Three Simple Rules For Sharing Our Ages-Old Infrastructure

It used to be simple. Centuries ago, when we needed to get somewhere, we walked there. The wealthy might ride a horse or carriage. Road users negotiated the use of space between themselves informally, if needed. Today, sharing the road has become far more complicated.

As new forms of transportation were developed, road space was divvied up among users according to their vehicle type. Recently, a heap of new vehicle types are gaining popularity on our ever more congested roads, motivated by a desire to escape our automotive dependency, and enabled by new technologies.

Vehicles range from single occupant, to mass transit, to freight. Walking pace to jet speed. Any number and configuration of wheels. Articulated or rigid chassis. Wide or narrow. Combustion, electric, or muscle powered. On rails or road, portable or massive, human operated or autonomous, tilting or stable… Everything seems possible, plus all the varieties of hybrid vehicles that may combine any of these attributes.

It’s futile to even try to classify all these vehicles to begin with!

As a result of these blurred lines, the decision-making process for carving up road space according to vehicle type has become daunting and fraught with political peril as users of different modes create factions, clamouring for road space of their own. The need to set functional and lasting rules for sharing the road is urgent.

But if we can’t set those rules according to vehicle types in any sensible, effective way, then how do we do it?

The most elegant solution would be to stipulate limits for allowable use of particular roads or paths to extract their optimal safe utility. Then simply let the endless variety of vehicles fall within the terms of use for those spaces.

The two most obvious concerns when it comes to safely sharing the road are the speed and width of each vehicle, or user. By merely applying restrictions based on those factors to existing infrastructure, here is what new, simplified road rules could amount to:

However, it has to be acknowledged that these new limits would promote increased sidewalk use, reducing the comfort and safety that pedestrians are accustomed to. For this reason, it’s important to add a third and final stipulation extending priority to pedestrians.

After all, pedestrians aren’t safer if they’re surrounded by kids on a bikes, joggers, and mobility scooters (all currently allowed on sidewalks) than by adult cyclists, skateboarders, and e-scooters at the same speed. They should all be allowed to share the sidewalk with equal constraints, plus due consideration for pedestrians.

An important element of the pedestrian-priority perspective is to extend their protections to areas where sidewalks may not exist. To do so, it’s simply a matter of expressing the rule in a way that encompasses all roads and paths, ceding priority to pedestrians on whichever slowest infrastructure happens to exist in a given area.

Thus, on a street where no sidewalks exist, the onus is on wheeled vehicles (chiefly cars and bikes) to yield to pedestrians even on the street. That road would effectively belong to pedestrians first. Such a policy should fit nicely into the Vision Zero strategy that many cities are already pursuing.

The flip side is that wheeled vehicles get priority on whichever additional infrastructure might exist alongside the pedestrian-priority lane.

This stipulation then obviates the need for any jaywalking law. It allows pedestrians to cross any street as long as they yield the right of way where necessary. Crosswalks, in turn, could be legally defined as extensions of the sidewalk to extend pedestrian priority onto them.

Further elegance of this ‘3-rules’ approach is that it makes the concept of shared space inherent to the rules of the road. Road users cannot escape the notion that their privilege to use a given right-of-way is dependent on the allocation of safe areas to other users.

It also implies a hierarchy of road users, from the most vulnerable to the least vulnerable, from the most affordable to the least affordable, from the most natural and environmentally friendly to the least so.

Another benefit is that it allows outcomes to be optimized in urban and suburban parts of the city, all under the same rules. The roads and paths end up shared in whatever way is best for each given community, according to the available lane types and the concentration of users on them.

In a follow-up post, we’ll look at how this new rules structure for road sharing can form the framework for a whole new set of pared-down vehicle regulations. Such regulations could simplify existing rules on safety equipment, taxation, and licensing, as well as emerging issues such as power source and autonomous vehicles.

The days of the horse and buggy are long gone, and it’s time we updated our regulatory framework with an eye to the future.