The Culture of Speed vs the Culture of Trust

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I have a number of other things to write about the trip, but I’ve been pondering this post since Day 6 and I need to get it out. By Day 6, we had traveled shady country lanes, busy suburban arterial highways, bike paths, rural crossroads, rolling farm land, urban centers, small towns and steep, winding hollows. But nothing inspired contemplation quite like the experience of time travel—from now to then and back to now.

A few weeks before the trip, Andy Cline tipped his readers to the Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner. Said he:

It’s one man’s journey to discover why some countries are happier than others. One of the important themes in the book is the role that trust plays in a society’s happiness. People who trust their neighbors and friends are happier than people who do not. People who trust the average Joe on the street are happier than people who do not. People who trust their institutions are happier than people who do not.

Trust. Think about it.

I bought the book right away (audiobook, because it was a perfect companion to the illustration jobs I was doing) and found it intriguing. The concept resonates with the civility work we’ve been doing here and with the findings of Salter>Mitchell’s research. It shows that people who think other people are generally civil—that is, they trust that other people are going to do the right thing—are more likely to be civil themselves.

There are a lot of layers to trust in a community that go well beyond traffic. But as I’ve said before, the roads are the public space where we all interact every day. If we can’t trust each other there, it profoundly affects how we feel about the community.

Trust in the Traffic Culture

One of the first things I noticed in Amish country was the lack of aggressiveness from faster traffic. I was stunned to see motorists wait patiently for an opportunity to pass, then do so with gentle acceleration. And take turns—one motorist would pass, the next would assess the situation, then pass. If there was any doubt, they waited, perhaps recognizing that aggressive acceleration might spook the horse. They treated us the same as the horse-drawn carriages.

That rarely happens here and it was an uncommon occurrence everywhere else on our journey. All through Virginia and Maryland, we received appropriate passing clearance, but gritted our teeth as passing motorists interfered with oncoming cars. We’re accustomed to seeing oncoming cars have to slow or move over (even partly off the road) for motorists passing us in Florida, too. It amazes me that isn’t a statistically significant crash type. I’ve witnessed more close calls than I could ever count, simply because passing motorists can’t stand to take a foot off the gas for a second. We didn’t see that once on the farm roads in Lancaster County.

I adapt quickly to an environment of trust. Taking a queue from the buggy drivers, we moved right when struggling up a hill. We discovered we could facilitate a motorist’s pass on narrow roads and be given generous clearance. I’ve done that here and in other places and had motorists damn near take off my left arm. Certainly not all of them, but the percentage is high enough that I don’t trust the random stranger behind me (or those behind him) to do the right thing if I’m not commanding the lane.

It seems, the way of life and the high percentage of slow vehicles creates a traffic culture much more benign than most of the U.S. In addition to horse-drawn vehicles, we saw numerous bicycles—most with boxes strapped to them—ridden by women in traditional dresses.

The Culture of Speed Encroaches


The farmlands of Pennsylvania Dutch Country boast some of the richest, most productive, non-irrigated agricultural soils in the world.Lancaster Farmland Trust

This is the heartland of small-farm food production, free-range animal husbandry and a multi-generational way of life on the land. It is also on the outer-reaches of the Northeastern urban corridor, with high-speed auto access via the PA Turnpike and several U.S. and state highways. As a result, much productive farm land has been devoured for housing developments.

It goes without saying that long-distance auto-commuters are of a different traffic culture than family farmers.

Our bliss ended as we endured a 9-mile stretch of PA 23. We were following BikePA Route S and might have been better off to divert from it. But not knowing the terrain, we feared such a diversion would lead our tired legs into steep hills. PA 23 is much like Florida’s rural state highways—an over-engineered enforcement vacuum which permits speeds approaching 80mph. Heavy, high-speed traffic on such a 2-lane road necessitates riding in the 5-foot shoulder—at least when climbing hills at <5mph. But a 5-foot shoulder is uncomfortable and inadequate when being passed by 80mph truck traffic—in particular, the occasional wide load which hangs a foot into the shoulder.

We’d had a similar experience Tuesday on PA 74. Crossing the state line from Maryland, the shoulder shrunk from 10 feet to 5. But Wednesday, the high speed and noise seemed so much more brutal after hours of moseying through a bucolic time warp. The pre-fab shed whizzing past my head (because the wide-load driver couldn’t be bothered to slow down and move over) was almost more than I could take. Trust was a memory.

Shortly after leaving the highway (now on BikePA Route L, in Berks County), a cluster of cars came up behind us. Two passed safely before an oncoming pick-up truck came over the crest of the hill. The next one passed anyway and caused the truck driver to brake. There were more cars back, so we started straight-arming them not to pass (we were in the middle of the lane, too). They passed anyway. All of them, like a herd of wildebeest. Mindless idiots. The truck came to a complete stop, the driver with his head and arm out the passenger window in a “WTF?” gesture. Did we just fall into the shallow end of the gene pool?

I’m sad to report, it was like this the rest of the way to Yellow House Hotel (near Reading, PA) and much of the way to Coopersburg (near Allentown, PA) the next day, as well. The scenery was beautiful, and some of the roads were peaceful, but where we encountered motorists, their speed was often recklessly fast and the must-pass-this-instant imperative was in full force. I was cut off twice by motorists who chose to pass and run a stop sign (in the oncoming lane) rather than wait their turn behind me. One large pick-up right-hooked me as I arrived at the stop sign on a steep downhill in pouring rain.

Finding our way back to the Culture of Trust

Trust = peace of mind = confidence = empowerment = happiness = sense of place = good citizenship = trust…

For me, the greatest asset of the mindful cycling techniques we teach is the way they enhance our ability to trust other road users. That brings the peace of mind that allows me to enjoy riding. Understanding traffic dynamics and becoming more assertive on the road was a huge leap forward for me, from a world of conflict and distrust to a fairly relaxed riding environment—particularly on urban roads.

But the Culture of Speed still affects our comfort and trust, if not our safety, on suburban arteries and rural highways. Even when you know you’re unlikely to be hit, the constant noise of speeding traffic is fatiguing. Riding on a highway shoulder is a trade-off between the comfort of not being “in the way” and the discomfort of being passed closer, faster and with complete disregard. Neither is particularly appealing.

Harassment is another destructive force. The most likely place where I experience harassment in the metro area is on high-speed roads where motorists are able to pass easily, but don’t believe I belong there. This was true on the trip, as well. The only place we experienced significant harassment was on a 6-lane commercial arterial in Virginia—everyone passed safely in another lane, but there was considerable honking and yelling.

Harassment certainly doesn’t instill trust, even when it’s only noise.

Trust comes back to civility, tolerance and respect for all users of the commons. How do we create that? By creating the public perception that it is normative behavior:

…people who think other people are generally civil — that is, they trust that other people are going to do the right thing — are more likely to be civil themselves.

So, how do we make civility and respect for all users of the commons seem normative?

This is not a bicycle-specific issue. It affects the quality of life for all of us, no matter what mode we use. Yesterday, I drove my car to my old office to remove one last load of stuff. On my way, I was bullied by a jerk in a large pick-up truck. I was driving the 30mph speed limit and this stellar citizen felt it appropriate to drive 5 feet from my bumper. This is a more common experience than harassment on my bike and I’m sick of it. It is a product of the Culture of Speed. “Get out of my way. I’m entitled to go faster.”