Drivers vs. Everybody

We all want roads that are safe, efficient, and pleasant. But no one wants to change for that to happen

A top-down photo of cars stuck in traffic.
Walrus / iStock

On March 23, Vancouver radio host Jill Bennett tweeted a photo of a silver SUV stuck atop a yellow concrete road barrier. The vehicle was listing to one side, with its right wheels hanging in the air. Bennett was not castigating the driver for inattention or recklessness. Her ire was directed at the stationary object under the car. “Hey @CityofVancouver this is [the] second incident I’ve seen caused by these useless ‘slow street’ barricades installed last month. They don’t slow down traffic; they cause crashes and traffic chaos,” she wrote.

The yellow barricade on which the unfortunate driver of this SUV was marooned was installed last winter as part of the city’s “Slow Streets” initiative to create designated routes for cyclists and pedestrians. The barricades narrow a two-lane road so that only vehicles going in one direction can drive through at a time, forcing motorists to slow down as they approach an intersection while leaving room for cyclists to pass.

Bennett’s instantly viral tweet attracted thousands of replies, most of which disputed her assessment and mercilessly mocked the driver, though a few agreed that the barriers were confusing and bemoaned the loss of parking spaces in the bargain. Despite the near consensus that this was an example of bad driving, media coverage nonetheless said the barriers “spark controversy” and were a “flashpoint” in the perpetual battle between motorists and cyclists. The incident touched a nerve in Canadian culture, one that’s reliably inflamed whenever an unremarkable piece of road infrastructure enters the public conversation. Because whenever we talk about driving and cycling, we are inevitably talking about ourselves: our values, our desires, and our identities.

In theory, creating alternatives to driving is a win–win situation. The number of cars on the road increases each year, creating more traffic and pollution. Building more lanes for vehicles only makes things worse, while investing in transit and dedicated infrastructure for bicycles improves safety and reduces congestion. Driving makes people miserable, exacerbates climate change, and causes thousands of preventable injuries and deaths each year. While witty replies were piling up under Bennett’s tweet, three people were hit by a car in the Downtown Eastside; days later, a woman was struck at an east Vancouver crosswalk and was critically injured.

The case for modifying roads to encourage other modes of transport makes itself. We should all want fewer cars on the road as well as alternatives to spending hours of our lives (around 144 hours, or six days, each year, according to recent data from TomTom) inching through rush-hour traffic. So why don’t we? Because infrastructure, of all things, elicits not rational responses but deeply emotional ones. Changing our roads, even slightly, feels like an exhortation to change ourselves, because how we get around says a lot about who we think we are.

I cycle, I walk, I take transit, and I also drive. Most people rely on multiple means of transportation, but we all have one that we identify with. When, in 2010, then Toronto mayor Rob Ford called a plan to expand Toronto transit lines a “war on the car,” he championed drivers as regular, humble folk. A similar tactic was used by the Vancouver city council in 2022 to strike down a city-wide parking permit proposal, with the mayor arguing that it would harm “landscapers living in basement suites” who relied on vehicles to make a living. Cars are often positioned as a necessity—while bikes are a luxury, a status symbol for millennials with fake-sounding job titles. Meanwhile, cyclists like me take pride in our eco-conscious, wholesome means of transport, which can admittedly make us a little bit insufferable, like the person who makes it a point to tell you that they don’t watch TV. These stereotypes, though, have little basis in reality—low-income folks are more likely to bike, and many people who care about climate change nonetheless rely on cars—but they persist, underpinning and polarizing every transportation debate.

On the road, that polarization makes sense on an emotional level. On my bicycle, I feel a smug sense of superiority as I navigate my way around the Range Rovers deadlocked in Tetris-like configurations during school drop-off, then a sense of panic if one of them lurches toward me. When it pours, I get in my car and seethe. Those driving five kilometres an hour faster than me are maniacs, and those going five kilometres slower are infuriating. Everyone is an obstacle in my quest for an ideal journey. Of course, when I’m on foot, I’m terrified of everyone, particularly because it’s easy to count how many people are staring at their phones instead of their surroundings. No matter how you get around, it’s hard not to demonize everyone else—to see them as obstructions or opponents rather than fellow humans who are just trying to make it from point A to point B without dying.

This is a trap, and yet we fall into it, because otherwise we would have to reckon with our own culpability. There’s a common category of car commercial that features a solitary driver breezing down an empty, remote highway. That image is seductive because it taps into a universal aspiration: one car (or one bike) on the road would be perfect—as long as it was ours. And the selfish mindset that governs our journeys, rooted in the basic instinct of self-preservation, reinforces this belief: the problem isn’t you, it’s everyone else. This logic also extends to the blame directed at infrastructure like the Slow Streets barriers and, more frequently, at cyclists—drivers wouldn’t hit them if they weren’t there in the first place, right? All of us, regardless of our chosen modes of transport, want roads that are safe, efficient, and pleasant, but no one wants to be the person who has to change for that to happen.

It’s true that many people have lives that require the use of a car, and understandably, they don’t want to feel bad about it. Even more have reasons for why a car is indispensable to their lifestyle: their children, their work, their hobbies, how frequently they visit Costco. Underpinning these justifications is the simple truth that our vehicles are also expressions of how we live. But the abrading friction—the point where the car mounts the concrete barrier, if you will—is when we defend our vehicles and, by extension, our identities by arguing for the preservation of the status quo. Change is inevitable and often uncomfortable. But the beauty of infrastructure is that it facilitates those changes for us, often invisibly.

In the past twenty years, Canada’s roads have become significantly less deadly as the country has taken steps to become less car centric. That doesn’t mean the process is painless, but you can’t blame the barricade. The car-commercial promise of the blissful, empty road is an unobtainable fantasy. The next best thing: roads that are built to protect us from one another—and from our own worst selves.

Michelle Cyca
Michelle Cyca is a contributing writer for The Walrus.