Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Urban semiotics and ethical encounters

According to a recent SMH opinion article by the British transport writer Christian Wolmar:
Oddly, one of the key catalysts for the improvement in London was also one of the cheapest: painting a green area at every traffic light which only cyclists had the right to enter when the light was red. Immediately, this sent a message to all road users that cyclists not only have a right to be there, but they even have priority at junctions.
Amazingly, it was the recent introduction of new laws allowing such developments in NSW which raised complaints by the NSW Oppositions road safety spokesman:

Opposition spokesman on road safety Andrew Fraser said the tough penalties suggested the changes were more to raise revenue than improve safety.

"While we need to be mindful of safety for cyclists, these bicycle zones at lights are dangerous," Mr Fraser said.

"You are inviting all cyclists to wait in the middle of the road rather than on the side of the road where drivers expect them to be. It is putting them directly into the path of traffic."

The final sentence is worth chewing on. It states some explicit cultural assumptions regarding the cyclists marginal position on the road. It was also a strange comment to make given that:
The RTA said the laws would bring NSW into line with other states.
The assumption of one cycling on the margins is not only spoken about in the media, it is also written into the urban landscape. Meanings as well as practices of 'cycling' are communicated through urban form and symbols. For instance, in the following photo from Queen Street Wollahra, the bicycle symbol is on the edge of the road, literally under the direct domination of the 4WD on top of it. It says, 'ride a bike and you can expect to end up under a 4Wd'.

In this photo from New Farm in Brisbane, the bicycle symbol is found at a midway point between the road and adjacent row of parked cars. It says something along the lines of 'you belong on the road, but keep well to the left and don't get in the cars way'.

Finally in this photo of Redfern street, the bicycle signs are centred in the middle of the road. This symbol asserts the cyclists' right to 'take the lane' and for the traffic not even to attempt to squeeze past (note the double marked lines).

Writing "bicycle" symbols on the middle of the road (to my mind) expresses an ethics of care and recognition for cyclists as road users. In distinction, placing the bicycle symbol on edge or in the gutter reinforces a marginal position as a socially devalued road user.

Thinking about these road symbols reminded me of an essay I'd read a few years ago about the importance of pedestrian crossings. In an article entitled "The Ethics of Pedestrian crossings", the Sydney University anthopologist Ghassan Hage makes some philosophical claims about the importance of pedestrian crossings as socialised spaces of ethical interaction, giving and recognition. Hage begins his essay describing the experiences of a mentally-ill migrant (Ali) who is enthralled when walking across zebra crossings.
I developed a liking for pedestrian crossings (laughting!) I spent hours crossing them again and again. I loved the moment cars stopped for me! It made me feel important. I thought it was magical.
In a commentary on Ali's experiences Hage writes:
Ali experiences ‘magical’ time at the crossing... Magic is also a kind of buzz generated by the moment of recognition Ali gets from cars stopping for him. It is what he experiences as being made to feel ‘important’. ‘Important’ here is not linked to social status as to existential status: the recognition of one’s importance as a human being.
[The pedestrian crossing] is a space where the dominant mode of occupying and circulating on roads, driving, is requested by social law to yield to a marginalised form of road occupancy, walking. This is what constitutes its ethical component and its character as a social gift. It is social because even when it is an individual driver who ‘offers’ the pedestrian the possibility of crossing, what the driver is offering is really society’s gift to the pedestrian. Otherwise there would be no difference between a pedestrian crossing and a crossing created by a driver who chooses to stop for a pedestrian on an unmarked part of the road. The fact that a pedestrian crossing embodies a social compulsion, a social law, that says ‘drivers must stop’ is what makes it a gift offered by soceity. No conjunctural practice - short of abolishing it - can change the nature of this space. What changes within it are the modes drivers use to ‘convey’ the gift and the modes people choose for receiving it. As we have already seen, there are drivers who offer the gift gracefully and those who offer it grudgingly. There are pedestrians who receive the gift gracefully and those who receieve it arrogantly or nonchalantly... But underneath all these possible modes of interaction remains the fact of the pedestrian crossing as a structually present ethical space. A space where people can enact a ritual of stopping and crossing, and through which society affirms itself as civilised (that is, ethical), as a place where it is understood that dominant modes of inhabitance need to yield, in some circumstances, to marginal modes of inhabitance.
Reading this essay five years latter, I am challenged to think what messages it may hold for cyclists, motorists and transport policy makers in the current climate of animosity.


Thelonius said...

Tremendous. Just found this blog. I've been thinking the same recently. The semiotics of how streets are marked says a lot about how bicycles are perceived by other road users and "traffic engineers". And, yes, frequently marginalised. Keep this line of thought active, please. And mention Enrique PeƱalosa somewhere.

Grant said...

Great post Adrian. Love the idea of the zebra crossing as an ethical exchange space, it adds an interesting perspective of the cyclovia movement too.

Sam said...

The traditional nature of traffic engineering enjoys having everything in its marked place. Thus the bike stencil half under a car/just before a pole is so symbolic of how bikes are seen as a utilitarian form of transport by some.
Such an overt designation of road rights and attitudes.