The curious rift between infrastructure and education

The curious rift between infrastructure and education


To achieve a change in behaviour, is it better to try to teach someone to behave properly or is it more effective to simply create an environment where that won’t matter as much?

Lack of education is a common element in the story of those who turn to a life of crime (among others, obviously), though one could also make the case that education doesn’t seem to help inform the moral compass of those who take our money on Wall Street and the like, but I digress…

As far as our roads are concerned, should we focus on education or infrastructure, and why is it sometimes considered a choice?


Knowledge is power, and having learned what and why something is important is crucial to adjusting your behaviour accordingly. Knowledge and power aren’t good or bad on their own, though, so teaching someone to behave in a certain way requires a person to accept the value of certain things more than others.

Knowing how to operate a vehicle and knowing how to drive properly are two different things, and much can be said for educating people to consider the consequences of their actions behind the wheel. I don’t hear too much about the need for the standards of obtaining and keeping a driving license to be made higher, but the idea that drivers with licenses need more and better education is a common one. It certainly doesn’t hurt to be reminded to be a better driver, cyclist, or pedestrian.

Driving tests are basically assessing a person’s technical ability to control a vehicle within a prescribed set of rules. A person can learn this and be competent enough to obtain a driving license without having the patient and generous disposition that would characterize the ideal society as it pertains to our roads. Safety campaigns seek to appeal to the moral or emotional side of people rather than the technical one, and as anyone with a child knows, sometimes you have to explain why something is right and something is wrong. Education isn’t always simply for technical mastery.

In most cases, education is sufficient for most people.


On the other side of the argument as it pertains to road safety is infrastructure. It’s a design issue. Take away the opportunity for people to hurt each other and their bad decisions won’t matter as much.

Essentially, favouring infrastructure as a solution for safety assumes that people aren’t as generous or patient or skilled or even all that inclined to use the road responsibly. Good infrastructure takes away the confusion of how to best behave. It creates order, and can even influence people’s behaviour without having to threaten people with punishments.

Good infrastructure makes up for bad decisions, and can make up for a lack of competence.


I come across situations often enough where people get into a debate about infrastructure or education. A common point made is that segregated cycling infrastructure is great for some sections of a journey, but as it puts cyclists “out of sight, out of mind”, it actually makes the interaction between cyclists and cars (and perhaps pedestrians?) more dangerous where that interaction eventually happens. It reminds me of the debate between vehicular cycling and segregated cycling.

The thing that I can’t quite come to terms with is why we should have to choose? What’s so special about our roads that we have to treat them differently about any other potentially dangerous environment?

If you have a job where you operate dangerous equipment, you are instructed in how to use it, while measures are put in place to help avoid any potential disasters. Both are important, but because behaviour is not always predictable and situations arise (or are created) that increase the risk, an environment that attempts to minimize the effect of situations outside of the ideal seems an awfully pragmatic thing to encourage.

There are a few factors at play. For example, the first and most obvious as well as the most pertinent: we can’t redesign all of our roads overnight to nice, safe infrastructure for all. Secondly, even if we could, in many places it’s not what the voters want, so it’s not going to happen any time soon. Third, there is validity to the idea of strength in numbers, but I think it’s one that assumes that cycling and motoring share the same space.

The real world is full of realities where infrastructure or education on their one will be sufficient all of the time.

Basically, I don’t see how we can treat these as mutually exclusive. We need education as well as better infrastructure, and as different modes of transportation will always have points where they intersect, we always will.

There is of course, a third method of influencing behaviour, and that is to make them fear the repercussions of behaving badly, which I don’t see as something to overlook either. We need consequences.

People aren’t robots. We have all sorts of desires and often have trouble putting their importance in the correct order. We get distracted. We choose to compromise the safety of ourselves and those around us by quickly checking our phone, for example.

So then, where infrastructure might help minimize the consequences of poor decisions, can we make education more compelling than the lure of voluntary distractions? You could argue that attentiveness is being programmed out of us by “helpful” technology, with a sense of accountability that comes with being connected to those around you in a real way being eroded by safer, better handling, and more comfortable cars.

Laws with stiff penalties might help to minimize the bad decisions that people make, though of course people have their opinions about that too.

Education is important for giving people the tools to make good decisions, but I’m fairly certain that no-one would argue that people do the right thing all the time.

So why can’t we do all of the above? What’s wrong with teaching people how to drive, introducing safe and separated infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians and vehicles, educating everyone about the risks associated with getting from A to B, and then further educating those who present the greatest danger that if they cause harm, perhaps especially in situations a, b, and c, then they will be encumbered with the responsibility of bearing the damages?

Maybe this boils down to the question of who is deemed responsible, or who should be. We shy away from saying “you are the one who is responsible for X”, and we also shy away from accepting this. Maybe it all comes down to votes. Maybe it all just comes down to the fact that we’re all just selfish and lazy. Good infrastructure often costs a lot of money (though it often doesn’t have to) and usually involves at least a perceived sacrifice of space for someone, and seeing as how cars have all of the space and most of the power, it’s the motorists who feel slighted by any decision to redesign our roads for safety. So maybe education is all we can hope for?

Whatever the case, we need education and we need good infrastructure if we want to become less car-dependent. How much of each will remain a debate, but to overlook the importance of either is a mistake. Add some compelling consequences into the mix, and I think you’ve got the trifecta of road safety.


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