Prioritising people over cars

Have you ever wondered why pedestrians have to push a button and then wait at intersections before crossing the road? Why isn’t it the other way around with cars having to push a button and then waiting before driving through the intersection? It was a question that popped into my head after reading a recent article about how traffic signals favour cars and discourage walking.

Transport planners over the last 50 years have focussed on reducing congestion and making sure traffic flows smoothly but this is at the expense of all other road users. Americans even have a derogatory word for the act of walking across the road without obeying traffic signals: jaywalking. I think that’s extraordinary for a country that has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world.

This illustration by Claes Tingvall is a poignant reminder of how much space we’ve handed over, unquestioningly, to motor vehicles.

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I sometimes think if aliens ever land on Earth they’ll assume the leading species is the car since it rules all our towns and cities. If you dare to question this or even suggest giving a tiny bit of space back to humans you’ll receive a torrent of abuse and objection.

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No city has ever solved its traffic problems with the private motor vehicle. Build more roads and you create more traffic due to a concept called induced demand. But promote active travel by building cycling infrastructure and prioritising pedestrians and cyclists over cars and everyone wins. The benefits are significant. A British government report found that for every £1 we spend on cycling infrastructure, £5.50 is returned to the community in benefits. These benefits are health benefits, improved air quality, lower greenhouse gas emissions, fewer accidents, lower absenteeism, less congestion, and improved journey ambience.

Walking next to busy streets is unpleasant. They’re polluted, noisy, dangerous, and ugly. So much land has been given to private motor vehicles, not just to move them around but also to park them and they’re parked for 95% of the time.

Parents drive their kids to school because the roads are unsafe for children. Traffic congestion and parking at school gates across Britain is a headache for city councils but the infrastructure is not there for kids to ride themselves. Walking and cycling is slow and inefficient after years and years of promoting and favouring private car use over active travel. Even today private car use is encouraged by most councils, including Aberdeen. They pay lip service to active travel, pretending to support it but nothing effective is done.

Unless you’ve lived in the Netherlands or Denmark people of my generation have not known anything other than car is king which is unfortunate because it’s a barrier to change. It’s hard to imagine something different when you’ve never seen it and have only ever known the opposite. Which brings me back to my first question: why do we make it so easy to be a motorist and so hard to be a pedestrian and cyclist? Why aren’t we questioning the relative space and priority given to motor vehicles?