Visibility Politics: Why polite traffic stops are far from innocuous.

Last Wednesday, I noticed on twitter that the police in Warwickshire have been stopping cyclists to talk about visibility on the roads. This was intended to be an entirely non-punitive thing; officers engaged the cyclists in a polite discussion about the importance of visibility, gave them a free reflective armband, and sent them on their way.

It sounds pretty innocuous at first glance, but it had cyclists up in arms. Here are some replies that were made to the BBC coverage of the stops:

And here are some tweets reacting to the news:

Cyclists and cyclist organisations tend to bristle at suggestions that they dress more visbily. They tend to accuse police and other authorities that make such suggestions of victim-blaming, and point out that there actually isn’t much of an empirical case for the usefulness of high-visibility cycle gear. But to many people, this might seem bizarre. What could possibly be so objectionable about being more visible? Apart from being pretty much the tackiest thing imaginable when worn off a bike, a fluorescent yellow vest isn’t a massive hardship. And even if its actual utility is disputed, surely it’s better to be safe than sorry, right? Why would you want to put yourself at even the tiniest increased risk of an accident?

Superficially, to somebody who does not ride a bike and does not understand all the nuances of transport safety politics, these arguments make a lot of sense. But as is often the case with these things, they oversimplify the situation. In this post, I’m going to try to explain why visibility campaigns are misguided at best and counterproductive at worst. I can approach this issue as a cyclist who steadfastly refuses to wear high-vis gear, but also as an historian of transport: The history of transport shows that these apparently well-intentioned safety campaigns can have surprisingly elaborate political implications.

Illustration by Swedish artist Karl Jilg. Courtesy of Vox.

I’m going to start with the above image. It’s a clever way of depicting the dearth of space available in a city to law-abiding pedestrians. But how did we get here? After all, streets have been around for a lot longer than cars. And indeed, even at the turn of the twentieth century, when the earliest cars were already being driven in cities, urban streets were a crowded mess of pedestrians, cyclists, streetcars, playing children, livestock, and the occasional automobile:

This picture, from Manchester Evening News, depicts a downtown Manchester street in 1914. Note the mixed use of the road, and the comparative freedom of pedestrians compared to today.

Anybody who is intersted in the politics and history of transportation and urban space should pick up a copy of Peter Norton’s excellent book, Fighting Traffic. It details exactly how American cities went from looking like the picture above to the car-dominated cities depicted in the cartoon. The historical facts in this post are taken from that book.

It turns out that well-meaning (or at least apparently well-meaning) safety campaigners have a lot to do how cars took over the city. When cars first appeared and began driving on on urban roads, the result was a lot of deaths. Pedestrians and, particularly tragically, children, were accustomed to being able to use the streets as they pleased, without having to look out for large metal vehicles passing by at high speeds. When that behaviour was combined with motorists’ desire to drive quickly, the results were tragic. This caused a public outcry against motorists, and various urban institutions began to look for solutions to the problem.

The first few solutions attempted to balance the rights of cars with those of other road users, while still ensuring that traffic flowed smoothly. This made a lot of sense at the time-cars were a recent innovation and mainly a recreational machine for the rich. So urban authorities, including police, safety advocates, and a new cadre of traffic control engineers, set about restricting motor vehicles so that they would fit in safely with the rest of the road users. Speed limits, curbside parking bans, and even mandatory speed governors were proposed as a way of “taming” the automobile, and a few of these were implemented and have survived to the present day.

This, however, did not suit drivers and their political lobby, who saw these restrictions as an attack on their freedom. And so they began an intense public relations campaign to push pedestrians off the road. A crucial element of this was the invention of a new word: “Jaywalker”. According to contemporary American slang, a “jay” was roughly defined an ignorant country person who did not know how to behave in a city. By combining this with “walker”, to describe pedestrians who crossed the road not at a crosswalk, motor interests were able to redefine a traditional right of pedestrians as evidence of idiocy. Jaywalking was not illegal at first, but the motor organisations used some very creative tactics to popularize the idea that pedestrians no longer belonged on the street. In one case boy scouts went around, stopping jaywalkers and handing out cards demonstrating the new safe way to cross the street at an intersection. In one particularly dramatic case in 1913 in Syracuse, New York, a man in a Santa suit used a megaphone to yell at jaywalkers he spotted. The implication was that jaywalking is unsafe and stupid, and that cars demanded new ways of being in the street. These tactics were roughly analogous to the polite approach now being taken by British police to encourage high-visibility gear. But it became more coercive over time. By the 1920s, cities had begun passing anti-jaywalking laws, and the ancient customs of the street were being rewritten to better accommodate cars.

Car organisations also set up road accident information services, whose representatives would investigate car accidents, take notes on them, and relay their information to the press. This, of course, allowed them to selectively interpret the facts of these accidents as being the fault of pedestrians, cyclists, or other road users. These victims often had no opportunity to talk back, because they were dead. And by promoting these framings, car advocates were eventually able to change popular conceptions of the street to be more favourable to them and their members.

The point of all this history is to illustrate that even the politest and most diplomatic of safety efforts still have a political implication: They inevitably present a particular interpretation of a safety threat, and by doing so, they propose the most effective ways of dealing with it. Car accidents, according to the 1920s motor lobby, were not the fault of cars on city streets, or of insufficient traffic laws, but of pedestrians and other road users who were unwilling to adapt their behaviour to new technology. By framing the problem in this way, they framed the solution: Other road users should give way to motor vehicles. And so the great urban chasm depicted in the above cartoon began to open.

So stopping cyclists to talk about visibility is far from a neutral act. It reinforces the SMIDSY excuse for accidents: “sorry mate, I didn’t see you”. It gives motorists an excuse to not look for cyclists quite as much as they otherwise would. And it downplays other possible ways in which the problem of drivers not seeing cyclists could be addressed. Here are a few possible alternative measures that emerge if you frame the problem as being the fault of drivers rather than of cyclists:

  • Write laws that negate SMIDSY as a mitigating factor in traffic prosecutions. Motorists are responsible for being aware of their surroundings.
  • Build more cycle lanes, and enforce the existing lanes more effectively: Drivers don’t have to worry quite so much about seeing individual cyclists if they recognize that a certain part of the road are off-limits to them.
  • Use these kinds of polite traffic stops, but target them at motorists as well. Find some way to test how well motorists are looking out for cyclists, and use that as a basis to encourage them to look out more.
  • Public relations campaigns emphasizing that motorists are responsible for seeing cyclists, regardless of what they are wearing.

This post is not intended to demonise drivers. Most drivers, I expect, do keep their eyes peeled for cyclists. But there enough of them that do not that we should be concerned about normalising that by shifting the burden onto the cyclists themselves. So hopefully this gives some explanation of why I steadfastly refuse to wear a neon yellow vest. Because the high-vis vest is essentially the “jaywalker” of the twenty-first century. It uses safety concerns to argue for a certain conception of the rights and responsibilities of urban space.