COMMENT & ANALYSIS: You may think that a set of traffic lights communicates no more than whose turn it is to proceed. If so, you’re mistaken. Communication is embedded in the media we consume, in the conversations we have, in the design of our environment and, relevant to traffic lights, in the design of the systems that control that environment.
Drivers approaching a traffic-light-controlled junction have a fair chance of not having to stop, encountering a green light. Traffic lights are sometimes synchronised to allow vehicles travelling at a desired average speed to never “hit a red”. Yet if you travel on foot, you are almost 100% certain to have to wait at every single traffic light you encounter.
While of course it is likely that practical arguments can be made to justify this arrangement, the message inherent in this system cannot be avoided: as pedestrian, you must defer to drivers and cyclists.
Pedestrians sometimes wait minutes while in front of them people ensconced in luxurious comfort glide by. When finally the pedestrian is given a chance to cross, they are afforded a few seconds. Should you need to cross diagonally, you are expected to do so in a dog-leg: cross once, then wait for all other traffic to have turns lasting minutes to negotiate this crossing, and only then will you be allowed to complete the second leg of your journey past this single junction.
Whether we like it or not, there is a message embedded in this lived experience. As social beings we use priority as an indication of status. It is not for no reason that Donald Trump rudely shoved his way to the front of a group of world leaders. He was saying something about his opinion of his and the United States’ place on the world stage. No matter what the intention with the settings of traffic lights, the message to pedestrians is that they are second-class citizens, in last place – likely only on request – after everyone else has crossed.
Just so, there is more to the act of parking on a footpath or in a cycle lane than meets the eye. Beyond the problems such obstruction causes for vulnerable road users, there is also a clear message embedded in such parking.
Consider this: in a school, one of the massive jocks who is a star in the rugby team leans casually against a locker, blocking its door, arms folded across his chest. This locker belongs to a much less athletic nerd, a member of a group of friends who have frequently been bullied and beat up by the jock’s fellow towering mates. The jock knows this, but when confronted argues he just stopped there to wait for a teacher whose office door happens to be across the hall from the nerd’s locker.
Can anyone except the deliberately obtuse miss the message embedded in the jock’s actions, regardless if his excuse is legitimate or simply a cover for deliberate intimidation?
Parking on a footpath or in a cycle lane is exactly the same. The member of a more powerful group in the social order, whether they intend this or not, communicates directly to members of a less powerful group when they intrude on space set aside for the less powerful group. It’s a taunt: what are you going to do about it?
Vulnerable road users are powerless when they encounter such violations of their space. It’s a statement: your needs are less important than mine. It’s a message to fellow members of the dominant group: this is okay, this is the norm, this is socially acceptable.
The harm in footpath and cycle lane parking therefore lies primarily in the intimidation of vulnerable road users. It is an act that reinforces the message that vulnerable road users’ needs and rights are irrelevant and unimportant. That, more than the direct increase of exposure to risk, ultimately leads to vulnerable road users’ deaths and injuries, and suppression of active travel uptake due to fear. The attitude of drivers is the most deadly thing on our roads.
Nadia Williams is a postgraduate researcher investigating the role of social dynamics in cycling uptake and safety. She lives car-free with her family in Dundalk.