No space

Comment & Analysis: “There is no space available on this road to make provision for cycling.” I’ve heard that over and over again, and most often you can remove “on this road” from the statement. It seems that in some places in Ireland — or, some argue, most places in Ireland — there is simply not enough space in the public realm to make provision for cycling. I think the statement is a tragic expression of a fatal flaw in our thinking.

It is rooted in an automobility view of the world, resting on an automatic assumption of drivers’ priority over everything else. There is no space for provision for cycling, but there is always space for provision for driving. If there is space available that is the width of a car, you have a near guarantee that this will be made into space for driving first and foremost.

Walking and cycling will either be simply ignored, provided for in substandard ways, or — and I have witnessed this first hand — people will convince themselves and others (at least, they’ll try) that actually, this is space meant for all road users.

What if we reframe that statement? What if we were to say: “There is no space available on this road for driver priority.” What if we were to alter road design in such spaces to prioritise pedestrians and cyclists, and treat drivers as guests?

Infrastructure design itself is not my specialism — what intrigues me leans more to social science than engineering. Yet as I pondered what such a design might look like, I came up with this rough sketch (I had the artwork for pedestrians and drivers on file) for the space about which this comment was made to me most recently. Bear in mind, there are existing footpaths available, the argument was that there is no space to provide for safe cycling:


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The green bits are meant to represent speed bumps which allow cyclists to pedal on undeterred, but which slow drivers down to safe speeds. The ideal would be for the centre part of these speed bumps to be wider than the average car (though the way things are going that will end up being as wide as a motorway lane, but let’s just think average sedan in this scenario). I’m well aware that the first objection here would be that this is impossible because the discomfort for those using buses and ambulances would be too severe. There are always objections when the deprioritisation of cars is suggested, and they are often sincere and rooted in practicalities.

Yet if we objected to the prioritisation of drivers around a block of flats, arguing that those living there will pay a high price in health and negative social impacts, if we object to the continuation of high speeds past school fronts, none of that ever seems to make an impression. Contrasting with that, the slightest objection to cycling infrastructure, however far-fetched, has a real chance of torpedoing efforts to provide for cycling.

True story: I have heard an objection to encouraging children to walk about 300m on the basis that they would then walk past the local shop (though it is on the other side of the street from the walking route), and demand money from their parents, and, for this reason, drivers must be facilitated to drive to directly beside the window of their child’s classroom to drop them off instead. I still have a bruise on my chin from it hitting the floor, hearing that one.

I would love to hear from others, especially if you have more specialised knowledge of infrastructure design, on how you would design a road that puts drivers last (for a change). My one caveat is that it cannot rely on asking drivers nicely — in my opinion that is a waste of time.

My central point here, though, is not about the specifics of the infrastructure. It is about the framing: what if we stopped saying that there is no space for cycling infrastructure, or even, sometimes, enough space for walking infrastructure? What if we started saying there is not enough space for driver priority? What could happen if we started thinking that way?

5 comments

  1. Easier option is to make that road pso and access only that eliminates through traffic in most cases. Only issue with your diagram is road doesn’t look wide enough for 2 buses to pass otherwise it works

    Reply
  2. Around 1.28 million people, or 68pc of all commuters, travel to work by car.

    Another 12pc of commuters, or 240,000 people, walk or cycle to work.

    Just 9pc of commuters, or around 180,000 people, use public transport
    Source: CSO

    Maybe that’s the problem right there!!!

    Reply
  3. Nadia, this is fascinating. I’m a writer so I’m really interested in how language can be used/manipulated to privilege certain viewpoints. If I’m reading your piece correctly, your thesis is to stay with the negative framing ‘no space for…’ but replace ‘cycling’ (or by extension, ‘wider footpaths’, ‘wheelchair ramps’ etc) with ‘driver priority’. I’m all for this as an outcome. But the question for me is the language. I can’t see/feel ‘driver priority’ in the way I see ‘cycling’. It feels abstract, hard to conceive. If I didn’t cycle I’d have no idea of what this meant. Interesting. What’s the ideally single word that will be vivid, hit people in their senses and allow them to get the new concept? ‘No space for putting drivers first’ – ‘no space for driver privilege’ – ‘no space for driver dominance’ – ‘no space for putting cars before people’? I’d love to hear other people’s views.
    The second linguistic question your essay raises is about complexity. ‘No space for cycling’ is a simple concept. Problem: no space for cycling; solution: get rid of people on bicycles. ‘No space for driver dominance/privilege’ is a very nuanced concept. It means a shift in the power relations on the road. Also it raises the question, if drivers don’t dominate, who do? From your piece, everyone else….
    The vulnerability hierarchy is what contemporary road design is meant to honour – those with least power have most rights/priority, but as we all know this is not applied often (enough) in practice.
    Thanks for writing this.

    Reply
  4. The Cycle Design Manual deals with this in 4.2.9 Cycling in Mixed Traffic and provides limiting criteria for traffic design speed and traffic volume for this to be considered plausible. Under “Surface Treatments” on Page 66, it mentions textured surfaces such as block paving as an option for traffic calming and use of “distinctive coloured surfacing (for example, red coloured asphalt) to convey to drivers that they are entering a street environment in which cyclists have priority”. Also on Page 69 the concept of “Cycle Streets” is decribed. This is similar to the Dutch “Bicycle Street” but perhaps the CDM needs to be aligned more towards the Dutch Crow standard: simply painting bicycle symbol road markings on a road as illustrated in Figure 4.40 of the CDM does not go far enough to indicate cyclist priority. For drivers, it should look like they are driving on a cycle track. Also adoption of unique signing like the Dutch Fietsstraat sign would help establish a unique identity for Cycle Streets. If Cycle Streets look no different to any other road, drivers are unlikley to treat them any differently.

    Reply

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