The ‘talking stone’ lay inertly in my hand – a small grey pebble just like the dozens my children bring home as treasure from the beach. I was sitting in a ‘peace making circle’ between a bus driver on one side and a traffic management consultant on the other. They both looked expectantly at me. I had the stone. It was my turn to talk about road sharing…
Earlier this year I took part in a project which applied a mediation approach to the often fraught issue of sharing Bristol’s road space. It’s clearly a subject at the heart of the playing out idea, which is both a practical ‘model’ to create the temporary conditions for children to play safely in their street, and a longer-term movement to more permanently embed those conditions. And the experience of getting around Bristol’s streets over the decade I’ve lived there as a pedestrian, cyclist and motorist has given me plenty of reasons to think about and often despair over what’s happening on our roads.
Certain things stick in my mind but there’s one incident in particular I’ll never forget. A few years ago a van driver stopped his vehicle, got out red-faced and furious and shouted obscenities in my face as I attempted to cross the road with my then five-year-old daughter on her scooter, pushing my other daughter in her buggy. Why? Because I asked him (politely) as he passed me, to use his indicator next time he turned off a mini-roundabout so my daughter and I would know when it was safe to cross the road. I felt my request was legitimate until the words left my mouth. After he had shouted and sworn, I was left shaking and my daughter had run away along the pavement crying with fear. I felt guilty, foolish and silenced.
I know I’m not alone in having bruising experiences like this. The very idea that any ‘sharing’ of Bristol’s roads is going on seems unreal when you stop and look around any number of neighbourhoods and see the volume and speed of vehicles dominating, and the vulnerability of children on scooters, bikes and on foot using the pavements and attempting to cross the roads. And of course older people feel that same vulnerability, particularly if they have limited mobility, hearing or sight loss. The status quo seems to be competition and an often acrimonious conflict between different groups with motorised traffic winning most of the time.
The Road Sharing Restorative Approach project was funded by the Police Crime Commissioner and run by Bristol Mediation and brought together different road users to examine this status quo. Project leaders used a restorative approach where people taking part met in groups to share their own views and listen to others. The facilitators’ role was to ensure everyone had a voice and felt heard, had uninterrupted time to talk (hence the ‘talking stone’) and urged participants to show respect for others despite differences in perspective.
Annali Grimes is from Bristol Mediation and co-ran the project. She believes the process was worthwhile and helped to change attitudes.
“Through the restorative approach we found that people did change their positions about different road users after they had the opportunity to hear their point of view. It may not necessarily have made people feel more confident on the roads, but we found that when there were different representatives of specific groups present, people’s attitudes became more tolerant of those specific road users. Greater empathy and understanding of others’ vantage point, does lead to more tolerant individual behaviour on the road.”
It’s so easy to be cynical about the idea of sitting with a stone in your hand in the ‘peace-making circle’ and be full of doubt that it achieves anything. After all surely the people who take part in such a process are already open to talking and listening and are considerate road users? They’re unlikely to be the van driver who roared his fury at my daughter and me all those years ago for challenging his driving.
Perhaps – but there were some notable things that happened in my group. An elderly woman who had been at various times a motorist, a cyclist and now described herself as a pedestrian with limited mobility was able to tell a driver what it’s like to scurry across a road fearfully when you don’t move as fast as you used to. I was left full of gratitude to hear the words of the bus driver and now trainer of new drivers, talk about patience and respect for all road users including children. He spoke about seeing children out on their bikes and training newbie bus drivers to expect and accept that children wobble sometimes and the onus is on them to hold back and give room.
And the traffic management software consultant who had worked for many years providing tech solutions to city traffic flows was honest enough to say he’d never before thought of children as ‘road users’. It might seem staggering when you’re so used to seeing the city’s roads from the vantage point of children, but not everyone has.
Although the project was small in scale and limited in reach, being involved left me feeing there’s more scope for a restorative approach to improving road sharing here in Bristol and elsewhere.
A film of the project has been made featuring interviews with some of those taking part. The project’s final report has been given to Bristol City Council and will hopefully be published soon.
What are your experiences of ‘road sharing’ where you live? Could a restorative approach work there? Do share your views here or on our Facebook group.