For the first 18 years of my life, my predominant means of moving around the world was in a car. I lived in the outer suburbs of Sydney, a place I now recognise as the kind of car-dominated neighbourhood I never want to live in again. It was a 20 minute walk to the nearest petrol station — where most locals got essentials like bread and milk. To walk to the nearest place where you could buy proper groceries would take you over an hour, though no one ever did it because you weren’t allowed to. The roads weren’t built to carry people on foot. There was a bus — it came once an hour, but it didn’t go to the supermarket. And don’t get me wrong — this was a city, not remote outback Australia. It was just a place built around owning a car. So I used one every single day. I used a car to go to school, to go to work, to visit friends, to do the shopping — even to exercise — choosing to drive the 2km to the tennis courts rather than face the roads with no pedestrian pavements.
It wasn’t until I went to university in the centre of the city that not owning a car became a possibility for me, and after a few years of finding myself frustrated at parking and registration costs, I took the plunge and gave it up. I moved to a leafy neighbourhood of Sydney on the outskirts of the CBD and my commute became a 30 minute walk, coffee in hand, chatting away on the phone to my mum. Soon, the frustration of congestion and too-fast drivers and too-slow drivers became a thing of the past. I was in my own world on the pavement, safe from it all. Free from the burden of a car, I could live life with a spontaneity I’d never experienced before. I walked everywhere, getting a bus or a train only a handful of times the whole time I lived there.
Now, at almost 29, I’m moving to a phase of my life where the majority of my journeys are starting to be taken by bike. To be fair, I’m not really going out much. I’m definitely in the more risk-averse category when it comes to COVID-19. But more often than not these days, if I’m headed out, I’ll trade my walking shoes for a helmet and choose the efficient commute of a bicycle instead. I love discovering how connected my city is, how quickly I can get from one side of the neighbourhood to another, and how liberating it is to have agency over my journey at every point. Now, I can’t imagine going back to the frustration of the tube as the carriage lurches to a halt again for some unknown reason. When I want to go, I just go.
All of this to say that I know what it’s like to be a driver, to be a pedestrian and to be a cyclist. At different parts of my life, being these things have meant freedom to me. And now that I’ve seen the world from all three perspectives, one thing has become clear to me — sharing space sucks.
Every driver has felt the deep frustration at the pedestrian who thoughtlessly darts across your path. It doesn’t matter if they’ve seen you, if your car is moving, if they have right of way over you. There’s something uniquely irritating about seeing a person pop up unexpectedly out of the corner of your eye when you’re operating a 2000 pound hunk of metal. More times than I like to admit I found myself cursing pedestrians who were just going about their day, doing nothing wrong other than being where I wanted to be at the exact moment that I wanted to be there. As a driver, sharing space with pedestrians is awful.
And then there’s the cyclists! Seemingly completely in their own worlds they duck and weave through the traffic that I, in a car, will be stuck in for god knows how long. They’re always riding too close to the car, with seemingly no thought for what would happen if they had to turn or slow down unexpectedly. And they always seem to think they’re faster than they really are — oblivious to the traffic chaos they’re causing behind them. I’m not proud of it, but when I’ve been in a car, I’ve been guilty of all of these thoughts. But as a driver, sharing space with cyclists is awful.
But when I’m a pedestrian? Cars are an absolute nightmare. That feeling when you’re crossing a street at your own pace and a driver decides they want to turn into that street, and all of a sudden they’re honking or revving their engine or raising an eyebrow at you to try and pressure you out of the way. Or when they see you ahead about to cross the road so they accelerate to make sure they won’t have to slow down for you for even a second. Or when they decide the road just isn’t enough for them and they drive or park on the pavement because apparently their convenience is more important than your safety. As a pedestrian, sharing space with cars is awful.
And as a pedestrian, cyclists often felt no better. I still remember a time walking across a zebra crossing hearing a loud, bellowing “MOVE” from a cyclist speeding towards me. I leapt out of the way just in time, but my heart was racing and the adrenalin caused me to burst into tears for no reason at all. And as a pedestrian, whenever I share a path with a cyclist, I feel like I never really know what I’m supposed to do? I always seem to feel like I’m in the wrong place, and the sound of their bell asking me to move out of the way forces me still like a statue, unable to make a decision. As a pedestrian, sharing space with cyclists is awful.
And now I know what it’s like to experience the street from a cyclist perspective as well. My greatest fear? That a driver will kill me with their car. That in their eagerness to overtake me as fast as possible they’ll clip my bike at speed and I will fall and perish. My second greatest fear? That a driver will yell at me for being in their space. That they’ll use the fact that I’m fearful for my life to try and intimidate me from ever getting on my bike again. And then there’s the less existential stuff — the parking in the cycle lane, the loudness of their horns, the filthiness of their engines. As a cyclist, sharing space with cars is awful.
But pedestrians too are impossible to share a space with! They walk so unpredictably, weaving about on the path in front of you in such a way that it’s impossible to know which side of the pavement they’ll be on if you approach them. But you can’t ring your bell to let them know you’re behind them, because they get startled and angry. But you also can’t *not* ring your bell because then they get startled and angry. They walk in the cycle lane because it’s quieter, oblivious to the fact that it’s the only part of the street reserved for cyclists. As a cyclist, sharing space with pedestrians is awful.
It doesn’t matter who you are or how you choose to get around— sharing space is awful. Right now, we’re all having a terrible time — so surely the creation of our own segregated spaces is something everyone can get behind, right?
To the drivers, imagine not having to share a road with cyclists or pedestrians, but having your own space where you can move around free from the anxiety that someone will jump out in front of your car too late for you to react.
To the pedestrians, imagine not having to share a space with cyclists or cars, but having your own wide and pleasant pavements with enough space to run or amble or push a buggy.
To the cyclists, imagine not having to share a space with cars or pedestrians, but having your own protected space to travel at your own pace, never having to worry that a driver might collide with you at any moment.
Segregated spaces for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists are in all of our best interests. That means we have to support the creation of those segregated spaces, whether or not we’ll be using them. So the next time you hear about the construction of a new protected cycle lane, instead of thinking “why would I want that, I’m not a cyclist!” remember that segregated spaces make life better for all of us — and share your support with the world.