Is right of way the problem?

Is right of way the problem?

There are many examples.

  • Parents putting too many expectations, rules, or pressure on their kids because they want the best for them, only to find that they end up going completely off the rails as a result.
  • Holding onto something so tightly that it breaks.
  • Being so cautious and tense that you end up having an accident. Driving, sure, but I was thinking about mountain biking…
  • Years of careful planning down the tubes because of one, tiny, unexpected variable.
  • Focusing on something so intently that you completely miss something far more important or exciting.

These are all examples of behaviour that people engage in because they think, with some logical basis, that it will ensure the greatest chance of success. As we all know, however, life just isn’t like that, all predictable and stuff.

In each of these scenarios just relaxing and going with the flow, staying flexible in mind and body, and adapting to the environment like water would provide a greater chance of success. Sure, have a plan, but don’t let that get in the way of real life.

No rules to break

Let’s take this onto the mean streets of planet earth. There are rules everywhere. My space, your space. My turn, your turn. My right, your right. Most important of all, though, there is plenty of this: you can’t do that.

“You can’t do that”, or “that won’t happen” could be the single most significant cause of accidents.

The more you plan for one thing, the more you expect just one thing to happen, the less prepared you are for something else to happen. If you think about it, rules actually encourage this behaviour because we expect everyone else to be paying attention, observing the rules, and, crucially, be completely uninterested in bending them or pushing the boundaries a little. Never-mind doing something completely unexpected. Ironically, that’s why it’s ok for you to multi-task while driving or cycling and stare at your phone while crossing the street, right? Because there are rules, and everyone else should be following them…

That’s how accidents happen. You didn’t expect that guy in front of you to slam on the brakes, otherwise you would have left more (sufficient) space. You didn’t expect someone to step out into the street (which is usually enough of a spanner in the works on it’s own), otherwise you wouldn’t have checked your phone at that instant. You didn’t expect that car door to open, otherwise you would have been riding a couple of feet further away from it. You definitely didn’t expect that patch of glass to appear in front of the cyclist just in front of you, otherwise you would have given them more than enough room when you passed by.

What if none of these rules were in place and your expectations were to expect the unexpected at all times? What if no one had right of way?

Enter: shared spaces

Take right of way out of the equation and people behave differently. Calmer. With more caution. Slower. Safer?

Put in a green light and a red light that says, “this is my time to go, you have to get out of my way!”, and people will defend that “right”, but they will also push it. Take lights out, however, and look what happens (hot tip: this is interesting but long, so if you don’t want to watch all 15 minutes of it, skip to 7:30 for the money shot):

Cute, isn’t it? How about this one?

Yeah, that looks positively ridiculous, but then you notice that it’s actually working, in a crazy and super sketchy sort of way, but working. I know this is a pretty extreme example, but the premise has a pretty good basis, and shows that it can even work in a reasonably major intersection.

Let’s just get this out of the way now: it’s not a magical fix-all, and it’s not for every single traffic situation that exists, but for many mixed-use, populated, residential, retail, and/or business area, it has it’s merits.

Let’s start a little smaller. Detroit. Not a small town, per se, but research has suggested that it could loose about 30% of it’s traffic signals to make better use of the streets. In other words, there is more traffic regulation in Detroit than need be. Sure, they would be replaced with some stop signs, but it’s still deregulating things a bit.

Elsewhere in the US cities have been playing with shared spaces off an on for a while now, mostly experimenting with shared spaces and open streets, however for the most part these are not totally shared – at least, not with vehicles. These are great too, but that’s another topic. Last year Seattle put the finishing touches on Bell Street Park which is a significant move in the shared streets direction, and Chicago is working on one. Europe is still where most of the engineered shared streets are located (here are a few). The Netherlands has more than 6000 of them.

Alright, so shared streets are pretty great, and coming back to my original point, shared streets are places where “that won’t happen” is not the assumption that is guiding your travels. No rules means no expectations, or at least lower ones. It also suggests that the most vulnerable person is the most important, and this works because the person driving the two-tonne metal box isn’t operating in a space where the law says they have right of way. Combining the shared streets with an over-arching policy of presumed liability or similar tends to take the edge off of those considering risky maneuvers.

Ok, and now, the other side. Shared spaces promote anarchy. Alright, I don’t think anyone is arguing that, but some point out that shared spaces aren’t the panacea that they are made out to be. He makes some strong points. Accidents have actually gone up in some shared spaces. As I said before, there is no perfect situation, and shared spaces don’t work in all contexts. Shared spaces don’t really do anything to kerb risky behaviour – they actually demand more attention from the driver by increasing risk… unless you slow down, which is the point.

Yes, we could adopt the mindset that anything can happen without throwing the rule book out the window and removing our class-based, highly regimented and biased road network, but then you would lose all of the other benefits that come with shared streets aside from safety, like traffic efficiency, improved community activity, better retail performance, and a bunch of other claims which I’m sure someone somewhere can poke all sorts of holes in. What you clearly don’t get is segregation between cars and bikes, which makes it nearly impossible for them to collide, except when they both get to an intersection, which is kind of where shared spaces make the most sense anyway, so…

What am I saying? I don’t even know anymore. Shared space, segregated space, rules, no rules. Really, they all work, and they all have problems.

My point at the beginning was this: the thought, “I have right of way”, which is reinforced by laws and shaped by infrastructure, encourages road users to disregard the possibility that the unexpected can happen and increases the risk disproportionately to more vulnerable road users. More than that, it can encourage road users to adopt a clear hierarchy of power that divides and isolates people rather than encouraging empathy, cooperation, and consideration.

It’s minds that need changing as much as streets. I think segregating road users is a wonderfully practical thing, but I am also drawn to the idea that a physical space can offer increased safety (debatable, I know) while also creating an equal playing field for all people (with the exception of the blind, possibly) regardless of their socioeconomic status and integrating communities on many levels.

Idealistic? Maybe, but maybe not. It’s working in many, many places around the world already, where no one has right of way, but where anyone can offer it.


Header image: mine