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Analyzing Social Patterns Through The Lens Of A Cyclist

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Analyzing Social Patterns Through The Lens Of A Cyclist

Cycling in Vienna I have verbal and non-verbal conflict with other participants in traffic almost every day. Some of the interactions are very friendly, most are very unpleasant and confrontational. Some are with pedestrians, a lot are with older men in big cars (especially unpleasant usually). What all of them have in common is a sense of “elbows out”. Despite these almost daily interactions adding a lot of stress to my life, I think they offer a great opportunity to put a magnifying glass on some of the social patterns, underlying values and challenges of western society.

Image by Hans Braxmeier on Pixabay

Scarcity Of Resources (In This Case Space) & Win-Loose-Dynamics

There just are not enough bike lanes to accommodate all the people on bikes, cargo-bikes and e-scooters, so everyone can fit comfortably. In many places there aren’t bike lanes at all or they are built in such a way that it is safer to cycle on the street. Because there is not enough dedicated space for cyclists, we move into the domain of the cars (the street) and sometimes into the domain of pedestrians (the sidewalk). Because space is limited and everyone wants to get there first, this is a prime recipe for conflict. Me going 30 km/h on my bike in front of a car is an offense to their tightly packed schedule. At the same time a long queue of cars at a traffic light is an offense to my thighs: If I stop I have to get going again (ohh that burn in the legs!) — I might as well wind my way around the cars and over the intersection before the light turns red again.

It often seems as though traffic is a battle for space, for getting there first, the right to use the street.

No Social Fabric as a Basis for Self Organization

Public space can be viewed as a common pool resource: It is nearly impossible to completely exclude anyone from using it and it has a finite flow of benefits (i.e. if I take up space, you can not take up the same space at the same time; if a lot of cars are parked in the street that space is no longer available for an urban garden or a bike lane; you get the idea…). Common pool resources can be governed by 3 mechanisms: top down public administration by the state, privatization and governance by the market or by all stakeholders through a self-organizing governance process. You can read more about the conditions that need to be fulfilled for each of these mechanisms to work and why I think self-organization should be the tool of choice, in this article.

For self-organization to work as a governance mechanism for common pool resources there are some conditions, that need to be met: the most important one is cohesion, i.e. relationships between the participants in traffic, i.e. social fabric. When we think about how the use of public space could be decided upon, the challenges become clear: there are multiple scales of infrastructure inhabiting the same space. Big roads that are connecting different districts to each other and are connecting the city to the surrounding region and the highway systems might be right next to smaller roads, plazas or parks. This concept of scales is relevant, because identifying the scale we are talking about tells us who the relevant stakeholders are, that need to be in relationship with each other to effectively self-organize around the governance of public space. For the small back road it might only be the people living on that street — for the 4 lane connection road the boundary is first of all harder to draw and second of all it encompasses a much bigger group of stakeholders. This should make it quite clear why we don’t see more self-organized city planning efforts: public space is a big wicked mess and we are not even meeting the first condition for emergent solutions. This doesn’t mean that self-organizing city planning is impossible, it just means that we don’t have the adequate social technology to meet the conditions for it yet.

Insufficient Scope of Top-Down Governance

Because self-organization is so tricky to make possible, public space is governed by municipalities (in the case of most cities at least). A municipality is a centralized institution that is devising plans for how the finite amount of public space should best be used. They are basing their plans on some rough idea of what everybody needs and wants, but mostly they seem to be operating on a default assumption about what is needed. I can’t be sure about this, but this is my guess about what this assumption sounds like, judging by my experience of public space:

“We need cars to be able to get everywhere. Everyone should be able to have a car and drive it wherever they want, all the time.”

Of course this is a bit polemic, there is a slight shift noticeable but the ratio of space dedicated to cars vs. other means of transport is still very skewed in favor of cars.

I’m also not saying that cars have no place at all. This is simply to say, that the centralized institution, trusted with organizing the use of public space, has a limited capacity to understand needs and is susceptible to particular interests put forth by groups with a lot of resources (for example the fossil fuel, car and construction industries). I’m not claiming that the Viennese city government is especially corrupt (which also wouldn’t surprise me) — this is just the nature of centralized institutions.

One more aspect is a lack of accountability, that is built into the democratic process most western countries are employing these days: Of course no one cares if the people are annoyed with public infrastructure, as long as city officials aren’t feeling any consequences for doing a bad job.

To summarize: City government doesn’t have the capacity or even the incentive to know what the actual landscape of needs of citizens look like. The result is public space is divided according to particular interests.

Focus on Guilt, Shame and Individual Behavior

Because we are so used to the conditions for change being so bad, we tend to focus on individual behavior rather than systemic issues. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been personally blamed and insulted for taking up space on the street with my bike — it happens all the time. I can however tell you how many times someone expressed their anger about the stupid layout of an intersection or the bike lane just ending: 0. Don’t get me wrong, me and my biking friends rant about it all the time (got to let it out somewhere). I’m talking about confrontations in traffic. Never has someone stopped next to me, rolled down their window and said: “Aren’t you also mad about how stupidly this intersection is laid out? Would you mind telling me about it and looking together if there is anything we can do to address this issue on a systemic level?”.

Of course there is NGOs and civil society initiatives and social movements talking about these issues in systemic terms, but in day to day life on the street there seems to be no recognition of anything but individual guilt.

This has of course to do with the lack of relationship between participants in traffic — it would be way harder to insult people you know and regularly interact with for nothing more than existing in public space.

High Emotions, Sense of Identity and Fear of Death

One additional reason that interactions in traffic are so unpleasant a lot of the time, has to do with the high emotional activation that people are experiencing. When I am riding my bike and a car cuts in right in front of me, or I have to brake or turn sharply to avoid someone suddenly stepping onto the bike lane, I am in survival mode. My amygdala takes over and I don’t have much control over the next thing I do — I am reactive rather than re-active. Probably my response to the person in the vehicle that should have given way to me but didn’t, will be rather unfriendly and accusatory. I know that this is not how I would normally react because almost always I have a moment of “ahh, damn, that is how I should have handled that situation”, once I had a chance to take a breath and get over the shock of almost crashing or being crashed into.

Apart from the fear of physical injury, I have a sense that there is also a fear of social death that plays into the way people interact in traffic. The means of transport you choose is closely linked to other aspects of your identity a lot of the time. While this is especially true for people in cars (and even more so men in cars), I have also noticed a tendency in myself and my friends, to identify strongly in opposition to those people in cars: I am NOT one of them, I ride my bike, not only because I can’t afford a car, but because I have seen through the empty promise of status that comes with individual motorized transportation. It’s a hoax and I know it. They don’t. Us people on two wheels without a motor, we are the in-group.

This is attached to a lot of other strands of political and social identity, so naturally the part of me, that strongly identifies with these things is very offended, when a guy in a suite, that is driving a Jaguar SUV tells me that I am a threat to public safety because I wear headphones while cycling (this literally happened to me the other day).

Similarly for a lot of men in big cars it seems like, their sense of identity is so closely tied to how good they are at performing masculinity, that any hint at that being questioned is perceived as a direct assault on their whole being. The social construct of masculinity is fragile and always needs to be re-asserted by showing dominance over others. Conceding to a guy of lower status (me on my bike), that I was right to go over the green light and they should have looked and stopped before turning, while your wife is sitting next to you, seems to be about as big a threat to masculinity as cutting your balls off. So because the threat is so big, assertion of dominance must continue, no matter how obvious it is that you are wrong — roll down the window and swear at anyone who dears to question your righteous place at the top of the food chain.


Traffic is a messy and complex system. There are no straight forward solutions. In my view of the world the goal is very clear: a lot less cars, a lot more space for bikes and pedestrians and a lot more green spaces in cities is where we should orient. But how exactly this should be put in to practice, and what aspects should be particularly important has to be negotiated through some participatory process. Maybe democratic confederalism could be an inspiration for a governance model to start to get more people on board. What do you think?

The idea for this article came to me after a week of particularly many unpleasant interactions in traffic. I am aware that I’m making a lot of claims and I would be honored to hear your opinion, if you think I got something wrong.

Also, if you want to stay up to date with my work — my writing, podcasts, workshop offerings, additional resources — you can sign up to my monthly newsletter through this link or follow me on twitter. The topics revolve around systemic change, community building and regenerative practices for contributing to a livable future for all.