War for the roads

Drawing on these arguments about power, precedence, and morality—and, also, through sheer numbers—pedestrians, drivers, and bicyclists all make strong claims to the streets. And yet the picture is even more complex, because almost no one is exclusively a walker, a cyclist, or a driver. We shift from role to role, and with those changes comes a shift in our vantage point.

There is, therefore, another, and perhaps more fundamental, source for our sense of vehicular entitlement: egocentricity. We all experience the world from our own point of view, and find it exceedingly difficult to move away from that selfish anchor. (Psychologists call this our egocentric bias.) Who we are colors what and how we see, and who we are changes depending on our mode of transportation. When we walk, we’re pedestrians. When we’re in a car, we’re drivers. When we bike, we’re cyclists. And whoever we are at the moment, we feel that we are deserving of priority.

When it comes to in-the-moment judgment, we don’t think abstractly, in terms of rules or laws or even common sense. We think concretely, in terms of our own personal needs at that very moment. It takes a big, effortful leap to tear ourselves out of that mode and accept someone else’s argument—and it’s an effort we don’t often make unless we’re specifically prompted to do so. And so, in some sense, it doesn’t matter who came first, or who’s the most powerful, or who’s best for the environment, or what the rules might say. What matters is what we, personally, happen to be doing. It’s hard to remind ourselves that we all play interchangeable roles within the urban landscape. In the end, it’s the role we’re in right now that matters. The never-ending war between bicyclists, drivers, and pedestrians reflects a basic, and often wrong, mental shortcut, upon which we all too often rely: Who is in the right? I am.

Maria Konnikova speaks the truth on the battle for our streets and sidewalks among cars, bicycles, and pedestrians.

Nowadays I spend about equal time as a driver, pedestrian, and cyclist, and the only conclusion I feel confident drawing is that everyone is wrong sometimes. Some drivers are terrifying, some cyclists are obnoxious, and many pedestrians are oblivious and inconsiderate.

Physics renders a car more dangerous than a bike which in turn is more dangerous than a pedestrian. All things being equal, I'm more terrified of road rage than obnoxious cyclists, and I'm more upset at reckless bike messengers than careless pedestrians. I'm more than ready for the age of the self-driving car because the combination of humans, with their emotional volatility and egocentricity, and a several thousand pound hunk of metal and glass is, when in motion, a movable instrument of death.