Drivers are people too

This article states a common sentiment, which I’ve been hearing since 1973.

The streets are commons that belong to everyone. So imagine diverting traffic from a major street in your neighborhood, then welcoming families on bikes, families on foot, babies in strollers, people in wheelchairs, toddlers on training wheels, grade schoolers on skateboards, teenagers on single-speeds, hipsters on fixed gears, grandparents on recumbents, couples arm-in-arm and even yoga classes in the middle of the road.

Over time, I’ve come to see something wrong with this statement: and that is that cars are not mechanical automatons. They contain people too. As do buses, and taxis, and trams.

So the solution given here to making “streets for people” is to exclude a certain group of people.

Of course, I like (some) pedestrianised streets. But there are also many streets in which the people in cars mix freely with people. Some of those examples are written up in the very same “On The Commons” magazines, such as in this article. The common name for this taming (rather than removal) of people-in-cars is “traffic calming.”

So the problem isn’t with people in cars per se: it’s when people in cars dominate the street, thus excluding other people. So why do we see streets-as-commons as being streets-that-exclude-people-driving-cars?

I think that this is the Romantic imagination at work. People see the problem as humans vs machines, and victory is won when the machines are vanquished. (Ignoring the fact that in doing so, there are people in those cars.)

But the real problem—the problem that is overlooked by the Romantic imagination—is domination. And in post-Cold War rich countries, people still don’t want to use a language of domination. Romanticism is more acceptable as a trope.

But the problem with the Romantic trope is that domination is not the exclusive domain of people-in-cars, who can in fact be “tamed”. We also the lycra-clad aggressive cyclists. (In public pools, we have so-called “lane Nazis” who are their watery counterparts.) We have groups of joggers. We have the wolf-whistling men. The people who abuse the skateboarders.

In considering the street, we should let go the idea of “streets for people”, which does not useful differentiate between domination and fair use. Rather, we need to make a more nuanced analysis of what contributes to the commons, and what is fair use without diminishing the commons. And then how can we shape streets to allow that.

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