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.