Not too long ago we actually encouraged our children to play in the street. Motorized vehicles either had to stop or very carefully go around them. In fact, if a child was hit, it was always the motor vehicle's operator's fault. One hundred years ago, the car industry actively promoted jaywalking laws that made walking in the street illegal so they could sell cars that go faster. They also successfully prevented legislation to limit the speed of cars to that of the prevailing speed limit. In fact cars today are far more powerful and can go much faster than any speed limit would ever allow. Why? Our culture of protecting our most vulnerable from motor vehicles has changed over the years into a might-is-right mentality where everyone in the road needs to get out of the way of someone in a motor vehicle. If you don't, now it's your fault.
Efforts to open our streets for people to re-experience playing, walking, biking and running without fear of traffic have been exciting but remain very limited to date . Even as younger people, by choice or by financial circumstance, eschew car ownership, we continue our car-centric planning and accommodation over and above the needs of our own — and our community's — quality of life.
Since motorized vehicles remain the number one killer of our young people ages 4 to 34 in Maryland, it's time to revisit our car-centric culture in three very simple ways:
First, create a hierarchy of vulnerability, as Great Britain is doing, on our roadways. Here's how that works: People with disabilities would have priority over all other road users. Next on the vulnerability scale are people who are walking or running. Following them are people who are on bicycles. They are followed by people aboard mass transit and service vehicles and, lastly, all other motorized vehicles. Imagine someday walking with your family on the many roadways that are without sidewalks and not having to jump into the bushes or someone's lawn because of a speeding car. Imagine the oncoming car slowing down and carefully passing our families when it's safe. Not the other way around.
The second shift is also simple. Set a default maximum speed limit of 25 miles an hour in all our urban areas, as New York City is doing with Vision Zero – a remarkable vision in which no one is killed by motor vehicles. Someone getting hit at 25 miles an hour has nearly a 90 percent survival rate. Get hit at 40 miles an hour or more and you have a 90 percent chance of dying.
These two changes alone — creating a hierarchy of vulnerability and a default speed limit that reflects average safe speeds — would have amazing quality of life outcomes for all of us with minimal costs. Contrast that to spending years fighting over incremental infrastructure changes, laws and funding.
I leave you with the third simple, but potentially most powerful, thought: We are not cyclists, nor drivers, nor pedestrians, nor runners. We are people first, who just happen to be using our muscles or machines to move around. We are moms and dads, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers. Imagine how more pleasant and safe our roads would be if we realized we aren't surrounded by strangers but relatives or friends we just haven't met yet. If you believed that the other person sharing the road with you may be a friend or perhaps even a co-worker, might you behave differently when driving by them?
Sharing our roads means exactly that. In light of far too much daily tragedy on our roads, it's time to acknowledge that we are all human beings who are sharing a common path to different destinations on our life journeys.
Greg Cantori is the former president and CEO of Maryland Nonprofits and past president of Bike Maryland. He has bicycle commuted over 165,000 miles. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.