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.
I don’t believe in an afterlife or hell, but if a hell did exist, then I’d hope that people who block (let’s use this word instead of ‘parking’) pavements and other public areas with their metal boxes just to suit their own selfish needs, would get their own special place in that hell.
The crappy treatment of pedestrians also reinforces the idea that you ‘need’ a car to live in the city.
When I mentioned to someone that pedestrians get treated badly and used the fact that green pedestrian lights on the quays last 10 seconds out of every 2 to 4 minutes I was told that this was the most efficient way to move people. Corral up all the pedestrians for 3 minutes and they can all cross in a group in 10 seconds. Cars need their 170 seconds because it’s a lot harder to move a couple of dozen cars through the junction. From my point of view this highlighted how inefficient single occupancy private cars are but the person I was talking to thought it highlighted how the authorities needed to ensure that pedestrians and cyclists didn’t get in the way of them in their private car.
If I choose to walk in to work instead of cycle, which I sometimes do, it takes the best part of an hour. I think I probably spend 15 minutes of that time waiting at lights. So when it comes to driving, we are willing to spend nearly a billion euro to cut the travel time between Cork and Limerick from an hour to 45 minutes but we’re not willing to do anything for pedestrians. The difference being, as you are pointing out in the article, that pedestrians are second class citizens. Try suggesting that cars have to navigate a steep switchback so they can pass over a pedestrian route and see how far you get, yet the likely response (after ‘do nothing’) to long wait times at pedestrian lights would be to put in a pedestrian bridge.
Good points from Eric. It’s infuriating and frustrating to witness how twisted people’s view of public spaces have become due to car-culture.
Excellent points there, Eric.
Until there is some strong political will to redesign cities completely nothing will change Cities should gather for pedestrians, bicycles, public transport (buses and trams, not taxis) in that order and only then, if there is still space, other motorised traffic.
It works in many cities around the world, so why not here?
This is a fantastic article, thanks Nadia. I came to the same conclusion a while ago, that the inverted hierarchy is the most dangerous thing about road use. I was convinced that the best way to reverse this culture was to bring back zebra crossings. It re-humanises road use, since drivers have to be aware of pedestrians, will therefore need to drive slower, and pedestrians rightly get priority. When I went looking for research, I came across a paper funded by the government investigating the most efficient road use, which actually said exactly that! (it also recommended that pedestrians should never have to cross a junction in 2 or more parts, another pet peeve of mine!) This paper, which outlined a lot of other great advice was published in 2013!! (sorry I can’t remember the title or author) Maybe the more active tweeters could start a campaign to #PrioritisePedestrians
Now think about this. If we implement a truly segregated Dutch type system – with cyclists separated in time as well as space by using cyclist specific traffic lights – it will be the same roads engineers who configure the pedestrian crossings who will now be allocating the time for the cyclists.
That’s right Shane and we can see the effects in the cycle infrastructure we already have. This is why we have cycle paths where you have to go around the corner, press a button and wait when you get to a junction with a minor side road and why we have cycle paths where priority is given to motorists pulling out of the driveway of their house over cyclists proceeding on the road/path.
I don’t think it is that the engineers hate cyclists or pedestrians (although it seems to me that certain councilors do) it is that when they are given priorities the speed and convenience of motorists is by far the most important.
Here’s some examples by the way:
On Walkinstown Road I frequently see cars parked on the footpath when it appears they have space in their driveway but they would rather block the footpath than block in their other car.
Still in Walkinstown. The grass verge has been paved over so apparently this is parking now, which at least isn’t blocking pedestrians. However if there’s a tree or wheelie bin in the way just block the footpath. What choice do you have?
The car sales places on the Naas Road seem confused about the difference between ‘footpath’ and ‘free showroom extension’. Or maybe they aren’t because they do this every day, presumably because nobody has ever punished them. Google must have driven past on a pretty unusual day, in general the situation is FAR worse along here for pedestrians and cyclists.
In reply to the comment Shane Foran made about the Dutch type system. This is how we allocated time for the cyclistst in The Netherlands. In my home town of Enschede as well as in the towns more than 100 miles away from my home town. Thus, nation wide.
For more information about cycling and the infrastructure therefor in The Netherlands look at the videos on the YouTube channel ‘BicycleDutch’.
Hi Omar, thanks hopefully some Irish people will look at that video and get some ideas. But many of us already know about this – I have been studying Dutch cycling infrastructure for nearly 20 years. The issue is not about what the Dutch do but about what is likely to happen if Irish engineers are allowed to build such systems. What we have learnt is that they are capable of building them without any detectors for bicycles – even if that means they cannot really work. So then cyclists are left in a situation of waiting really long times for gaps in traffic or taking risks to cross the road or of having to get off the bike and walk to press a button intended for pedestrians or so on. The central issue is that the Dutch system is intended to promote bicycles and the Irish system is intended to promote cars. Unless we find a way to address that first we will not get a Dutch system.