I was biking a few days ago in the Palm Springs area (the City of Palm Desert, to be specific) when — for the second time in a month at the same exact intersection — a driver honked, rev’d his engine, flicked me off, and told me I should “learn how to ride a bicycle” as he angrily turned. My crime? I was using a bike lane which magically ended at the intersection and then picked up after the intersection — and the light had turned red. There was no bike box, so I was waiting as far to the right as I could be, which happened to block the drivers from making a right turn on red. Yes, in trying to not die on a nine lane highway masquerading as a local road (with an unprotected bike lane except at intersections), I was inconveniencing drivers and making them wait up to three minutes (the light cycles are looong in the Coachella Valley, largely due to there being at least one if not two protected left turns at each major street intersection).
The Coachella Valley is unique from Los Angeles. Rich in space (much of which is still open desert) and created in the era of the automobile — roads were created to try and ensure that drivers — who often moved from traffic choked places like Los Angeles — would never be in traffic again. Of course, thanks to induced demand, that didn’t happen, but that was the intent.
As a result, slip lanes, double left turn lanes, and 10 lane local roads are common. Free parking reigns. The Valley also has a ton of bike lanes — nearly all of which are unprotected on 55 mph streets — that often disappear at intersections, just when they’re needed the most. But more than anything, because of the insane amount of free parking, wide lanes, high speed limits, and slip lanes — because of a built environment that literally screams “the car is king” — drivers have an insane entitlement to maximum convenience, and rage at anything that gets in their way.
Yes, drivers in Los Angeles are just as entitled, but their entitlement has been whittled away a bit by endless traffic jams, parking that isn’t free, narrower streets, and many more buses, pedestrians, and people on bikes. Here, the car’s supremacy is rarely challenged, making any delay — even in the name of someone just trying to stay alive while using the street legally — intolerable.
Is it a drivers fault that they are this entitled? Is it a spoiled child’s fault if their parent gives them everything they want? While I don’t absolve drivers of bad behavior ever, I also think there is a shared responsibility for the past choices that have been made to create a built environment to make them feel like they, alone, own the road.
So what do we do?
I think we attack it two ways. The first is a driver education campaign: billboards, DMV inserts in mailings, beefing up the drivers license test. Drivers need to see constant propaganda that they actually don’t own the road, and that as the most dangerous users of the road, they have a duty to protect more vulnerable road users, even at the expense of their own inconvenience.
The second thing I think we must do is change the built environment. By this I don’t mean that we have to literally dig up every road and start over (as much as I’d love that!) I mean that we need to narrow lanes, close slip lanes, make room for physically protected bike lanes, and create protected intersections that would benefit pedestrians and cyclists.
It’s not a spoiled child’s fault that they’re spoiled, it’s their parents. And while drivers are adults and have a shared responsibility, the public works and transportation departments of cities have a responsibility to change the built environment to not let drivers threaten or hurt vulnerable road users — no matter how entitled that built environment has made them.