The Human Transportation System

Picture the last time you were walking in a big crowd. Maybe it was in a shopping mall, a train station, or a busy intersection. What did it feel like? With all those people walking in different directions, mixing chaotically, it might have been stressful, and probably required a great deal of focus.

Think about how you navigated this environment: you likely had your head up, your eyes were darting around, making eye contact with countless others, reading their intentions and predicting their movements. In other words, your mind was busy calculating the paths of others moving through the crowd, plotting out the best route for you to take. Occasionally, you may have realized your path overlapped with someone else’s, so you made eye contact, and changed directions to avoid a collision.

Yonge Dundas Scramble
Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square (Source: BlogTO)

This whole ordeal might not have been ideal, but at the end of the day, you probably made it through the crowd without colliding with anyone and hopefully without even so much as a frustrated glance. In other words, you were able to negotiate your way through chaos, with hundreds of people going many different directions, using nothing but body language. Isn’t that amazing?

The Death of Human-Centred Transportation

For years, city streets all over the world were filled with this beautiful chaos – horses, people, vendors, and even streetcars mixing and navigating public space in what was effectively a self-organizing system. It all came to a grinding halt, however, when the automobile arrived. For whatever reason, automobile travel crosses the fine line between efficient self-organization and unruly, dangerous chaos.

The people operating motor vehicles were both unable and unwilling to negotiate their surroundings the way pedestrians do, instead using their mass and momentum to assert dominance over the streets. This shattered the self-organization of transportation that had existed for centuries. People were no longer safe walking and mingling along streets, and fatalities started to pile up. The human transportation system was failing.

Out of necessity, this ushered in a new era of transportation management; one that still exists today and remains relatively unchanged. It’s highly controlled, intensively regulated, and professionally dominated. Traffic signals tell you where and when to go, stop, turn, and cross. Enforcement programs punish those who do not obey. Highly educated engineers use oversimplified models to predict when and where congestion will occur.

The simple human act of crossing a street on foot has been relegated to right-angles at designated intersections, often placed inconveniently far apart. Those who cross mid-block are publicly shamed as “jaywalkers”. In the process, the efficiency and beauty of the human transportation system has been slowly forgotten.

The automobile is the centre of today’s transportation system.

Traffic signals, stop signs, crosswalks – these are all part of a transportation management system that only exists because of the automobile. If there were no cars, we would not need these things at all. We use these control methods because of the inability of motorists to negotiate right-of-way, and the dangers they pose to humans.

Halifax Ped CRossing Flag
Pedestrian crossings in Halifax are equipped with high-visibility flags (Source: Metro News)

In many cities, including Halifax, pedestrians are provided with bright orange flags to carry with them when they cross the street to alert drivers of their presence. In Ontario, the provincial government is considering further regulating the movement of people, by introducing a fine for people who cross streets while texting.

These examples further reinforce the idea that simply moving throughout cities somehow requires a certain level of skill, alertness, and qualification, rather than just innate human ability and instincts. It’s no wonder parents are terrified to let their children walk to school alone.

What about bicycles?

The auto-centric transportation system clearly stipulates the inferior place of people travelling on foot (“pedestrians”), but leaves those riding bicycles in an awkward and ambiguous position – is a person riding a bicycle a vehicle, or a pedestrian?

Compared to motor vehicles, cyclists are vulnerable and slow, but are also more nimble and maneuverable. They take up less space while moving and while parked, and are fully powered by human energy. Compared to pedestrians, bicycles are large and fast.

Williamsburg Bridge design
This design embodies all that is wrong with treating cyclists as vehicles. It’s completely unintuitive and fails to reflect the humanity of transportation. (Williamsburg Bridge, NYC)

While in reality a bicycle is neither a vehicle nor a pedestrian, the binary nature of today’s system classifies a bicycle as a vehicle. In response, those riding bicycles have altered their behaviour to behave as vehicles by riding fast, “taking the lane”, and shaming anyone who is too slow or not skilled enough to ride a bicycle in a similar manner.

The result: bicycling in North America has historically been dominated by the fast and furious, which, more often than not, is able-bodied middle-aged men. This “vehicular cyclist” mentality opposes any type of separation of bicycles from automobiles, claiming that it is actually more dangerous to separate the two.

For those cyclists who lack the confidence or desire to behave as vehicles, the system is failing them. Traffic lights take too long to change, roads are rough and uncomfortable, and dangerous mixing of speeds put lives in jeopardy. In response to a system which largely ignores their needs, people riding bikes disobey the rules, travel on sidewalks, roll through stop signs, and occasionally even run red lights. But these are not deviant acts of defiance – these are rational actions of people who feel that the rules were not written with them in mind.

Time for a Rethink

This is why we need to rethink the system. Planners and policymakers love to talk about “putting people first” and “inverting the hierarchy”, but actions rarely mirror these stated intentions. Billions are spent on highways, while basic road safety plans are left unfunded. Suburban transit stations are surrounded by parking, and lack safe routes for people on foot. Pedestrian fatalities that are a result of driver error go unpunished.

But it’s not all doom-and-gloom – there is a place where this insanity doesn’t exist. There is a place where engineers are waking up, and putting people back at the centre of the transportation system.

Dutch street cyclists
People riding bikes socially in Amsterdam.

I am, of course, talking about the Netherlands.

The Dutch literally design communities that push automobiles to the outskirts, while creating a dense network of streets that are permeable for people on foot and on bicycles. Train stations are treated as community centres, and as such are both a connection point and a destination in themselves. Speed limits are low. With just small and intuitive design cues, bicycles and pedestrians are able to mix in crowded environments without so much as a wrinkle.

The need for traffic lights is even being questioned, and engineers are experimenting with removing them altogether in some locations. In short, the Dutch are slowly and strategically deconstructing the automobile transportation system, thereby returning to human-oriented transportation.

Building bike lanes and wider sidewalks is a good start to improving our cities, but real change won’t happen until we’re able to critically challenge the fundamentals of the transportation system we’ve created. Humans are vulnerable, and humans make mistakes; a transportation system that fails to acknowledge this is inhuman by nature. But humans are also highly diligent, resourceful, efficient, and nimble. An efficient transportation system is not one where vehicles move faster, it’s one that puts people first.

Human Transport George
A clear priority and a clear path forward for this Dutch cyclist.


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