There are some things that we can do, lots of things that we ought to do and even more things that we have to do. Among them there are also some things that we want to do. But in practice there are, eventually, only things that we actually do. I have cycling on mind, of course, and I am interested in a kind of sociology that would make sense of the following situation.
It’s a practical cycling problem in a specific place: a short section of College Green in Bristol has a two way segregated cycle track that runs for about 100 metres on the rise up towards City Hall, with Clifton beyond. At the end nearest to City Hall it stops abruptly. The picture shows the options. There is a left turn into shared space on the Green itself, there is an easy continuation on the pavement towards a bike rack and City Hall and there is a right turn onto the roadway.
It’s the right turn in picture 1 that interests me. Sometimes I am going towards Clifton and want to join the road here. Sometimes I am coming the other way and want to turn left from the road onto the segregated track. Look at picture 2 and notice that apart from the ordinary light controlled crossing there are also three sections of dropped kerb. I have marked them with big red and white arrows. If you ride a bike you might take a moment to visualise yourself coming up the track and then down the road, in each case intending to continue in the same direction. What do you want to do? What can you do? What should you do? Is there anything you absolutely must do? The cyclist has chosen the middle approach and is waiting against the post that has no button to press. The car is approaching the first of two sets of studs that mark out the pedestrian crossing.
Picture 2a shows the three options from a different angle.
In picture 3 we have the normal mêlée on a quiet sunny day. There are bits of all sorts going on.
Picture 4 starts to clarify my problem. A cyclist is travelling towards Park Street, on the segregated track. Until this point he wanted to go somewhere, had the wherewithal to get there, and would be happy doing what he knew he ought to do.
In picture 5 he is a little closer to finding that one of those things is changing. He is going to find that there are three dropped kerbs. One for the pedestrian crossing and one each side – possibly for cyclists.
Picture 6 has him heading across to the offside of the cycle track and over the pedestrian crossing. Seeing there was no one around he has taken the easiest route for that manoeuvre, as most people seem to do when conditions allow.
A few minutes later, (see picture 7) the move has become less easy. Someone else coming the other way wants to use that dropped kerb so he can get into the left hand cycle lane where he will feel comfortable. He’s in a hurry to stay clear of traffic approaching a green light at the crossing.
In picture 8 the other cyclist has hung back but then he goes. He chooses the first of the three dropped kerbs, uncluttered as it is by posts or standing kerbs. Basically it’s a lot easier than tacking round the posts.
As long as no one is around none of this matters much. But look at what happens in pictures 9 and 10. Notice the hidden fellow far left with green lining to his hood in picture 9. He’s on a bike and he turns across someone heading up the track in picture 10. Meanwhile a pedestrian is using his green light to cross the road while another cyclist is waiting at the red.
Two seconds later the lights are changing and more is happening (see Picture 11). The car is revving to go, the downhill cyclist has set off, our small-wheeled cycle has chosen dropped kerb 2 and someone coming more quickly off the cycle path to our left is already in the roadway and heading into the road space being approached by a cyclist and a car. Fortunately the car is holding back because a pedestrian has made a late appearance on the crossing while the traffic light has changed from red to flashing amber.
The crossing is often much busier than this, with heavy traffic at peak periods. It’s safe to say that traffic movements are unpredictable and the “correct” way for cyclists to use the lights and the dropped kerbs are not straightforward. This is a bus route with a frequent service and the roadway is used fairly indiscriminately by delivery drives at all times of the day (note the white truck with its back doors open in picture 11).
This fairly innocuous situation interests me because it’s an example of a common phenomenon. That is, it is a sophisticated bit of cycling infrastructure that offers a positive experience for a short span and then inflicts a difficult decision on what to do next. My suspicion that too many experiences like this lead both cyclists and sceptical road users who interact with them to become less co-operative and less confident.
My Venn diagram offers some insight I think.
The diagram isolates four background features of an individual’s action in a given context. Given that an action can be purposeful, personally satisfying, socially approved and skilfully achieved, each to different degrees, it offers a map of the balancing act that comprises any action and the zones of congruence that might be associated with greater or lesser social comfort. The denser the overlaps the greater the unity of purpose, expectation and accomplishment. The closer to the periphery an action falls, the less coherent and the more disruptive it is likely to be.
The “should” part is what other people want or expect to happen. Formally, informally, explicitly or implicitly there is usually some sense of what should happen in any situation. The “has to” part encompasses those parts of the context that cannot be gainsaid. Force or vital need might be involved. “Wants to” is the individual’s own desire to complete the action successfully. “Can” is the result of the individual’s ability, knowledge, instruction and resources relative to the inherent demands of the action itself.
So if things are a bit chaotic, what can we conclude? Assuming that the degree of chaos matters at all, how can we fix it? The diagram suggests we look at four sets of questions – not just the one or two things that first come to mind. And then it asks how a responsible person or body can evaluate the efficacy and efficiently of trying to improve the situation having considered each of the background features.
In our “end of the cycle track” case let’s assume that the general level of unpredictability and discomfort is higher than we want it to be. Let’s imagine there have been bumps and bruises (or worse) and some complaints that are spilling over into wider conflicts between different kinds of road user. How can the background features of the troublesome actions be adjusted?
Let’s not try to influence “has to” or “wants to” for now. They might be significant but fo this exercise let’s take them as given, or, at least randomly distributed. “Can” is more promising. “Can” implies knowhow. Do our pedestrians and cyclists know how this arrangement works? Do they know which buttons to press or which route of dropped kerb to take? Are they able to monitor all the other crossing users and where they might be coming from? Can they manoeuvre the bicycle confidently enough to make the tight turns necessary for some of the options? Is it clear which phases of the light sequence applies to cyclists who want to shift from track to road in a diagonal or convergent manner? Have they been able to read anything about this in the Highway Code? This last question leads onto the “should” section. If you are expected to do one thing rather than another it will soon become obvious if you are doing the wrong thing. At some point someone will call you up on it, formally or informally. Maybe a police officer will have a word. Or there might be a mass media flurry of disapproval like the red light jumping panic or even a campaign. In the case I have described it was clearly possible, and easy, for cyclist to just keep cycling and complete the journey up Park Street on the pavement. It says something about the strength of “should” among cyclists that most people did not do this. So much for my “Bristolians are all anarchists” theory.
Changing minds (“wants to”) is hard. Changing the geometry of those turns, putting some paint down, separating pedestrians and cyclists – one or all of these might improve things on the “can” front. People can be given information via simple signs on the ground and the manoeuvres can be made easier with gentler, more visible curves. Difficulties associated with perceptual overload can be reduced by moving the end of the cycle track much further away from the pedestrian lights. Eventually habit itself makes things more predictable and invests them with a sense of “ought to”.
Other situations will be different. But each one might benefit from using some sort of thinking guide like the one I started with. At least we would be dissuaded from shouting “What’s Wrong With These People?”