What came first: the chicken or the egg? One could argue about that topic without coming up with a definitive answer. But determining whether legs or wheels came first is not debatable. No child has yet been born with wheels instead of legs. Go ahead, google “child born with wheels.” There are no aliens or mutants, only images of strollers and doll carriages. So legs trump wheels. They are the common denominator of most humans. Wheels are an accessory, not an integral part of anatomy. So, how did motorized wheels take over? Bike lanes are carved out of streets with protected space for two-wheeled travel (which also helpfully adds an area to double-park while getting cash from the ATM). Despite the set-aside, riding on a bike lane can feel like moving down a gauntlet, squeezed between invading vehicles and drivers inclined to open car doors without looking.
Car culture fits into Johan Galtung’s model of violence. Most people consider cars necessary and convenient, but they are also powerful and potentially dangerous. Direct violence includes behaviors that threaten life, such as collisions . After a crash between a car and bike, physical injuries dominate, but the fear factor lingers. Bullying, inattentive, or disrespectful drivers are commonplace and enforcement only goes so far.
Structural violence characterizes a system. Cars have natural advantages — size, speed and weight. Internal safety features shield drivers and passengers, with limited protection for external, unarmored targets. Motor vehicles have shaped our environment. Traffic laws are calibrated to vehicle characteristics and help expedite motorized travel, incurring a second order effect of marginalizing vulnerable road users. In Arlington County VA, as in other cities, people walking and biking can cross at any street intersection, but it doesn’t help if drivers don’t know or choose to disregard the rule. People don’t consider disobeying traffic laws as wrongdoing. Ignoring speed limits or “no turn on red” signs are conveniences—for the driver. Motor vehicles, roads, and traffic laws (and their avoidance) have created a “crime generating environment.” Individual expediency and efficiency take precedence over social responsibility.
Cultural violence grows out of direct and structural violence. The “rights” of drivers lead to social norms such as impatience, road rage (google ‘road rage’ to get a sense for its frequency) and assumed privilege. Private benefit versus social cost—direct advantages accrue to individuals while communities pay for shared drawbacks—the tragedy of the commons. Although we depend on natural resources for survival, we accept pollution (violence against the earth) and health consequences (violence against people) as acceptable. Author Christopher Leonard reasons: “The risks of climate change, water contamination, and species loss remain the trade-off for driving our cars.”
Many people love their cars. In a way, it is an extension of their personality, which is what automotive manufacturers want you to think. Cars reflect taste, lifestyle and wealth—they externalize who we believe ourselves to be. Just consider the differences between Prius and Hummer owners. However, car culture promotes violence. Pedestrian and bicyclist deaths were higher in 2015 than at any time in the last two decades.
Cyclists deal with chauvinism from drivers who support their particular mode of transportation over human-powered travel. “Separate but equal” didn’t work so well in schools, nor does it on roads. Arlington is not the only place with mean streets, but walkability correlates with friendliness. Those who are exercising would prefer the increase in heart rate comes from physical exertion and not from the expectation of a violent interaction on the road.
Preserve the environment using low impact travel or add another vehicle to the road because of the dangers. Motor vehicles are a privilege and a responsibility. While they are considered personal property, road design and traffic laws grant priority to machines over humans. Fixing the problem extends beyond designating sharrows and erecting signs. Is it possible to moderate car culture and encourage more sustainable modes of travel? How can communities consider multi-modal needs and design complete streets?
© Joan S Grey, 18 MAY 2018
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