At a community gathering some time ago, the subject of “bad drivers” came up. To be fair, some of the driving issues people brought up were related more to bad engineering or design decisions, but most of the irritation seemed to stem from the idea that (other) drivers in Grand Forks are generally selfish. This may or may not be more true here than in other cities of this size, but I think this line of thinking is due to two assumptions: first, that each of us is (obviously!) a better, more considerate driver than anyone else on the road, and second, that each of us is (obviously!) on a more important errand than all those other people. This is human nature, but how can we change it?
Gary Howe addresses this idea in a recent blog post “Traffic is a social problem” and what’s needed is “an outbreak of civility.” The idea (woven in with some others) is that “traffic” is something that’s an outgrowth of the separation from other people that we feel (and perhaps want) when we’re in the public space. So we box ourselves up in cars. We don’t make eye contact with other cyclists when we’re on bicycles. We shuffle quickly inside when we get home from work. We grill out and eat dinner in the back yard rather than the front. The public space is left to those who have to be there, not those who have somewhere else to be.
The natural solution to this, as expressed in the above blog post and others, is to make the street a more enjoyable and more natural place to live. By simply being out there and using the space, we force people to interact and, hopefully, to develop some sort of community. Once the community exists, everyone shares a social contract. You wouldn’t track mud through a friend’s living room, so why would you honk your car horn outside your neighbor’s house early in the morning? Why would you speed down a street that you know your neighbors’ children might be playing on? Why would you thump your bass when you see your neighbors eating dinner in the front yard?
There are a million different ways to build community, not all of which are as difficult as walking across the street with a strawberry pie. The links below (and the blog post linked above) outline a number of them. Which ones should we try in Grand Forks?
Update 2013-07-03: Another good discussion along these lines is given by Shane Phillips about Safe Routes to School.
The problem here, if it is indeed a part of the problem, is ultimately a lack of community. Most people would never harm a child, but when people don’t know the members of their community they can’t always trust them by default. It may be that school districts or another credible institution can step in to bridge the gap and provide a framework for continued growth.