In the city I find the traffic lights/pedestrian crossing is often the flashpoint for conflict, writes Michael Moynihan
Richard Rodgers, you should be living at this hour and building bridges. Forget Montagues and Capulets, or even farmers and cowmen.
Is there a more bitter division in the modern city than the cyclist and the motorist?
One is a tribe of touchy individuals, quick to take offence and to protest their innocence, intolerant of the opposition, insistent on their rights and quieter about their responsibilities, always convinced that they’re correct, adamant that the road exists for them and dismissive of any counter-argument.
The other tribe is more or less the same.
You don’t have to wait too long to see the clashes. When I stroll the city I find that the traffic lights/pedestrian crossing is often the flashpoint, pun intended, for conflict.
The driver rolls to a stop at a red light only for a cyclist to sail blithely through the same stop signal; or the cyclist has a green light in his or her favour but has to contend with a driver who decided to obey his or her own rules of the road.
Deepening the rift is the fact that driver and the cyclist convey different attitudes purely through their choice of transport.
The driver is insulated and remote, within the city but sealed off in a capsule of warmth, coffee, podcasts, back support, air freshener, phone connection. The cyclist is part of the urban experience, out of doors, working, sweating, alive to the wind, environmentally aware, socially responsible, feeling the road, absorbing the ambient hum of the city.
There isn’t much of a leap, though, from those neutral descriptions to loaded terms triggering reaction: insults, in other words.
The driver sees the cyclist as virtue-signalling and dismissive, the cyclist views the driver as bullying and selfish, and that’s when the harsher Anglo-Saxon terms aren’t being used in the heat of the moment.
Rather than resort to this kind of name-calling, however, I decided to be scientific about it and to carry out my own survey.
I picked an intersection in the city that’s busy but not overrun with traffic, one that’s used by a reasonable cross-section of road - and footpath-users - the traffic lights at the river side of Eglinton Street.
Coming from the Elysian side you have a choice of directions when you approach - go right for Albert Quay and parts east, or left and take Terence McSwiney Quay past the City Hall side facing the river to town.
Directly across from the bottom of Eglinton Street is Clontarf Bridge, where another set of traffic lights offer the same choice in reverse to those coming past the Clayton Hotel.
For various reasons this is an intersection well known to me, so I landed in one midweek afternoon recently to see what the interaction would be like between the road users.
My budget for this experiment didn’t run to paid researchers, but I was lucky enough to enlist two other pairs of eyes for the cost of one pack of Fruit Pastilles and a Crunchie, which seemed reasonable.
We took a random ten-minute period and kept a live log of the interactions.
- 12.07: female pedestrian crosses from Albert Quay to McSwiney Quay while red man is on traffic lights.
- 12.08: white car rolls through red light from Eglinton Street, turning onto Albert Quay.
- 12.10: cyclist breaks a red light onto Albert Quay, cuts across footpath.
- 12.11: car and van break red light from Clontarf Bridge onto Albert Quay.
(At this stage there was a slight delay in proceedings due to a methodological discussion between my two unpaid researchers. One wanted to include drivers who “looked as though they wanted to break the red light” and the other objecting on grounds of fairness.) When we resumed, so did the lawbreaking - in a blur of activity which shredded our timekeeping.
Car breaks red light, car breaks red light, two male pedestrians cross while red man is on traffic light, van breaks red light, two cars break red light, a female pedestrian crosses walking a dog while red man is on . ..
The last entry, that female pedestrian, caused further problems for our brief experiment as my researchers couldn’t agree whether to count her dog as a pedestrian for the statistics or just to pat same dog “because it was so cute”.
Betrayed by my colleagues, I called an end to our survey.
Unscientific as it was, our ten minutes underlined some points which may strike you as obvious but worth restating.
It hardly comes as a shock that car drivers view an amber traffic light as a negotiating gambit rather than an instruction on how to drive, but the sheer number of cars rolling past red lights was sobering. You could probably make the argument - possibly - that the sight lines and wide footpaths of the area make it easier for drivers to see pedestrians who might be about to cross, but I doubt many people would be willing to bet their lives on it.
The relatively law-abiding cyclists surprised me a little: the gent who threw caution to the wind was the only one to do so, while his fellow riders waited calmly for the green man even though the temptation to sail on must have been strong, particularly with those spacious footpaths readily available to be commandeered by an impatient cyclist.
What really surprised me, however, was the number of pedestrians casually strolling across the road long after the green man had stopped blinking.
Disclosure: at one level I admire people so insouciant they’ll ignore a traffic light to walk in front of one-and-a-half-tons of growling metal only held back by someone’ twitching foot.
That seems to me a striking level of trust in the motor skills of one’s fellow citizens, not all of whom are blessed with reliable co-ordination, but you can see it in action every day of the week. People coming back from lunch or heading in to work approaching a traffic light, seeing the green man disappear, and forging ahead across the tarmac, revving cars be damned.
It struck me that while the conflict between the cyclist and the driver might be true - I’ll come back to this at a later date - that tension has far deeper roots than we realise.
The habits forged as pedestrians calcify into behaviours we can’t shake when we take to the roads in vehicles of various kinds.
The chorus of voices at the height of the lockdown calling for a reimagining of transport systems within our cities now seems wrong - not because of the vested interests or long-held prejudices, but because of that deep nonchalance when it comes to behaving ourselves on the street.
Occasionally there are suggestions we should formalise driving instructions in the secondary school system here, as happens in many parts of America, but the lessons should be more fundamental than that. Teach people how to be pedestrians first and they’ll be better as drivers and cyclists when the time comes.
It turns out the question isn’t whether the cowman and the farmer can be friends. It all comes back to the pedestrian.