Traffic is a culture

5 min readJan 21


Bicyclists: magical beings that can appear from nowhere to “almost get hit.”

Years ago, I visited Thailand and learned something about culture. It was a chaotic mess of motorbikes and minibuses and cars, and I was standing by a road trying to figure out how to cross. The traffic was relentless and disorganized. There weren’t any stop signs or stop lights or sidewalks or cross walks. There weren’t any traffic lanes. To me, it looked dangerous and I had no idea how to get across the road. So I waited and waited, hoping traffic would clear and I could dash across.

American traffic culture.

Then, a Thai person walked up next to me and, without looking, stepped into traffic. She walked very slowly and deliberately across the road, looking straight ahead. She didn’t look at the oncoming traffic or try to lock eyes with drivers, which is what I would do to try to negotiate my way across. And, to my surprise, the traffic politely parted for her. That was a lesson in different traffic cultures!

I could never get used to the idea of stepping out into traffic and expecting the cars and motorbikes would see me and make way. I maybe Thailand being Buddhist might be a factor: maybe if a pedestrian didn’t acknowledge the traffic, then she wasn’t responsible for what happened and the responsibility would lie with others? Maybe that’s why she didn’t look at the oncoming traffic or even hint that drivers should stop or avoid her? Is that Buddhist?

Anyway, that was the first time I really thought about traffic as a culture. Visiting other countries, I would notice other things about how drivers interact, and how pedestrians and cyclists are accommodated. To an America, traffic is other countries can feel chaotic and dangerous. But that’s partly because we don’t understand the rules and norms. In Utrecht Netherlands, I was awed by pedestrians and cyclists who paid no mind to cars, and seemed unconcerned about keeping drivers waiting at crossings. On some streets in the Netherlands, cars are allow, but only as “guests.” In the US, in similar situations, drivers would be honking and pedestrians would be legitimately in fear of their lives: inconveniencing drivers can be deadly.

I’ve been thinking about traffic culture as we are pushing to change the infrastructure in DC. The city has slowly been building out a network of protected bike lanes and also a variety of safety improvements and traffic slowing. Citywide speed limits have been lowered. In the US, however, traffic rules have never really been followed; speeding is ubiquitous and other illegal maneuvers are common on our streets. People hardly blink at illegal u-turns, dangerous lane changes, red light running, etc. Changing rules alone will do little to improve things without improved enforcement. And improved enforcement is lagging far behind — probably hopeless. Automation through traffic cameras holds out some hope, but so far it’s small and partial.

Protected bike lanes benefit everyone.

Infrastructure, rules, enforcement are all necessary and good. But, to create safe and humane streets, we’ll also need to focus on changing norms and culture.

I was recently at a public meeting and a woman complained about a bicyclist who came out of nowhere when she was turning right into mid-block driveway. She said the cyclist almost hit her car and was going too fast. But she also said the cyclist was IN A BIKE LANE! In other words, she almost certainly passed the cyclist before nearly right-hooking them. She really told on herself.

When a driver says a bike “appeared out of nowhere”, what they’re usually telling you is that they don’t look for bikes or have traffic awareness. It’s also true for pedestrians who are surprised by cyclists. Of course, there are cyclists who ride erratically and dangerously, so there are legitimate cases. But, more usually, the problem is that our traffic systems do not accommodate cyclists, so cyclists are improvising as best they can.

Drivers (and others) don’t know where to look for cyclists even if they want to: on sidewalks and in cross-walks? On the far right side of traffic lanes? Taking up a full traffic lane? Cyclists do all of these because they have to.

As Michael Schneider says:

“The bottom line is that cyclists do whatever they need to, to arrive at their destination alive. Often navigating hostile, car-centric infrastructure….We need dramatically safer and more bike infrastructure…”

So we’re doing that, slowly. And as we do that, we need also build a different traffic culture in which cycling exists. Other road users are going to learn where bikes usually are and how fast bikes go. And they will learn how to look for them. Drivers will need to slow down and watch out more to create a safer, better traffic culture which incorporates cyclists and pedestrians and disabled people.

The drivers’ view of the world is hegemonic, even among non-drivers. A kind of “car brain” exists, which sees things from the perspective of convenience and safety of drivers first and foremost. To change that will take time and work; trial and error. No doubt, there will be mishaps.

I have a friend who is annoyed about new bike lanes because his wife didn’t notice a new curb near their house separating bicycles from cars. She tripped, and fractured her skull and went to the hospital. Ouch.

That’s terrible, but it’s an example of the human process of transitioning that can be costly and painful. The point is, we’ve been driving, and walking, and cycling in this broken and dangerous system for our whole lives. For better or worse, we’ve accommodated ourselves to it. And it’s going to take some time and effort to transition to something better. It’s not just the infrastructure, but also the culture around the infrastructure we need to build.

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I'm a human person, working in policy & advocacy in international development, gender rights, economic justice.