Framing our safe, healthy transportation system revolution

October 13, 2023

By Seth LaJeunesse
Senior Research Associate
University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center


It’s hard to remember a time when we were as divided as a culture as you are today, isn’t it? Consider where your family members and coworkers stand on climate change, women’s reproductive rights, what kids should read in schools, how people should self-identify, etc. Many of us not only disagree on matters of reality, we often occupy different worlds entirely. But despite all this division and polarization, there is something, a perspective, a worldview that unites us all, and it’s called individualism

For those less familiar with the term, individualism is a mindset—or a deep, assumed pattern of thinking that shapes how we make sense of our world and the actions we endorse that either normalize or criticize elements of the status quo. In short, individualism blames individuals for the bad things that happen to them. The problem is, every time we blame individuals, we fail to see the need to make structural changes to systems, including our fraught transportation system. 

But deep structural changes to our transportation system are precisely what we need! Seriously, look at how people partaking in the natural acts of walking and biking have fared over the past few years—pedestrian deaths rose nearly 20% since 2019. It’s unconscionable. Devastating. Unacceptable. 

The ways in which we talk about this reality matter a great deal.  In 2016, advocates successfully switched out “accident” for “crash” in media reporting on traffic collisions. After all, accidents are unpreventable; crashes are preventable. 

More recently, there have been calls for including responsible drivers in news stories about crashes. For example, news outlets should replace “a cyclist was hit and injured by a truck” with “a driver of a truck hit and injured a cyclist.”  Yet even if we replaced all the “pedestrians were struck and killed by driverless SUVs” with “SUV drivers struck and killed pedestrians”, we will have maintained our focus on individual road users rather than the pseudo-regulated vehicles and physical environments that allow, and dare I say welcome, reckless driver behavior. 

We must talk about the systems that perpetuate the grossly inequitable harm on our roads. We must also describe what our world and our lives could be like with a truly safe transportation system. It is in this space where my University of North Carolina colleagues and I offer a few recommendations for how we might talk about our transportation system and the changes we sorely need.

Let’s work together to describe and explain: 1) what a safe transportation system affords us; 2) the safest, healthiest parts of the current system are not shared equally among us; and 3) there are proven ways to get us to a safe, healthy transportation system that benefit us all. 

  1. What a safe transportation system affords us is the ability to go about our daily activities using the travel modes of our choice with comfort and without fear of being gravely harmed in traffic. 
  2. The safest, healthiest parts of the current system are not shared equally among us. Native American, Black, Latino, and lower income Americans do not have the same degree of access to safe, healthy transportation options made possible via continuous, physically separated biking and walking infrastructure, than their White, Asian, and wealthier neighbors, with severe inequities in health outcomes, road death, and injury as a result. 
  3. There are proven ways to get us to a safe, healthy transportation system that benefit us all. Safe, health-inducing infrastructure and policies, such as protected crossings at all transit stops, networks of protected bike lanes, lower posted speed limits, car-free streets and zones, etc., provide us with meaningful choice in how we travel around, improve our physical and mental health, enhance our air quality, and invite children and families and everyone to use our streets for purposes other than merely getting from point A to point B. 

To one day enjoy the transportation system we deserve, we need a groundswell of support and supporters. Even if this sort of change is hard—and it really is—it’s possible and we must make it seem so.  We must make it desirable. A safe, healthy transportation system is something we can all experience. A physical, palpable reality we can all touch and feel. A forum upon which we might begin mending our division and polarity. 



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