Shaming Drivers Is Pointless When Streets Are Dangerous

Without proper infrastructure for driving alternatives, the blame can't go on drivers.

Hand holding steering wheel in a Car
Catherine Falls Commercial / Getty Images

I once biked to my current workplace and I wrote about the experience in my book, "We’re All Climate Hypocrites Now." Having enjoyed a relatively uneventful seven miles or so on a car-free greenway, I was forced to finish my journey on busy, six-lane roads with rarely a bike lane, let alone a protected bike lane, in sight. 

Spoiler alert: I did eventually make it to my destination. Yet even on arrival, every signal I received was telling me that the endeavor was an astoundingly bad idea. Here’s how I described it in the book:

“I locked my bike to the always-empty bike rack outside, grabbed my morning coffee, and plugged the removable battery in to recharge, already nervous about the afternoon journey home. On receiving a few inquisitive looks regarding my helmet, I explained what I had been up to and asked if anyone else ever rode to the office: 'Sure, I think Rich over in underwriting used to ride occasionally. He stopped when he was knocked from his bike and broke several ribs.'” 

I think about this experience a lot, especially when I come across pro-bike or anti-car discourse on my social media channels. On the one hand, I see activists and advocates rightly pointing out the terrible and too often deadly state of our roads. Whether it’s a lack of protective bike lanes or poorly designed bike parking, car-centric road layouts, or inconsistent enforcement of (inadequate) speed limits, we are not short of very real and extremely dangerous hazards that need to be called out. After all, these are structural challenges that all but ensure that biking remains a minority pastime for the brave-at-heart.

No argument here.

Yet I also see bike advocates—and I won’t call any specific people out because their critique comes from a place of frustration and good intentions—who are criticizing those around them for not biking or walking, or for choosing to drive instead. Sometimes it’s simply a snide, and not entirely uncalled for, remark like, “You aren’t stuck in traffic, you ARE traffic." But sometimes it’s a more barbed attack on “lazy” parents in the school drop-off line or “greedy” car drivers who choose an SUV. I’ve even seen one tweet suggesting it should be illegal to drive your kids to school. 

Here’s the thing, though: If we’re going to point out the dangerous state of our roads, and the woeful lack of political will to invest in alternatives, then we might want to recognize that it’s not exactly illogical for some of us to choose to drive. Given the manufacturer-driven arms race toward ever-larger cars, there’s even a fairly reasonable explanation for why people, and parents of young children, in particular, choose an oversized vehicle with real or perceived advantages when it comes to crash protection. (Of course, none of this applies to dangerous, discourteous, or drunk drivers—who deserve all the scorn we can muster.) 

As usual, I’m not saying personal responsibility doesn’t matter. The more of us who choose to go car-free, car-light, or simply drive a smaller, electric (and preferably used) car, the better. But in a world of both limited attention spans and imperfect choices, we would be much better off celebrating non-drivers as heroes, rather than berating those who drive because better choices have been made prohibitively difficult for them. Whether it’s cities providing incentives for ditching the car, mayors investing in bike infrastructure and cycling promotion, or businesses adopting cargo bikes for urban delivery, there are plenty of places to start applying pressure for more bike-friendly cities where the sane option becomes the default one. 

Ultimately, though, I think we could take a leaf out of pre-bike heaven Amsterdam’s book, where a diverse group of citizens—including car drivers—came together to demand change. Sure, some of them were anti-car anarchists and agitators. But they were joined by historic preservationists, business owners, and families concerned about road safety.

And sure, once you do have a city like modern-day Copenhagen or Amsterdam where biking is easy, safe, and accessible, there might be some room for shaming those who refuse to give up their tanks, even though they could. Until that day, however, I wish that all of us would get better at thinking tactically and strategically about where we spend our time and energy. 

Alternatively, we could continue yelling at each other and see where it gets us.