Move Along: Upending the social order on our roads

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Jonathan Krall

By Jonathan Krall
(File Photo) 

While not intentional, biking and walking upset the transit social order. According to conventional thinking, roads are for cars, slow drivers are “bad drivers,” and cyclists and pedestrians should stay out of the way.

The idea that roads should be safe and effective for all users — the concept known as complete streets — aims to upend this social order, moving cars from first to last.

The longstanding order of the road is governed not by laws, but by socially enforced rules. For example, one might voluntarily drive below the speed limit on the Beltway.

That would be perfectly legal but likely would garner honks, flashing headlights and rude gestures. As everyone knows, appropriate driving speeds begin at the speed limit and extend upward, not downward. The power of these rules is such that police rarely issue a ticket, photographic or otherwise, for driving up to 10 mph above the speed limit.

All this came to mind the other day, when I was bicycling in violation of the social order. I was riding in the center of a narrow lane when a driver started honking at me. Shortly thereafter, he pulled alongside me and helpfully explained that cyclists are not allowed in the street unless they can ride at the speed limit.

This struck me as quite the head-scratcher. After all, isn’t the speed limit an upper limit? Those of us with Internet access have certainly read that cyclists should not be allowed on the road unless they “obey the law.” Riding at a typical bicycle speed surely complies with the law. Nevertheless, I’ve been told — even by friends — that cyclists must ride at the speed limit.

As it turns out, the speed limit is the single point of intersection between socially acceptable driving speeds and socially acceptable bicycling speeds. Cyclists who do not ride this tightrope — and that would be all of them — are in violation of at least one of these social conventions.

Despite endless discussions about safety and the law, increasingly it is clear to me that many people get upset by social rather than legal violations of the rules. While the majority of drivers remain polite, a vocal minority is extremely attached to the status quo.

As old gives way to new, outdated ideas fall by the wayside. One of these is that automobile traffic is an unstoppable force. As a pedestrian, it is up to me to get out of the way or suffer the consequences. As a cyclist, there is no point in asking for bike lanes because they would simply put me in harm’s way.

The complete-streets concept recognizes that individual drivers, cyclists and pedestrians rule traffic. Each is able to slow down and even stop to avoid a crash. Complete streets are updated streets, often with narrower traffic lanes that have been demonstrated to slow motorized traffic. With complete streets, pedestrians come first, followed by transit, cyclists and cars.

According to Barbara McCann, author of “Completing Our Streets,” this concept is supported by “a broad coalition of bicycle riders, transportation practitioners, public health leaders, older Americans, smart-growth advocates [and] real estate agents” who “came together to insist that we begin to build streets that are safe for everyone.”

Responding to the failure of the automobile to deliver promises of speed and freedom to 100 percent of the population, people take up walking and bicycling, often in the direction of the nearest Metro station. When these nondrivers get in the way of cars — and they do so often in urban Alexandria — they upset the social order.

Transit planners participate in these changes as well by calling for dedicated bus lanes and new buses that give their drivers the power to change traffic signals. I joined AARP specifically because it’s a champion of complete-streets efforts.

A 2012 nationwide poll, reported by McCann, showed that “63 percent of Americans would like to address traffic congestion by improving public transportation and designing communities for easier walking and bicycling.” While frustrating for some, these changes are supported by a majority of residents. The new social order, it seems, is here to stay.

 

– The writer is a member of the Alexandria 
Bicycle and Pedestrian 
Advisory Committee.