The Fable of the Caterpillar

Imagine this scenario for a moment: You’re out driving your car, on a residential street, well under the speed limit, when all of a sudden you smush a caterpillar under your wheel. Picture something like this little guy, hairy and about an inch long ⬇️.

Photo: Andrew Hill

I’m willing to bet that you didn’t see the caterpillar, and that now that I’ve told you about it, there’s a good chance you don’t really care all that much that it’s dead now. If you feel bad, it’s OK. These things happen. It’s possible that you have no regard for life at all, and in general, most decent people wouldn’t go out of their way to kill a harmless caterpillar minding its own business. In this case, there was no real way for you to avoid this happening, your car and the road it’s on are not designed or built with caterpillar survival in mind.

When I was out riding my bike yesterday, there was a caterpillar in my path. I was on the shoulder of a road (the Sir George-Étienne Cartier Parkway, if you’re interested) where the speed limit is 60, and I was going about 30 kph. Because of the differences between cars and bicycles, when I was about 15-20 feet away from the caterpillar, I noticed it and adjusted my path to avoid hitting it. As somebody who tries to be mindful about the environment and my surroundings, this small act triggered something in me that I haven’t been able to shake since.

As a society, I think we can learn a lesson from the fable of the Caterpillar, about respect for those we interact with in our everyday lives, about how we design our transportation systems, and about mindfulness when it comes to how we treat those around us who wield less power than we do.

For me, this comes in to focus most obviously when considering the comparison between getting around in large motor vehicles (cars, SUVs, and trucks, for example), and more person-centric modes of transportation like walking, cycling, or inline skating. On city streets, these large vehicles have all the power, both literally in terms of their weight, momentum, and protection from collision, but also metaphorically, in that city streets have been built to prioritize cars around the world since shortly after they were invented.

Safety systems in vehicles have come a long way in recent years, from seatbelts and airbags to more advanced technology like lane assist and emergency braking systems. However, all these systems are optimized primarily to protect the people inside the vehicle, and less so anybody outside. And while these safety features help increase the safety of driving, other technology lets drivers pay even less attention to the road around them, like in-car entertainment systems, and adaptive cruise control which by human nature leave drivers with less reason to pay close attention.

The other major factor that shifts the balance of power to the side of cars over human-powered transport is the shape and design of the car itself. With trucks, SUVs, and crossovers, passenger comfort and looks drive the design of the car, which leads to SUVs with hoods that hit shoulder height on a regular adult, and which leaves kids effectively invisible standing in front of a car.

Another big issue with car design is blind spots, which can be helped with rear-view and side-mirror cameras, but the view from the driver’s seat of most vehicles is obstructed in the front and back corners very effectively. This doesn’t matter too much with proper shoulder checks when dealing with other drivers, but when cyclists and pedestrians are involved it’s all too easy to miss somebody who has inadvertently found themselves in your blind spot.

Can you imagine trying to see a caterpillar on the street out in front of you while you’re driving an SUV? Of course not, it’s ridiculous to even ask that question, right? But what if we designed not only our transportation, but our streets to protect the most vulnerable road users at the cost of a little efficiency for its most comfortable ones? To me, it’s well worth the trade-offs. At the end of the day, we’re all just trying to get where we’re going safely, and don’t we all deserve that?

By the way, later on that same bike home, I saw another caterpillar out in front of me, this time on the bike path. And when I saw it, I thought to myself “Nice to see you, caterpillar.”

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