‘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.
Through 1940, the five million claimed members of the Share the Road Club “are on the war path” against “heedless drivers and pedestrians” who “are a hazard – yes!” “Shell Research has discovered,” this 1940 version of the ad breathlessly proclaims, “that they take a lot out of the joy of motoring — add plenty to its cost — by causing 35% of Stop-and-Go driving!”
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.
‘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?