience an incredible amount of frustration and danger in doing so. If we’d all treat the people we encounter on the streets as we would our family, friends, and acquaintances, I think it would be a far less stressful – and far safer – experience for everyone.
Having second thoughts on how you operate on the streets? A lot of very smart people have put a lot of thought into how best to share the roads.
Want some insight into understanding the aggressive defensiveness of cyclists? The top DC cycling blog gives context:
 was, unfortunately, the deadliest year for local cyclists since this blog started. There were 10 local fatalities, 4 more than in 2008. Constance Holden was hit by a military truck as she stood with her bike, waiting to ride home; and Abdelouahid Chadli was hit from behind on the sidewalk as he was about to enter the bike path. David Williams was hit from behind by two cars, including one that left the scene. Stan Miller was also hit from behind, by a driver who was later determined to be drunk and who tried to leave the scene. Rebecca Johns, a 9 year old, was hit as she tried to cross the street. Natasha Pettigrew, the Green Party's candidate for the Senate, was another cyclist hit from behind. The driver drove all the way home before calling the police, claiming to have never noticed the bicycle lodged beneath her car. Christopher Benton was hit by a driver who turned left into him. And Minh Van was hit trying to cross Wilson Boulevard.
Only in the case of Stan Miller was the driver charged, or even ticketed.