“Share the Road” – Is this a positive message for cycling?
The below guest essay is written by Patty Vinyard, Executive Director of the St. Louis Regional Bicycle Federation. It is but one person’s reflection on “Share the Road” signage from within the advocacy community, touching on the theme of how to more effectively communicate with the cycling and non-cycling public.
In the St. Louis region [and across the country] this is the signage of choice to alert drivers of cyclists on our roadways. This is a standard sign, approved in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. It seems innocuous, even like a good idea. But what does this sign really say? What does it mean to people who see it? Is the phrase “Share the Road” suitable for use in materials produced by bicycling advocates?
The sign’s literal meaning is: Caution! You might encounter a person riding a bicycle on this road. With its yellow background and black lettering, this is classified as a “warning sign” in the MUTCD. The underlying message is that a bicycle on the street creates a hazard. This sign inadvertently reinforces the idea that bicycling is dangerous and thereby discourages people who do not currently bike on the streets from ever doing so.
In an ideal world the sign should mean: Both motor vehicles and bikes have a place on the road and we should share the space equitably. However, as with any work of literature, there are other possible interpretations.
To many motorists it means: Cars have the right of way. Bikes have to move over and let me pass. Bikes are supposed to share the road. In fact, I have heard of several instances in which, after a car/bike crash, the motorist proclaimed: “He didn’t get out of my way! He wasn’t sharing the road!”
From the point of view of many bike riders, “Share The Road” signs mean: The state (or city) says it’s okay for me to ride here, even though this isn’t a bike path. And/or: Cars and trucks are supposed to make room for me, even if this road is crowded.
For advocates, the underlying meaning is perhaps the most destructive. If we decide to use the phrase “Share the Road” in advertising and promotion, we are beginning with the basic assumption that everyone is going to continue to use their present mode of transport. So it’s like we are saying: “We know you motorists are never going to get out of your car and ride a bike, but would you please give us a little consideration? Please don’t run us over while you are driving!”
When “Share the Road” is used as an advertising or promotional campaign slogan, it’s a safety lecture. While it’s true that the word “share” has positive connotations, sharing is positive only when it is freely done with a willing heart—not when it is forced upon a person by some external authority.
If we truly want more people to choose bicycling, we must put our advertising and promotion resources into developing material that makes bicycling look fun, practical, and exciting. When I searched online for examples of television commercials or public service announcements that do this, I found none, but I found a lot of “Share the Road” material.
In fact, almost every bit of video on bicycling intended for the general public is a safety lecture, unintentionally reinforcing the idea that bicycling is dangerous. Contrast that to a similar search for commercials promoting cars, trucks, and driving. These commercials make cars and driving look exciting, liberating, creative, sexy, thrilling, empowering, fun, practical, sophisticated, convenient, prestigious, and so on. Car companies such as Volvo that use safety as their hook are able to do so only because all the others have made driving look so appealing. For Volvo it’s safe to claim to be the safest.
For the last half-century or more, car manufacturers have poured billions of dollars into promoting their product and its use. They have hired the finest minds in marketing and design in what looks like an attempt to have their product dominate the landscape, our lives, and our minds. Driving or riding in a private motor vehicle has become the default transportation option for most people in this country. That dominance didn’t happen by accident. The advertising and promotion of the automobile made it happen.
The truth is that it can be dangerous to go out onto the streets, whether in or out of a car. But the car promoters know better than to point out that fact—especially since it’s the weight and speed of cars and trucks that makes it dangerous. Most people don’t know that 43,000 people die in traffic crashes each year. They don’t want to know. And car manufacturers don’t make an effort to spread that information, either.
Given that traffic injuries and fatalities drop wherever there are more people walking and biking on the streets, if we really want to improve safety we would do well to get people to join us in the fresh air and sunshine. I sometimes hear protests from uninformed motorists who say, “Roads are for cars!” I would argue that they are not. Roads are for people to go from place to place. Cars are but one way to go and a dangerous one at that. Bicycling is much more fun than driving a car, and it causes much less damage to us and to our environment. So it really is a more desirable way to use the roads. We can do a lot to further our cause by presenting this message in an upbeat and appealing way.
So what do you do with this information once you have it? Are you considering producing a pro-bicycling public service announcement? Do you have your campaign plans laid out for the next couple of years? I ask you to reconsider making yet another “Share the Road” snippet of video. Get creative and put your best minds to work on making bicycling look so fun, practical, convenient, hip, ordinary, sophisticated, sexy, and thrilling that people will be flocking out onto the street to join us. Every piece we produce should be an invitation to join the fun.
Patty Vinyard is the Executive Director of the non-profit St. Louis Regional Bicycle Federation and has graciously allowed us to republish this essay.