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.


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.


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?






15 responses to “Prioritising people over cars”

  1. Ben Dwyer Avatar
    Ben Dwyer

    I took the baby out today to a local farm. I wanted to cycle there, but I don’t have a seat on the bike. I thought about cycling there with the baby in a sling but I decided against it because I anticipated comments from people about it not being safe.

    I wonder if our mindset which is so conscious of health and safety drives a lot of these kind of decisions which put the car first. Cars feel safe, and that is what we as a society seem to value most.

    1. Rachel M Avatar

      Yes, there’s definitely some truth to that but I would argue that we need cars to feel safe because there are so many cars. If there were no cars (and I’m not suggesting that we completely abandon all cars) then we wouldn’t need to sit in a car to feel safe. It’s a catch 22: we need to sit in a car to protect ourselves from other cars. It’s a bit like Americans and guns: they all need guns to protect themselves from all the other people who have guns.

      What if there had been a nice off-road cycle path that you could use to cycle to the farm? Would that have changed your decision? It sounds like you need a cargo bike 🙂 Congratulations on the new baby!

      I also think we have a poor understanding of risk. I sometimes hear people shout at me to wear a helmet when I’m cycling (I do wear a helmet but it’s a Hovding which you wear around your neck and it doesn’t look like a helmet) and I wonder whether they also shout at smokers or obese people or even just people who don’t get sufficient exercise. I doubt it but the risk to my health if I chose not to wear a helmet (but I do) is minuscule whereas the risk of a sedentary lifestyle is large. Lack of physical activity is now one of the biggest health problems in the developed world –

      1. Ben Dwyer Avatar
        Ben Dwyer

        I agree. My decision was based on the response of others to my choice – in my own view it would have been safe. I don’t wear a helmet when I cycle so I’m used to that kind of thing, but it’s easier to deal with people being disapproving of the risk you choose to put yourself through than the risk you put your children through, and I just wanted to have a nice easy day, not a day of comments and feeling bad.

      2. Rachel M Avatar

        Yes, I understand and feel that way sometimes too.

  2. fossilcyclist Avatar

    It seems to me that folk who plan roads etc. are mainly car drivers only. I asked for cycle signs to be painted on the quiet road where the Sustrans route goes along as there are blind bends and many folk (including me) have had close calls with fast vehicles. I was told they can’t put signs on the road as it’s joint use, Strange, to me, as outside Fettes Police Headquarters there is a joint use road with cycle signs painted on the road. The other thing that bugs me is when they have cycleways, such as our Sustrans one, when they meet a driveway or lane to houses the cyclists have to give way. The highway folk say it is because of sight lines, I feel that drivers could easily stop for cyclists then pull out a wee bit further for a better view. Hurrumph!!! I am a car driver as well.

    1. Rachel M Avatar

      Did you respond by pointing out the signs at Fettes Police Headquarters? My advice would be to not give up. Contact your local councillor and MSP and ask them for help. The Sustrans thing also sounds odd. I don’t understand fully. Do you have to give way to driveways while you’re on the cycle path?

  3. fossilcyclist Avatar

    Yes, I sent photos in and yes you have to give way. I’m in the East Lothian Cycle Forum, wich includes councillors, but sometimes the effect seems limited. Just came across this earler:

  4. fossilcyclist Avatar

    The Beelines website, what a vision! May help in your persuasion of Aberdeen Council! I saw Chris Boardman’s comments include prioritising people over vehicles.

    1. Rachel M Avatar

      Yes, the plans for Manchester look very exciting. I hope this motivates other councils, including Aberdeen.

  5. Julie Turner Avatar

    Never considered this angle before but really true, very thoughtful. We are planning to ditch our car at year end, will be challenging but possible. Cannot justify environmental impact of getting another vehicle

    1. Rachel M Avatar

      We have lived without owning a car for 3.5 years now and I love it. It has saved us lots of money too which we can spend on other things like bikes 🙂 It’s even easier if there’s a car-club near you. We are members of a car sharing club and probably use that once a month or so.

      1. Julie Turner Avatar

        Car club sounds great
        Nothing like that here!

      2. Julie Turner Avatar

        Would be interested to hear any disadvantages you have found from being without a car. At the moment we are considering our daily activities and alternative modes of transport to carry them out. Bikes are not an option as we live in a very hilly and busy tourist town!

      3. Rachel M Avatar

        Is your town walkable? We mostly walk. Although I do cycle quite a lot and now that I have the electric cargo bike it has opened up more options. Have you considered an electric bike? It makes hills so easy and you can also carry more cargo. I saw this wonderful Tweet yesterday of someone running a gardening business on their electric bike:

        You can also catch taxis when you’re not paying for a car. You won’t have maintenance, petrol, insurance, or registration costs and it would take a lot of taxis to add up to the same amount.

      4. Julie Turner Avatar

        Yep, much as we thought,! Decent bus service also to larger towns nearby. Cheers

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