Thursday, 10 February 2011

War on the enemies of empathy

I'm still wondering who my enemy is supposed to be in the war on the motorist. Then I came across an interesting and thought provoking piece of research called "Safety, cycling and sharing the road" on theDfT website here.

They interviewed cyclists, other road users and the parents of young cyclists about their views on cycling, the problems of interacting with other road users, and strategies for dealing with them. The paper was published a few months ago, but I didn't find it until today, from a link provided by Londonneur. For which thanks.

A lot of what they say rings true, and I like the different ways they describe different types of cyclist, the attitudes of different road users, and the various ways that things go wrong. They talk, for example, about acts of aggression, and failures of attitude, competence, and expectation as examples of the sort of thing that goes wrong when different types of road users are sharing the road.

But to my mind it's when they get on to stereotypes and empathy that things get really interesting. They describe empathy between different types of road user as "an important ingredient in successful road sharing".

When they talked to cyclists about how they see other road users they found a mix of different stereotypes. Some cyclists emphasised the sel´Čüshness and aggression they saw in other road users, but others were more inclined to explain driver behaviour by other factors. Of course, many of the cyclists they talked to were also drivers, which would explain why they found diverse views.

Quite a lot of the blogs about this stuff seem to originate in London, and maybe we should all note that London is where they found the emphasis on selfishness and aggression was particularly apparent (this applies all types of road user – drivers and pedestrians, as well as cyclists).

However, back to the empathy thing. Overall they found higher levels of empathy for car drivers than they found for other road users. And the groups for which there is less empathy don't just include cyclists. The same applies to all sorts of "minority" road users: cyclists, of course, but HGV drivers and bus drivers as well.

It's no real surprise to read what the stereotypes of cyclists were like: "the stereotypical cyclist emerges as a kind of lawless free-rider in the highly constrained and heavily taxed world of the driver". "serious failures of attitude", "generalised disregard for the law" "lack of concern for the needs of drivers", (linked to the fact that cyclists do not need to be licensed or insured). "serious failures of competence and knowledge of the rules of the road" (linked to the fact that cyclists are not required to undertake training).

Apparently even the most negative towards cyclists concede that not all are the same, but the consensus was that most conform to the stereotype: in London, it was estimated that 70–80% of cyclists do.

One of several conclusions from all this is that there is a failure in the culture of road sharing, and a lack of consensus about whether cyclists belong on the roads. I'm still grappling with the question of who my enemy is supposed to be in all this, so I don't want to get diverted into the debates about when cyclists ought to be given separate facilities. But the bit about the culture of road sharing is interesting.

I like this idea that the culture of road sharing is part of the problem, and that empathy is the key to successful road sharing. So I'm inclined to think that the real enemies I should be concerned with are those who undermine empathy between road users.

It seems to me that would exclude the vast majority of other road users - even those who think that I'm a "lawless free-rider" (I quite like the idea of being seen as a lawless free-rider). On the other hand it would include politicians who concoct thoughtless "War on the Motorist" nonsense, journalists (and others) that sensationalise the issues, and of course, anyone that acts aggressively to other road users - whether they are driver or cyclist.


Anonymous said...

Totally agree with this.

"London is where they found the emphasis on selfishness and aggression was particularly apparent"

Yep. London road culture can be described with one word.... "GO!!!". Usually this is to be shouted agressivly at anything that is in front of us or carried in our hearts as a sort of personal mantra.

Another cycling instructor I know moved to Bristol recently and found that many of his vehicular cycling/defensive habits were not so necessary as the drivers there seemed more relaxed and willing to wait a bit if necessary.

gom1 said...

It's a bit of a mixture around here (Thames Valley). At rush hour it's every man for himself. Other times it is normally very courteous. Cycling holiday in the West of Scotland last May was something else entirely.

Paul said...

I think the error is to define it as a war; then the need to definue the 'enemy' vanishes. That was what I was implying in my comment to the previous post.
I suspect that one reason is the perceived competition for road space. So leaving aside the safety aspect for a moment, isn't the useful analysis here one of how much road users in different groups impact each others journeys? Has any analysis been done on how much cyclists affect car average speeds, and vice versa? I would guess that the answer is negligably and a little, in that order. Perhaps if this was pointed out then some of the 'war' attitude may vanish. Particularly if it can be shown that a driver will be delayed less by a cyclist than the same person in a car. Any data available?
(I am basing this in part on my experience as a motorcyclist; we effectively occupied a different bit of road space from cars; we never delayed them and even heavy traffic often didn't delay us).
Would certainly agree on differences in driving styles between areas; after driving in South Cumbria I find Manchester a bit of a shock.

Chris Hill said...

The issue of cyclists and drivers being aggressive or antagonistic towards each other is, I think, generated in part deep-rooted psychology. Leaving aside the obvious injury that a vehicle can inflict on a cyclist, some of the angst comes from the concept of personal space.

It seems that a vehicle becomes an extension of self and so someone getting too close to your vehicle is invading your personal space. Cyclists and vehicles get very close to each other, more so than other vehicle to vehicle proximities. This causes concern or annoyance on both sides that can be expressed as aggression.

In this respect separation of vehicle types might be useful. To this end, the cars, vans, motorbikes, trucks and buses should be restricted to a vehicle lane and the roads should be freed for cyclists and pedestrians, and even the odd horse.