Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sharing the Road: Notes from Rural Northern Ireland

Traffic is different here. I have shared the country roads with everyone and everything - from cars to oversized trucks, to tractors, horses, cows, other cyclists, runners and pedestrians. Some go very fast, some go very slow, some go somewhere in between. Many of the roads are narrow, winding, with no shoulders - oftentimes with barely room for a full sized lane in each direction. Situations frequently arise when travelers are in each other's way. An old truck putters along below the speed limit. A herd of cows is moved from one pasture to another. A jogger runs wearing earphones. A cyclist takes the lane on a winding descent. A pony and trap race is in progress on a Sunday afternoon. At the same time, the roads are teeming with fast sports cars, long distance lorries, and sedans full of people rushing to and from work in one of the industrial parks or factories nearby. With the limited space, this mix sounds like a recipe for disaster - or at least regular incidents of road rage. But I have seen no signs of that yet. On the contrary, road users across the spectrum are eerily patient and courteous. 

I noticed it at first as a cyclist. Out on my bike every day, and sometimes at peak commuting times, I am never made to feel as if my presence on the roads is inconveniencing anyone - even though technically, sometimes it is. But if I am in the way, drivers will simply pass me, or wait until they can. They genuinely don't seem bothered. Sometimes a driver will wave as they pass - not in a hyper-friendly sort of way, but more like in casual acknowledgement of my presence. 

Riding as a passenger in a car with locals offered a glimpse of the driver's perspective. Whenever we had to slow down for another road user, that was exactly what the driver did - without altering his emotional state or breaking stride in the conversation we were all having inside the car. There was no impatience, no eye-rolling, no "Jeez, what's this guy doing stopped in the middle of the road?" on the driver's or other passengers' part. Put simply, they did not seem to process slower road users as inconveniences or obstacles. 

It would be tempting to explain this attitude as country manners or something specific to "Irishness" - except being here in the midst of it, that doesn't feel like it. The attitude is more matter of fact than friendly or polite. There seems to be a system in place that road users implicitly acknowledge being a part of. Cooperation is necessary for the system to work, and everyone understands that. 

Is this system really so different from what goes on in congested cities and chaotic suburbs? In some ways yes, but in other ways not so much. I am not sure whether planners interested in road sharing dynamics ever look at areas like this one for ideas. But I propose they should; it might yield some unexpected insights.

35 comments:

  1. Us Europeans do look at things like Ice road truckers and other US tv programmes and laugh when we see some of your back roads described as 'narrow country roads' when it's almost as wide as some european motorways. :)

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    1. It is possible to find comparatively narrow roads in New England, though less common.

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  2. Last summer I noticed the same thing riding and driving around different sections of Ireland. but I do know how they release their aggression. Go see a local Gaelic Football match. Even the local moms sound like sailors!

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  3. Thank you so much for this post! Many have us have noticed with alarm the increasing hostility between cyclists and motorists. I think the adjusted, more realistic expectations you observe might go a long way towards bringing us all to a more civil, calmer, and happier approach to using the roads.

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  4. Despite the obvious differences in infrastructure between some European and American cities, it does seem that one of the critical differences is just that cyclists and pedestrians are widely seen as "valid" road users. Even when the infrastructure is poor or non-existent, being aware of the likelihood and respecting the presence of cyclists seems to make it all work pretty well.

    At least in Los Angeles, there's been a lot of debate about the value of "share the road" and other driver education campaigns that try to improve this awareness and respect. I think the planners do understand that this could make a big difference, but it really remains to be seen if ads can create this attitude or if it arises more naturally out of daily interaction with larger numbers of cyclists/peds. For myself, I think it "can't hurt", though I doubt it does much by itself. What does is when people see the city spending money and dedicating space to cyclists and then seeing more and more bikes on the road every day. Often the best advocacy is just to be out there riding.

    As a side note, I will say that I think infrastructure is more critical the more densely built an area is. Courtesy goes a long way on a narrow road with a car coming every 5 minutes. On dense, narrow roads with 1000's of cars, it is more important that the roadway design sets up clearer space for different users, both to prevent bad interactions and to smooth flow. [/end 2+ cents]

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  5. It's not just auto drivers in the U.S. who act as though it's their god-given right to drive at any speed their vehicles are capable of. I still remember driving the autobahn in the middle of Germany, watching the drivers of the black BMWs flash their headlights a few km behind you as they prepare to blow your doors off a second or two later. Such a strange attitude; for a typical commute, this behavior gets you there maybe a minute or so faster.

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  6. I think you're right, it's simply more matter of fact, but isn't the problem in the U.S. that we're sorta culturally impatient and intolerant, not just on the roads?

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    1. I've long thought that expectations largely decide what is acceptable; in this case, if you expect cyclists, jaunting cars, milk floats, auto rickshaws, tongas, what have you, you accept the limitations they impose on your masterful 300 hp.

      Anonymous: Cultural impatience is not the issue and, in fact, from what I've seen in Europe, we Yanks have nothing in this regard on Swiss or Italians or the French, on the road, if not at meals.

      Groundround: DIsagree strongly. Expectations = acceptance is universal, from my experience, which includes chaotic 3d world -- damn that term, which includes the chaotic traffic in poor Asian and African countries. Despite the (compared to the sedate US of A) traffic anarchy, bikes were relatively safe because -- well, you get the picture.

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  7. Traffic in a semi-agrarian part of the world has zero application to a heavily-populated urban center.

    Lessons learned? Move to the country. Oh wait you have.

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  8. This post reminds me of the last time I was in Ireland. I was on the bus from Dublin, when the driver stopped in the middle of a towns busy high street, to have a chat with the bus driver going in the opposite direction! Heaven knows how the drivers in England would have reacted, but there no one batted an eyelid at it.

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  9. So the key is the 'multi-use' label which might alter folks expectations to a new reality? My son spent time in Tanzania and found the pace and expectations of travel refreshing....I suspect this is true in many rural areas where generations have traveled consistently the same...Maybe.

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  10. I live in a rural area, but it's suburban/cottage country rural and close to a major city, so I have not seen this kind of courtesy in years since it became very very busy. There used to be cows on the loose, goat herds on the run, but not for a long time. People drive fast, are impatient and rude. Everyone is number 1, instead of cooperating. I also grew up in the prairie of Canada, major agricultural area, but very fast driving and no room or patience for bikes that I recall.
    Ireland and Northern Ireland sounds dreamy.

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    1. The area I'm in is close to a major NI city (Derry/ Londonderry), as well as areas dense with "industrial parks" - places like factories and software development facilities. It's actually less boonies type rural than areas of central Mass, NH and Maine I've cycled through. There is something else at play aside from the rural culture thing.

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    2. Have you asked drivers how they view this whole dynamic?

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    3. No, it's entirely a rural culture thing - people are used to the rural nature of things, which pre-date the industrial parks. That makes it a mature way of getting around, a stasis that works.

      Here, people also figure it out in cars. Since you don't drive you don't see it from that perspective.

      Anyway if you did and observed for decades local customs that is where answers lay our not. To study remote Northern Ireland with its ancient right of ways and try to apply it to a 12 lane super highway city like Houston is missing the point. No traffic planner will look for such dissimilar case studies.

      If you want them to apply our to risk new England you have to deal with centuries of habits bred into the populace and change very old, immutable road systems. I guess today is also ask for world peace day too.

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    4. @GR Jim - I don't have a specific case to refute you with. But I will say that I am highly skeptical of arguments that are based on "that's their culture, you can't change things." This argument generally rests on the assumption that current conditions have always been in effect and thus represent some sort of natural order.

      Copehagen, while never as anti-bike as most American cities, was not always such a bike friendly place. It took several decades of active campaigns and city planning changes to create what is there now. But people will routinely argue that it can't be the same elsewhere because "we don't have the same culture."

      I've seen big changes in the way cars and bikes interact in Los Angeles in just the last 5 years. Has it completely changed? No. But give it a few more years. What made the difference? More bikes, the police, city government, and road agencies all legitimizing cyclists presence through specific campaigns or infrastructure changes.

      Of course comparing rural road design to multi-lane highways is not very useful. But the question of why people interact smoothly in some places and not in others is entirely valid.

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  11. Hm. I am wondering what the typical city and suburban driver close by has for an attitude. What is their "driver culture" like? Do they look at autos as freedom devices? What are their adverts like?

    This might be a space on a continuum that is just different than what we are used to.

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  12. I ride these roads in all weathers and it's partly attitude and partly small local population combined with high profile local cycle clubs. Everybody works with, is related to, or is an enthusiastic recreational cyclist and they "get" the individual on the road on a bike. And I have to give an honourable mention to the lady in the milkshake bar in Limavady who gets the large banana flavour shake underway while I'm still parking my bike outside! Unfortunately in our one big(gish) city, Belfast, relations between road users are less idyllic......

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    1. Every cyclist I know in Belfast describes it as pretty bad. Haven't cycled yet in Derry, only walked. Dublin was not great outside the river path.

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    2. A woman was 'clothes lined' in Dublin last night. Kids set up a rope targeted for cyclists! The burn/bruise on her neck is frightening as is what some people consider fun.

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  13. Are the laws or is the legal system different there with regard to the roads? Are autos different? Priorities?

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    1. As far as the legal system, one thing I'm aware of is they have strict drunk driving laws, with a minimum of an automatic X year (5 I think) suspended license sentence if caught DUI.

      I have also seen a pretty gruesome "everyone has a right to a safe journey" commercial on TV showing an elderly man dying on the pavement after he's been hit by a careless driver.

      So it does seem to be a matter of laws and active campaigns at least to some extent. Though I am sure these same campaigns run in Belfast, where they seem less effective.

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  14. ScottUKEireloverJuly 1, 2013 at 5:50 PM

    I think the casual wave you mentioned is called a salute, I do enjoy a bit of saluting myself when I'm in Eire!

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  15. In some way I think this phenomenon is related to a variant or form of the tragedy of the commons, originally exemplified by the difference between English cows and sheep grazing on common grounds.

    When the wool industry took off, the herders were more likely to let the sheep eat the nearby grass, and they did much more damage than a cow. The individual sheep herder would benefit, but as more and more chose this route, the detrimental effects accrued to the rest of the people, until soon there was nothing left.

    Roads of course predate automobiles, and are a type of commons. If we look at wayfarers, bicyclists, farm wagons and such as cows, and cars as sheep, we can see what happened here in the U.S. The sheep took over to such an extent that in many cases, they cause massive gridlock, and anything other than a sheep on the road in many places is about as likely as spotting an ostrich in a tutu. The sheep get very peevish when they spot an ostrich wearing a dress.

    I think in your particular corner of Ireland, the people still recognize and respect the commons. The sheep still acknowledge the wayfarers, the bicyclists, the slow moving vehicles, and the non-metaphorical cows and sheep.

    Anyway, what a great place to spend the summer. Enjoy.

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  16. In Chicago drivers no longer automatically yield to fire engines or ambulances or funeral corteges. It was not always thus.

    I believe our bloghost is a young lady of 29 years? I am afraid that in your lifetime there has been little courtesy or civility or cooperation displayed on the public roadways of America. I can remember when the behavior and attitudes you are finding in Ireland were common enough here. Common but not dominant.

    My grandparents (not my parents) taught me to be courteous and patient. Of course they were all born in the nineteenth century. They also taught me that my ego was not the most important thing in the world and that material possessions were not important at all. As a result I am often taken for a foreigner.

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  17. So, sedans full of people 'rushing' to and from work have a respect for all that slows them down?

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  18. I think people behave "better" on some roads because "some roads" are like a thousand years old and are just as happy to see us dead as to help us on our way.

    Around here we have roads that were prolly' game paths before the Native Americans(who likely just used to call themselves People)started using them, then they got shouldered out of the way by hairy dudes wearing hollowed out animals on their heads riding horses, who then had to get out of the way of the wagons and buggies who got run into the ditch by hooligans in stripped down, Hopped Up, Models Ts who gave up and wandered off when they graveled it and the Log Trucks started muscling everyone else out of the way, who now have to stay on the bypass so the minivans can have it to themselves but actually don't use it much because it really is too dusty which leaves the occasional tractor or Mennonite Buggy, the mail carriers and folks with expired inspection stickers or revoked licenses (who you really ought to give a bit of extra room to anyhow), and, well, us Cyclists, the Runners and the Horse People.

    On a road like that you might just ease up a bit because you intuitively know that the road doesn't really give a s%#t about you and your schedule. That the next guy over the hill could be a deer, a guy on a 30,000 pound tractor with wheels as high as your head or that jackass in the 400 HP. Subaru WRX that's always sideways with a rooster tail of gravel 12 feet high coming out the back. It doesn't really matter who gets the ticket if you find yourself with an antler through your window or vertically parked in a ditch where you had to scurry to avoid whatever it was that was bigger than you when you were going too fast.

    So you slow down a bit and stop thinking the whole damn thing was made for you and, naturally, the lady with the wheelbarrow full of Tiger Lilies she dug out of the bank becomes a nice Lady digging flowers instead of a LUNATIC pushing a FREAKING WHEELBARROW DOWN THE ROAD GAWDDAMMIT!!! So if you are forgiving and calm, the road is a benevolent,pleasant thing, and if you are a JERK, well, you can go to Hell as far as that road is concerned.

    I live on that road.

    Spindizzy

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  19. I live in London, but do a lot of cycling in rural Norfolk, which has a similar network of quiet rural lanes, and it can be quite surprising how patient drivers can be on these kinds of roads. Drivers get used to braking for trucks/horses/cyclists/tractors/pheasants, and most of the time they wait patiently and drive safely. However, on wider, faster roads, they'll still buzz past you - I think it's something to do with the kind of speed drivers expect they 'should' be able to travel at, so their reaction depends on the environmental cues around them. Dual carriageways make drivers think they're on a motorway, so they drive accordingly.

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  20. I'd like to here one thing a traffic engineer can learn there - otherwise it's a suggestion that has no impetus.

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  21. an american driving in Ireland (me, I know you are not driving) needs a particular combination of agression and courtesy that does not come naturally to us.

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  22. I agree that we in America lack the tolerant attitude you're finding in Ireland. The presumption in America is that generally motorists are rude and inconsiderate to bicyclists and anything else that isn't doing the speed limit. Unfortunately your post made me consider that sometimes maybe its the bicyclists that aren't as tolerant of motorists as they should be.

    On a group ride on Saturday I got cut off from the main group turning onto a busy street and I was two cars back as we approached an intersection. The group made it through the intersection and the car in front of me put its left turn signal on. Instead of pulling into the intersection and making the turn (which would have enabled me to proceed with no problem) the driver sat there and blocked the intersection. I had to hit my brakes hard to avoid hitting him and I fishtailed a bit, which really annoyed me. I quickly rode past as the light turned from yellow to red to get through the intersection and yelled "What the f%@k?!". The passenger yelled "F#** you!" as I rode past.

    Yes I got through the intersection in one piece and yes the passenger was rude for cursing when the driver almost caused me to fall but I was just as at fault for yelling when the driver didn't proceed as I thought he should have. For whatever reason he didn't think it was safe to proceed with his left turn and it was his right not to proceed through a yellow. I could have been a lot more patient, more like those folks in Ireland.

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  23. The main thing a traffic engineer can learn is that people don't need all kinds of signs and markers, and in fact without them are more prone to call upon...common sense.

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  24. The first commenter above mentions the TV programme, Ice Road Truckers. For those who don't know, these are winter roads on ice, over lakes and along rivers, in Northern Canada. They lead to mines in the northern Barren Lands - AND THEY ARE AN ENVIRONMENTAL DISASTER! The western Barren Lands used to support herds of tens of thousands of caribou. And they supported a limited population of inland Inuit and other indigenous peoples. Since the opening of a gold mine in 1991 a massive area has been devastated. The value of the area in terms of carbon sequestering is inestimable. Yes, another road to destruction of the earth's habitability for all living things.

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  25. I do a lot of cycling on single track roads where every encounter with traffic is a negotiation - on the whole, it means everyone is pretty patient. For a start, if you're in a hurry, you don't use those roads. And I think another factor is that bikes aren't the only things that hold drivers up - they're as inconvenienced by other cars, tractors, whatever. In fact a bike, which can actually be overtaken, is probably the thing which holds drivers up the least.

    There was some research that showed people who were in a hurry were less likely to behave in a compassionate way (I think it was on theology students who were sent to deliver a sermon on the Good Samaritan. Half of them were told they were running late and should hurry, half not. All encountered someone in need of help on their way to their destination and the 'hurry' group were much less likely to stop). While I'd hate to pander to the stereotype of the Irish as being a bit more relaxed about timekeeping, it may be that if you regularly drive on those roads you leave enough time to allow for sheep, pony traps, bikes or whatever, so you're not in such a rush - giving yourself time to be compassionate to your fellow humans.

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  26. It may be cultural. From my view, there was a strong, cooperative sense among most who share the narrow streets and fietspaden of Amsterdam. Contrast that with the motorist, who this morning explained "I didn't see you" in a(thankfully)civilized encounter following his left turn into a crowded pedestrian scene at our riverside park. I had been in the zebra crossing on foot with the dog. Yikes!

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