Shifting Paradigms: A New View on Traffic

Until the way we currently think about traffic is successfully challenged and altered, the automobile will continue to reign supreme in the Canadian planning context.

The Earth is round. Most of us live by this fundamental paradigm, and so much of modern science is predicated on this that we cannot imagine the world otherwise. For someone to become a “flat-earther” they must undergo a paradigm shift that erases much of what they assumed true for most of their lives; this is partially why it may be difficult to relate to. Their literal world is based on a fundamentally different idea than ours.

Throughout much of the developed world, we are living at the height of the motor vehicle age. This forms the underlying traffic paradigm that structures our society: traffic is inevitable and must be accommodated. This is evidenced by the path taken by many western European cities in the postwar era: “In their resolute opinion, the future belonged to the car. Therefore, policy initiatives should prepare cities for such an inevitable future.” (1) Suggesting that anything different may be possible in much of today’s world is like asserting that the Earth is flat – it is perceived as outlandish and unimaginable and invokes dismissal and criticism, being conflated to rhetoric like a “ban on cars”.

The Netherlands operates under a different traffic paradigm: traffic is malleable and must be regulated. It is for this reason that transportation professionals visiting the Netherlands on study tours find the Dutch system so fascinating and inspiring, yet struggle to make anything of it upon their return home. It is for this reason that Dutch ideas and ideals are criticized and dismissed in my home context in Canada – they do not fit into our paradigm. The statement “that won’t work here” is the epitome of a professional operating in a different paradigm.

Traffic must come to be seen as malleable rather than inevitable, and should be regulated rather than accommodated.

This essay will present evidence of this asserted difference in traffic paradigms between the Netherlands and my home country of Canada, using a mix of my experiences and quotes from the literature presented in the Unravelling the Cycling City course.

If the underlying assumption is that traffic is inevitable, it follows that transportation planning must anticipate the needs of the automobile in the design of streets and communities. In my experience as a transportation planner, this plays out in the practice of using network models to project future automobile growth on streets, and then ensuring traffic signals can handle not just the existing volumes of traffic but also those future projected volumes. Walking and cycling are often given no such treatment, and in many cases are only accommodated after sufficient space has been allocated to the automobile.

A wide road with narrow adjacent sidewalks and no space to bike, demonstrating the traffic paradigm that shaped this environment.

Alternatively, the view that traffic is malleable is evidence that the Dutch view the automobile as one of many tools for mobility, with its own unique characteristics. Traffic networks and development patterns are structured to support a variety of mobility objectives. Amsterdam is a demonstration of the fact that there are different development environments that best support each mode, and “urban development without more mobility by car” is possible by consciously planning for these environments (2).

The statement “that won’t work here” is the epitome of a professional operating in a different paradigm.

The notion and belief that traffic must be accommodated plays out in society in a variety of ways, one example being the empathy displayed between road users. The traffic-first paradigm indicates to the motorist that their needs are more important than those of other road users. I experience this as a cyclist; my position on the road is regularly challenged and threatened by motorists through high-speed, close passing maneuvers, and even threats of violence (a motorist recently threatened to “run me over”). In this paradigm, the “cyclist” is an obstacle to traffic flow and the motorist is empowered to reinforce this through their behaviour.

Conversely, The Dutch alternative that traffic must be regulated translates to a behaviour of motorists that is more empathetic, creating “shared mobility experiences”. Without these shared experiences, “there may be an associated lack of empathy regarding the often difficult and dangerous circumstances in which bicyclists ride, further exasperating negative perceptions towards bicyclists” (3). Aggression towards people riding bicycles in the Netherlands is limited. The legal system places a high responsibility on motorists for their behaviour around vulnerable road users, and the experience that many motorists are also cyclists creates more empathy.

A Dutch women riding a bicycle in the middle of the road with her small child beside her. Motor vehicles are following behind, but are not threatening to pass them.
A child and her mother riding side-by-side in a lane mixed with traffic requires a society that is more empathetic towards people riding bicycles. It would be difficult to find situations like this in Canada.

Achieving a paradigm shift is an incredibly difficult undertaking. The Unravelling the Cycling City course reveals the immense challenge of creating cities that are more multimodal: it requires a paradigm shift in how we think of traffic. Traffic must come to be seen as malleable rather than inevitable, and should be regulated rather than accommodated. People who have “learned the Dutch way” may feel enlightened and inspired to bring change, but face an uphill battle in their home contexts and risk being relegated to the fringe like “flat earthers”. Until the current traffic paradigm is successfully challenged and altered, the automobile will continue to reign supreme in the Canadian planning context.

This essay was written for the Unraveling the Cycling City online course.

References

  1. Oldenziel, R., & de la Bruhèze, A. A. (2011). Contested Spaces: Bicycle Lanes in Urban Europe, 1900–1995. Transfers, 1(2), 29–49. https://doi.org/10.3167/trans.2011.010203
  2. Bertolini, L., & le Clercq, F. (2003). Urban development without more mobility by car? Lessons from Amsterdam, a multimodal urban region. Environment and Planning A, 35(4), 575–589. https://doi.org/10.1068/a3592
  3. Marshall, W. E., Piatkowski, D., & Johnson, A. (2017). Scofflaw bicycling: Illegal but rational. Journal of Transport and Land Use, 10(1), 805–836. https://doi.org/10.5198/jtlu.2017.871

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