Sharing the road

‘Sharing the road’ sounds like an unobjectionable and friendly concept – what’s so bad about sharing? But in practice, the message is ambiguous and unhelpful, and might actually stand in the way of genuine improvements to our roads and streets.

A large part of the problem is captured by this Bikeyface drawing.

People cycling see the ‘sharing’ message as a way of getting drivers to be nice to them; to be patient and to overtake properly. Meanwhile drivers – by complete contrast – interpret the message through the prism of people cycling ‘hogging’ the road, and not letting them past. For them, ‘sharing’ means being accommodating and getting out of the way of motor traffic.

This interpretation isn’t perhaps all that surprising, given the history of the ‘share the road’ message. The motor lobby promoted ‘share the road’ in what amounts to an early form of ‘smoothing the flow’ of motor traffic.

Of course, a commenter on the blog (justifiably) observes that

as far as i can tell the meaning of the phrase hasn’t changed….

In that ‘share the road’ today means ‘don’t take more than what I consider to be your fair share of it’ – effectively, a polite version of ‘get out of my way’.

‘Share the road’ also lives on in official road safety campaign messages in Britain –

Here ‘share the road’ manifests itself as insipid guff about how it would be nice if everyone could just get along and not lose their tempers, with the added implication of equal responsibility between people who pose very little risk, and those who pose a great deal of risk.

Our driver and cyclist tips and Share the Road adverts are also helping to give people the information they need to stay safe… By working together, we can make London’s roads safer for everyone.

This logic is made explicit by Brighton and Hove’s woeful Share the Road, Share the Responsibility campaign. Hey – if we’re asking people to share the road, we might as well pretend they share responsibility, right?

As Bez of Beyond the Kerb has astutely observed (with regard to Northern Ireland’s similarly woeful ‘share the road’ messaging) –

… “share the road” campaigns always fall into the same trap: the belief that if you’re sending a set of messages to one set of road users, you have to send an equivalent set of messages to another.

This campaign clearly implies that the journeys – made by the combination of the person and the vehicle – are equivalent, and thus by extension it implies that person-plus-car and person-plus-bicycle are equivalent. They are not. And this is, once more, the crucial failing. The authors of the messages wilfully blind themselves to the fundamental inequality of danger due to people’s choice of kinetic energy and base the whole campaign not on danger, but on diplomacy.

So, in the case of Brighton and Hove’s campaign, the set of messages sent to drivers have to be ‘balanced’ with another set of messages sent to people cycling. The end result is a campaign that tells people using a mode of transport that poses little risk to other users not to listen to music because it impairs hearing, while simultaneously having nothing to say about music reducing hearing for the users of modes of transport that pose much greater risk to others.

It’s almost as if ‘Don’t use headphones’ has been plucked out as a message in an attempt to balance out the ‘don’t squash pedestrians under your car’ message that has to be sent to drivers.

But perhaps what’s most problematic about ‘share the road’ isn’t the mixed message it sends out, or the way it gets misinterpreted and misused in road safety campaigns. It’s the low ambition of the message itself; that space for cycling can’t be provided, and that the only way cycling can be catered for on roads is by ‘sharing’, as an allegedly equal partner with motor traffic.

People don’t want to share roads with motor traffic. They want their own space, where they can cycle in comfort and safety; an environment where that comfort and safety isn’t conditional on the willingness (or otherwise) of motorists to ‘share’ with them.

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 16.35.06‘Sharing’ really doesn’t work because fundamentally motor vehicles and cycles are very different modes of transport, with different requirements. This is why ‘share the road’ messages are doomed to failure; not because of any latent unwillingness, uncooperativeness, or hostility on the part of people driving or cycling, but because these two modes of transport don’t fit together at all well, something captured brilliantly by the Alternative Department for Transport’s series of photoshopped images. Cycling only seems to go well with driving because the cycling demographic has been eroded to a point where the only people ‘sharing’ are those who are able to attempt to cycle like motor vehicles.

In the absence of footways alongside roads, a ‘share the road’ message aimed at pedestrians and drivers would be hopelessly ineffective. Why should we expect any different outcomes for cycling and driving?

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12 Responses to Sharing the road

  1. Paul Luton says:

    There are situations where people on foot, on bicycles and a small number of people in motor vehicles can share road space amicably – ie places that are essentially pedestrian precincts with cyclists allowed through and essential deliveries.
    In situations where having a separate pedestrian path is needed it is difficult to see the logic of saying that space for cycling is not equally needed.

  2. Spoquey says:

    Fantastic post as usual. The TfL ad is so regrettable. “Let it go”. Ha ha. I can remember 30 years’ worth of threats and injuries to me, and my sad visits to hospital for my own wounds – and the cyclists who I have helped scrape up from the road over the years, including one poor dead young man. Letting those experiences “go” is so meaningless.

    Who should “let it go”? The 12 year old girl pedestrian with the chips who is nearly mown down by a car driver? Should she smile and be grateful it was only a near miss? Incidentally she seems to be the only person in the advert who obviously committed a criminal act. Rather harsh, as she was a young black girl. Did the advert producers think of that for one second?

    This advert is so poor I can’t understand why it wasn’t banned by the ASA.

    Let’s have some ads that show the relative potential to destroy lives please.

  3. Sarah Swift says:

    We have a couple of signs stuck up here in Bamberg that say “Cyclists may use carriageway.” They’re a bit small, and I don’t know how many motorists really read them, but there was an article in the local paper explaining why they were going up when the first batch were put in place, and I think they help a bit, at least on the narrow medieval streets with 30 km/h limits. Most drivers seem reasonably capable of sharing under those circumstances. (Less so on a wider road further from the centre with a 50 km/h limit where cyclists now have a “choice” between a dangerous cycle lane sandwiched between passenger doors and pedestrians and close proximity to motor vehicles on the road – two unsatisfactory solutions that could be re-engineered to create one adequate one). I noticed a few days ago that one of the signs has recently been removed in a street where motorists are seemingly now supposed to have completed the process of learning to expect cyclists on the carriageway, and I would broadly concur that they have. If nothing more ambitious than sticking up a few signs is envisaged, wording like “Cyclists may use full lane” or “Caution: You are driving on a major cycle route!” or “Bicycle Street. Residents Only” is probably far more useful than “Share the Road” messages. Vienna has also reported recent success with sharrows (better communication between cyclists and drivers, fewer overtakes and greater overtaking distance).

    More ambitious projects demand money and political will as well as good ideas. And the first two are very difficult to mobilise. Our bike modal share here in town has grown and now stands at 30%, but we have seen decades of chronic underfunding of cycling and I don’t see that changing much in the near future. The planners and engineers are up to speed with current design guidelines and very well-disposed towards cycling (and cyclists themselves, of course), but they have very little money to work with and they have to deal with their plans being watered down by people who have a democratic mandate to do so (“No, you can’ take out a single on-street parking space to unblock a major cycling route, nor can you take one out at the other other end of town to make much-needed space for parking 10 bikes that are currently creating an obstacle course for mobility-impaired pedestrians.”) Things are moving in the right direction, but at a glacial pace.

    So at this point two things can happen: as more and more cyclists abandon the inadequate separate infra they are no longer obliged to use everywhere it exists and swarm into the roads, either the politicians will suddenly wake up to their presence and make lots of money for vastly improved segregated infra available, or, well, maybe this sharing thing will catch on, at least in the 30 km/h zones that cover about three-quarters of all streets and need to be expanded a bit further. Probably a bit of both. I like the fact that my local Critical Mass has quite an inclusive, multi-generational vibe to it, and I don’t think that an increase in on-road cycling necessarily has to threaten the generally fairly inclusive cycling demographics we have at present, or lead to the sort of dual provision for slower and faster cyclists which is almost equally rubbish for everybody. But it’s going to be interesting.

    • Hi,
      I don’t know about Bamberg, which is a student town with a students- share about 15 to 20%. I’m from Hamburg.

      I respect your personal experiences but statistics tell another story.

      A recently release study of BASt shows the reality of that share-the-road crap. Ten cities had been evaluated in mixed traffic and that shabby cycle-lanes called “Schutzstreifen” (“protection-lanes” NOT protected lanes!).

      The outcoming: In 14 of 25 observed roads the minimum overtaking distance car-bicycle that was complied by 85% of motorcar-drivers ranged from 30 to 75 cm (1,50 m is called for). Every seventh motorcar-driver undercut these minimal distances in both 30 and 50km/h roads. Undercutting 30 cm may cause mortal fear.
      This behaviour is not only mobbing. It is bullying, scaring and terryfying.

      Not to say the car-drivers are bad people. They aren’t. In mixed traffic they are forced to exactly that mannerism.

      It is called column- or gang effect. It comes out as social pressure. The example gives the one who overtakes narrow. He shows that it is possible to overtake. No one is killed. We can get closer. And all have to follow by pressure of the drivers behind them.

      Mixed traffic must be seen as a inherent deterrent to cycle-traffic.

      Mixed traffic establishes rude behaviour against cyclists as normal traffic-culture. Because everyone does everyone has to do. I wonder wether that enforced and practised recklessnes accounts for other rudeness like ruthless turning .

      • Sarah Swift says:

        Well, I would most certainly agree with you about many “Schutzstreifen” being ideally suited to putting many people off cycling for life, or at least for a very long time, and about that being a very bad thing. We’re basically talking about the design that the Danes, when they build them (I mean paint them), call 2 minus 1 roads for a reason (video. Two lanes for drivers to share with cyclists and one lane in the middle drivers in both directions share with each other. It is absolutely NOT safe for motorists to overtake cyclists using these without going well over the mid-line of the road. So they can only work on roads with very little traffic. Even with no overtaking motorists, it is not safe to cycle in the middle of a “Schutzstreifen” because then cyclists are much too close to the kerb (and even if it was a forgiving kerb, which it generally isn’t, that still puts them too close to pedestrians who are likely to behave in unpredictable ways.) Even out in the countryside on lightly trafficked roads, the design is often useless because most roads are not straight and flat enough. Cyclists hugging the edge of the road too closely are harder to see where there are bends, and cyclists going downhill and around bends need to be further out into the road to handle the corners safely. I’ve never yet come across a “Schutzstreifen” where I felt safe inside the marking, I always ride on the outer demarcation line (which is sometimes also the line marking the edge of the door zone!) or on the carriageway just outside the Schutzstreifen.” They pretend to paint them and we pretend to use them…

        I think what’s happening with the current proliferation of “Schutzstreifen” in Germany has some obvious parallels with the way the hierarchy of provision in the UK and Ireland was applied to legitimize the mass conversion of footways and footpaths to shared use farcilities for pedestrians and cyclists. The design guidance didn’t suggest for a moment that these options were good. It’s common knowledge that they aren’t. But the guidance and the structures for implementing it made/makes it too easy to reject the better options as “too hard” (politically) and to waste money building shoddy, useless crap instead.
        If a road isn’t wide enough for cars and cyclists to share comfortably, either space has to be found somewhere (taking out on one or both sides, making the road one-way for cars) or the cars have to go. The sort of terror you describe is not remotely acceptable in a civilized country, and it’s time we took that 1,50 minimum overtaking distance that has emerged from case law and put it into the regular Road Traffic Act as the minimum overtaking distance at low speeds and under ideal conditions. The recent BASt report didn’t place nearly enough stress on the issues with door-zone “Schutzstreifen” of which I have seen half a dozen truly horrendous, nightmarish examples in Bayreuth, so the problems with them are probably even worse than the report suggested…on that we can probably agree.

        • “If a road isn’t wide enough for cars and cyclists to share comfortably,…”

          Look, I have been cycling for some 55 years now and I’ve never found that road you’re speaking of. I’ve been from the Outer Islands in the West to the border of China in the East and from Kiruna in the North to Sicilia in the South with my bike.

          The BASt study I talked about includes roads with following lateral cuts:

          Two motor-car lane lateral cuts (one to each direction)
          • Typ A1: 5 lateral cuts with “Schutzstreifen” and width from 6,0 to 7,0 m,
          • Typ A2: 5 lateral cuts with “Schutzstreifen” and a DTV (daily motor traffic volume) of max. 12.000 cars/24h and a width from 7,0 to 8,5 m,
          • Typ A3: 5 lateral cuts with “Schutzstreifen” and a DTV min. 12.000 cars/24hand width from 7,0 to 8,5 m,
          • Typ A4: 5 lateral cuts with “Schutzstreifen” and a DTV max. 12.000 cars/24h and width from 7,0 to 8,5 m.
          Two types of four motor-car lane lateral cuts.

          I forgot to say the BASt which is a division of Fedeal Traffic Department regards this behaviour as very “safe” for cyclists.

          German cycling-campaigners are all VC to the bones as Germany is a political traffic desert of cars only. German traffic is an international lead market for motor cars.

          Nevertheless our cycling campaigners have found the one and only solution to encourage cyclists. A real German solution:

          For developing Berlin to a “Fahrradstadt” the Berlin ADFC now demands Special Police Units (“Polizeisondereinheiten”) to force cyclists on the carriageway. No Joke. But as far as I know they didn’t tell anything about armament.

          We Germans are fine people, maybe sometimes a little bit special, you know.

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  5. Olga Golovina says:

    I’ve recently heard from a Brit transport planner how sharing space between cyclists and drivers is more ‘democratic’. Seriously.

    This was in Oxford, and as a major university city you’d expect masses of cycling students… well some are, but risking their lives.

    How far they are from, say, Delft, and how little do they know of the glories of this latter, shrouded as they are with the blindfold of British insularity.

  6. Notak says:

    Wasn’t the whole ‘jaywalking’ idea, and certainly the illegalization of crossing the road at other than appointed crossings, the product of the USA motor industry in the 1920s and ’30s? If my memory and what I read are correct, it was a reaction to a 1925 movement which wanted to mechanically restrict all private cars (often called ‘pleasure cars’ at the time, indicating frivolity) to 25mph.

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    • Mark Williams says:

      Tried to make the following comment on Mr. Happy Cyclist’s ‘blog but failed with the message ‘Invalid security token.’:

      Spot on. Mat text would be better if it read more like:

      ¦   |        |INCREASE
      ¦←−→|←−−−−−−→|  ABOVE
      ¦ ~ | ≥1.5‍ ‍m | 30 MPH

      Replace the tilde with the word ‘VARIES’ if you really must—the words ‘OVERTAKING CLEARANCE’ arguably detracts from the message and can be omitted when the policeman is present. The original appears to already be using two size of lettering and my version is probably no more difficult to realise, even if they had to use the small-caps ‘M’ and thin space for metre symbol.

      Great campaign by the WMP, BTW. Will believe it when I see it in WM, GM, GL or elsewhere.

      p.s. You could also insert ‘1.’ after the word ‘shows’ in the body of this post.

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