Without empathy no transport transition

by | Jan 27 2022

Why we need empathy on the road, or what does „Black Lives Matter“ and the current discourse on systemic racism have in common with transportation politics?

photo: Mohamed Hassan on pixabay

I am “white,“ but racism and, worse, its subconscious and systemic nature in which we have all been socialized, has always hurt me on a deep level.  Exclusive thinking, and the idea that there is only ONE solution to problems, one way of behaving, one opinion, one “correct“ perspective, has also always disturbed me to the point of making me feel unable to act, even ill.  The discussion in Germany around whether immigrants sufficiently “integrate themselves“ into society, which completely ignores how difficult it is to navigate the system if you are not born here.  Bureaucratic, legalistic German is incredibly difficult to understand, and many people who grow up with it do not understand this barrier.  Other perspectives, other lived experiences or points of view are not only not understood, but actively ignored and dismissed as inferior.  The lack of empathy we experience on the roads every day starts here.

When I hear about a traffic crash I immediately feel empathy for the victim and their fate.  What happens to a person who is killed or even “just“ injured on the road is something I think about intensely.  And beyond that, I can also imagine the experience of the insurance claims handler who has to deal with the insurance for a fatal accident in the course of her work day. And the experiences of medics, fire fighters, police officers with such crashes is something I cannot even begin to think about.  I know from a truck driver of my acquaintance that professional drivers in big rigs can see “better“ from the higher vantage point of their cabs, and ask myself how they can deal with such experiences without having nightmares and panic attacks.  This is the collateral damage that our system requires, the price for our lifestyles and for endless economic growth.

Road Rage in Bremen

We keep hearing more reports of “road rage“ incidents here in Bremen. A cyclist in Ostertorviertel did not make room for a Porsche to pass him, and the driver got out and stabbed the cyclist with a knife.  (https://www.weser-kurier.de/bremen/bremen-stadt_artikel,-porschefahrer-attackiert-radfahrer-im-steintor-mit-teppichmesser-_arid,1930840.html)   Or a mother describes being heavily pregnant and biking with her toddler in a bike seat, when another (female) cyclist came up behind her and rang her bell over and over to make her move out of the way.  When the mother was not fast enough, the other cyclist insulted her, saying if she couldn’t properly ride a bike, she should not have children (report from a mother during the Safe Routes to School action).  We continue to see these as isolated incidents, and may ask ourselves what kinds of people would do such things.  It’s easy to dismiss these as “sick“ people, but such behavior occurs among well-meaning activists as well.

Victim blaming: woman and bicycle against car

Recently I became aware of email discussions following a terrible accident.  The discussion, as is unfortunately so often the case, focused on the behavior of the cyclist.  She had been standing next to her bike on the sidewalk and looking at some fruit on a vendor’s shelves, and was hit by a car.  The email discussion did not even mention that the car had driven onto the sidewalk and injured her, or that the infrastructure demonstrates serious flaws at that intersection, or why there are no traffic stops for dangerous drivers, or sanctions for harmful behavior.  Instead, the members of this email list were debating just how dangerous or „incorrect“ the cyclist’s behavior must have been to let her get hit, and why on earth she was on the sidewalk with her bike.

I don’t want to point a finger at any one person here, but what I have experienced over the course of several years and, worse, what I hear when I talk about my childrens‘ safety in our neighborhood, tends in the direction of victim blaming.  It seems like a great number of adults, particularly those in the position to make decisions about transportation planning and traffic enforcement, have simply turned any empathy they may have off.  Why do we talk about “training“ our children and about “correct“ and  “incorrect“ behavior instead of infrastructure that endangers human lives?   Why is there more empathy for illegally parked vehicles than for wheelchair users, who also have rights?

Hooligans behind the wheel or on a bike?

When the person driving the Audi SUV (we tend to not realize there are humans behind the wheel, but are distracted by the ever-larger, ever-more-aggressive looking urban tanks) – honks at me or tailgates me, something is wrong.  What is going through the mind of such a person who is actively threatening me and trying to force me to get out of his or her way, with violence if need be?  One thing is clear – he or she does not see me as a human being.

Unfortunately there are some cyclists who behave like this too.  When my seven-year-old son was a bit wobbly on his new bike instead of “holding his line“ like a Tour de France racer, and the spandex-clad bike racer not only rings his bell to get us out of his way, but also insults my parenting skills while passing, the same kinds of psychological mechanisms are at play.  And the minute I get into a car in Germany, especially on the Autobahn, this is made absolutely clear.  How can people endure this “battlefield“ day after day, knowing that even the smallest movement could be fatal?  What does that do to our health and our psyches?  As the city planner Charles Montgomery describes in his book Happy City, three minutes of adrenaline is fun if you’re on a roller coaster.  3 hours of adrenaline in traffic makes us ill.

Where is the empathy in the powers to be?

These experiences are often belittled;  “don’t make such a big deal about it!  What a snowflake!“ but this is not helpful in understanding or solving the underlying issue.  And when politicans behave this way as well, I wonder if they have any empathy at all.  Doesn’t Andi Scheuer (Ex German transport minister) even think about the 3,000 plus lives lost in traffic crashes in Germany every year? (Statitisches Bundesamt , https://www.destatis.de/DE/Presse/Pressemitteilungen/2020/07/PD20_265_46241.html)  Would it bother him if any of the victims were members of his family?  Do the top managers of VW who deliberately manipulated the emissions statistics of their vehicles and lied about it make any connection to their grandchild’s asthma or allergies?

The racist is inside us all

Similar mechanisms are in play in discussions around the „Black Lives Matter“ demonstrations which have finally initiated a worldwide discussion about systemic racism and discrimination.  When the average German citizen’s answer to these demonstrations is that they are against the AfD, they are not really understanding the real problem.  Of course most of us who are raised in a racist society are not skinheads, most of us do not use explicitly racist language (actually, many people do when confiding in me, a “white“ and thus “acceptable“ foreigner, that “foreigners“ are a real problem in Germany).  But we all are lacking in empathy.  We can’t, or don’t want to, let ourselves really understand, really empathize with, what other humans experience.  Points of view, life experiences that are different from our own, or what the Indian economist and Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen calls “the view from elsewhere,“ are often lacking.  This is a shame because by rejecting these perspectives, we are also rejecting an opportunity to learn from each other and to break down some of the power structures that harm us all.  Instead, monocultures and hierarchies are perpetuated.

Overrated conflict between cyclists and pedestrians 

The same things happen in discussions around cyclists “versus“ pedestrians.  An antagonism is created and the perceived conflict exaggerated, while the real reasons for such conflicts are ignored.  The idea that people on bikes are all some kind of hooligans who enjoy mowing pedestrians down and constantly break rules is factually incorrect.  Urban space is limited, and we have decided as a society to gift the lion’s share of this space to private motor vehicles.  When pedestrian activists demand the removal of bike lanes so that cyclists ride in mixed traffic, then children and young people have to ride alongside cars too, as is now the case for the entire Kirchweg in the Bremer Neustadt, for example.   And we continue to believe that bad experiences, feeling threatened as a direct result of insufficient infrastructure, is the consequence of us being “weak.“ (“Stop being so weak!  Just block it out!“).  But I cannot block the news of yet another road death out, any more than I can block out my fears for my children on their way to school, or the (ongoing) saga of the murders committed by the NSU, or right wing flags being waved, or the camp in Moria, or people drowning in the Mediterranean.  And my worries and fears also include my fear for our future, for our children and grandchildren.

Solutions have to come from below

What should be done?  That’s a hard question.  In Bremen, in particular, decision makers seem to either be stuck in a kind of mental shock, or they are so embedded in local corruption that there is no way out.  But again and again, people are getting loud and calling out these very real flaws in the system, as well as offering concrete and constructive solutions.  A transformation of transportation politics and planning, just like other matters of social justice, can only occur from below, from civil society.  For example, if we take the oft-praised cycle and pedestrian infrastructure of the Netherlands, right next door, this is no accident but the result of citizens taking to the streets out of empathy for children being killed in road crashes in the 1970s.  Many of these demonstrations occurred without permits, as moments of nonviolent civil disobedience, and they changed transportation infrastructure across the country.

Just like in all the social movements we learn about, organized against child labor, for womens‘ voting rights, or again in newer demonstrations against systemic racism, people are standing up for what they feel is right, and it is not just those affected doing so.  Other people who feel empathy, who see the violence and injustice as inacceptable, are also part of these broad and diverse movements, and always have been.  These discussions, these movements, need diverse actors, need people who are able to dismantle “us versus them“ thinking and who can organize for the rights and the physical safety of others.  Without this empathy, we cannot transform our transportation system into one which serves all of society and not only one street, one neighborhood, or one group of people.


Agyeman, Julian, Introducing Just Sustainabilities: Policy, Planning, and Practice, Zed Publications, New York, 2013

Bruntlett, Melissa and Bruntlett, Chris, Building the Cycling City:  The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality, Island Press, Washington, D.C., 2018

Emcke, Carolin, Gegen den Hass, Fischer, Frankfurt am Main, 2018

Fraser, Nancy, and Jaeggi, Rahel, Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory, Polity Press, 2019

Harvey, David, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, Verso, London, 2012

Lugo, Adonia, Bicycle/Race: Transportation, Culture and Resistance, Microcosm Press, Portland, 2018

Montgomery, Charles, Happy Cities, Penguin, 2015
Sen, Amartya, A Theory of Justice, Penguin Books, 2010



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