Design for all!

Roads are not for cars. Nor are they for bicycles. Rather, roads are built for people – all people. Although this simple fact seems obvious, the language used in the alleged “cars vs. bikes” debate often clouds it.

The latest (or at least most notorious) version of this kerfuffle came from John Cassidy at the New Yorker blog. In his article, he manages to simultaneously whine about bicyclists today not being tough enough while complaining that the NYC bike lanes make it hard to find a parking spot for his Jaguar. He even manages to pull the “I went to Oxford and have experienced European bicycling” card! (I can pull that too, you know.) Although there were a couple of hilariously snarky responses, along with some more insightful ones , most didn’t address head-on his unspoken assumption that roads are designed for his car.

Of course, the roads are designed to be used by him, in his car or not. But not him alone. Rather, they are – or should be – designed to be used by everyone in New York City. People who cannot afford to, are physically unable to, or choose not to drive a car have the right to use the street as much as he does.

The danger in the type of thinking Cassidy displays is that you privilege your mode of transportation above everyone else’s. And it’s not just drivers who have this perspective. I know that there have been times riding on multi-use trails that I’ve mentally sworn at pedestrians in my way. It’s not pretty, but it’s true. I try to outwardly be polite, but can’t guarantee that my tone of voice hasn’t given me away once or twice. Similarly, pedestrians who stroll out in front of cars completely disregarding crosswalks assume that drivers can come to a complete halt, no matter what the circumstances. Although drivers need to give pedestrians the right of way, they can’t change the laws of physics. This biased perception can even change as one person moves from mode to mode. A bicyclist who thinks he’s Lance Armstrong one day and doesn’t signal to pedestrians can drive like a maniac the next. As a result, no one person can judge what mode of transportation any one street should focus on.

Knowing that humans are fallible makes it particularly important to have and carry out a Complete Streets policy. Streets designed using this set of principles accommodate all users of the road in all of the forms of transportation they may need. It allows everyone, from elementary students walking to school to senior citizens on public transportation to get around. Ideally, these plans are based on the current and future needs of the community rather than a few narrow-minded, powerful individuals. Input from all stakeholders, especially those who aren’t often heard, is essential. It’s hard to do, but it makes for a much more usable road that supports a strong community in the end.

So I suggest to John Cassidy that he gets out and experiences some of these complete streets by a mode of transportation other than a car. He’ll be able to see his neighbors, spend time outdoors, get some exercise, and never have to worry about a parking space. And maybe, he’ll know for a little while what someone else needs from that road.

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