Territorial Space on Public Highways: Who Owns the Road?

Roads belong to all and need to be shared by all. However, there’s a long history of some road users believing they have priority over others as a result of humans’ inherited belief in territorial space.

Cyclists Public Highways

Most modern road users associate personal territorial space with public highways because of some of the personal cues that surround them while driving a car or riding a bicycle.

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Contrary to popular belief, it was not motorists who advocated for well-paved roads in the United States. In Roads Were Not Built for Cars (Red Kite Publishing, 2014), Carlton Reid shows how cyclists were the first to push for better roads and were also the pioneers of early motor cars. This excerpt, which discusses why cyclists and motorists have difficulty sharing the road, is from Chapter 4, “Who Owns the Roads?”

Territorial Space on Public Highways

Social scientists theorise that humans believe in three kinds of territorial space. One is personal territory, like home. The second involves space that is only temporarily available, such as a gym locker. The third kind is public territory, such as roads.

“Territoriality is hard-wired into our ancestors,” believes Paul Bell, co-author of a study on road rage. “Animals are territorial because it had survival value. If you could keep others away from your hunting groups, you had more game to spear, it becomes part of the biology.”

When they are on the road, some motorists forget they are in public territory because the cues surrounding them – personal music, fluffy dice, protective shells – suggest they are in private space.

“If you are in a vehicle that you identify as primary territory, you would defend that against other people whom you perceive as being disrespectful of your space,” added Bell. “What you ignore is that you are on a public roadway – and you don’t own the road.”

A standard quip from bicycle advocates, aimed at a certain type of mine-all-mine motorist, is “You own a car, not the road.”

Some motorists insist it’s cyclists who have the entitlement issues. “Cyclists think they own the roads,” is a typical retort, common on forums and in local newspaper letters pages the world over, but most especially in America, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand. In July 2014, Courtland Milloy, a columnist for the Washington Post wrote, in all seriousness, that “biker terrorists” are “out to rule the road”. (He later apologised.)

Who Owns the Road?

Belief in road “ownership” – even if it’s just the few metres in front and behind the road user – leads to disagreements, but probably what many motorists and cyclists would agree on is that roads are thoroughfares for travel. Pioneer motorists would amplify and expand the idea of roads being for transport only but the transformation of the road’s role was already well advanced by the time the first automobiles came along. The bicycle, the fastest vehicle on the road in the 1870s through to the mid-1890s, certainly played a part in redefining what a road was for, but apart from a smooth surface, the slim, single-track bicycle needed little in the way of built infrastructure. Trams, on the other hand, needed a great deal of dedicated space. With their rails and, once electrified, their overhead cables, trams very much transformed the concept of what roads were for, and that large parts of them could be appropriated for travel, and travel alone.

Later, motorists benefited from the land grab made by private tram companies. This was done by ripping out the rails put down at such great expense, and replacing them with motor-centric asphalt. The hegemony of the motor car was accelerated by countries co-operating to ease its passage. In Europe, in the early 1900s, it was extremely difficult to drive between nation states. Motor cars had to be “imported” at every border and pay punitive duties in each country visited. Many countries required motorists to pass national driving tests. Automobile clubs – many of them founded as cycling clubs – lobbied hard to get such restrictions lifted.

The lobbying took place at an international level, and would quickly transform “public highways” into “motoring roads.” By 1908, just twelve years after Britain’s “Emancipation Act” had legalised the use of motor cars, the officials at an international roads conference – many of them motorists, some of them former campaigning cyclists – took it upon themselves to define what roads were for. The Permanent International Association of Road Congresses excluded horse-drawn traffic from its remit at its first conference, held in Paris in 1908. PIARC delegates started to exclude cycling traffic from its work at the congress held in Brussels in 1910. At the London conference held in 1913, cycling was removed completely. Roads, decided the PIARC delegates, were only for A-to-B travel propelled by motors. There were only 105,734 motor cars in use in Britain in 1913 yet they had already driven many traditional users off the roads. “The right of the pedestrian to use the King’s highway is one of the most valuable and cherished public possessions,” wrote rambler and rights of way expert G. H. B. Ward in a 1913 pamphlet. “Notwithstanding the legal right of the pedestrian to the full and free use of any part of the King’s highway … the modern multitude of motor-cars have, to all intents and purposes, driven him off the main trunk, county, and interurban roads …”

The legacy of the PIARC decision in 1913 is still with us: roads are deemed to be motor thoroughfares. Those without motors may be granted access, perhaps, but only under sufferance, and only under strict, motor-centric conditions. Cyclists must ride in the gutter; pedestrians must stay on the sidewalk (if one is provided, and if one isn’t, that’s a motor-only road); and both shall interact with motorists only at designated crossing points, which are usually far apart, militating against those without motors but “smoothing the traffic flow,” the transport wonk term for squeezing as many motor vehicles through a junction as possible. And don’t expect to cross any time soon – British and American traffic planners clearly believe roads are for cars and pesky pedestrians and cranky cyclists can damn well wait.

Want to read more about public roads and cyclists? Read The Cyclists Behind the Good Roads Movement to learn how cyclists influenced America's roads for the better in the late 1800s.

Reprinted with permission from Roads Were Not Built for Cars: How Cyclists Were the First to Push for Good Roads and Became the Pioneers of Motoring, by Carlton Reid and published by Red Kite Publishing, 2014.