Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Bikes and Cars: Better Together

I've been blogging at for most of the past year, but I thought I'd crosspost this response to Bikes vs Cars: The Unsolvable Problem.

Although he's a fan of the pedal, Holland's main point is that because sometimes traffic collisions happen, it's impossible for bicycles and cars to share the road—at all. Thus bicycles should stay off the road except when they can convince drivers to stay off it entirely. But this doesn't make any sense. Hundreds of motorists are killed in accidents and collisions in Kentucky every year...should we conclude then that motorists cannot share the road even with each other? By far, the most dangerous mode of transportation, mile for mile, is walking. Pedestrians get hit and killed by drivers all the time. But should we then conclude that pedestrians shouldn't walk down to the corner store or the local park except when the roads have been cleared of cars? The physics involved means bike-car collisions aren't favorable for cyclists. But head-on accidents at 60 mph aren't often favorable for drivers, either. And if a difference in kinetic energy causes sufficient danger for cars to drive cyclists off the road, then the presence of commercial trucks should drive passenger cars off the road, too.

The fact is, people successfully DO share the road all the time. Motorists share the road with each other, with cyclists, with motorcycles, tractors, horse-drawn carriages, and all sorts of other vehicles, and even with pedestrians at crosswalks. There are tragic fatalities, of course, which we should work to minimize. But this is the whole point of the rules of the road: to allow vehicles to coexist on the roadway. And they can be very successful. In cities all across the world, and across the United States, motorists and cyclists share the road all the time. Louisville is no Tokyo, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Portland, Oregon, or Davis, California. But Louisville is also far removed from the worst cities in America for cycling—places like Wichita, Dallas, and Houston. Much of central Louisville is almost ideal for cycling, with wide, flat, leafy avenues connecting destinations closer than about five miles. There are cultural issues in how we handle traffic conflicts. But cycling isn't dangerous, and the health benefits outweigh the accident risks by 20 to 1.

I think I'm most troubled by the despair that cars and bicycles can EVER coexist, because I have seen such enormous material improvement in Louisville's cycling facilities in the last few years. I went genuinely car-free about three and a half years ago, after my car was totaled in an accident in Spaghetti Junction, and I decided not to replace it. Since then, there's been a new bike lane along my normal commute along 3rd Street, useful bike lanes all over town, better signage and awareness. These improvements have made a visible difference that I have seen from year to year: more people cycling in the road rather than the sidewalk, more people cycling with traffic rather than against it, better attitudes by motorists, and more people cycling in general. That's especially true in the summer, when more cyclists are out to enjoy the fine weather, but I've seen plenty of bicycle tracks in the slush of the bike lanes in this winter's foul conditions as well.

There is no doubt in my mind that these improvements save lives. And safer streets make people more comfortable in using them, which can make the streets safer still. In lots of places, improvements are starting from a very bike- and pedestrian-unfriendly starting place. But small changes can be a starting place for continuous improvement that can yield large increases in safety over time. For me, this is cause for optimism.

Sometimes people suggest that cyclists should ride on the sidewalk. This is a really bad idea. Sidewalk cycling is not safe, for anybody. For one, cars and bicycles are both vehicles and they move like vehicles, while pedestrians move very differently. On a sidewalk, bicycles are quiet and easily startle pedestrians, and collisions are likely. Also, when bicycles cross the street while riding on the sidewalk, they are acting in a way that is very unpredictable to motorists. Drivers expect pedestrians to emerge from the sidewalk at stop signs, but pedestrians are slow. Drivers certainly do not expect vehicles to emerge from the sidewalk at ten to fifteen miles per hour. Cyclists who do this are effectively darting out into traffic, which is very dangerous behavior, and rightfully illegal.

Years ago, when I first started cycling around town more seriously, I bought into all that stuff we pick up about how "the roads are so dangerous that cyclists need to stick to the sidewalks". I was afraid, and I rode on the sidewalks. I was hit by a car within three months: as I was cycling on the sidewalk, a car that didn't see me pulled out to the curb and crushed my front wheel under its tire. Luckily, I wasn't hurt, and the wheel was easily replaced; I know people who've been seriously injured doing the same thing. It was my fault, and all the lesson I needed. In the years since then, I have followed the rules of the road as best I can: cycling in the road with traffic, using lights and hand signals, stopping at lights and stop signs. That incident was the only time I've been hit by a car in years. Vehicular cycling is the best way to protect ourselves, and cyclists who do stuff like darting out into traffic, running stoplights, and riding the wrong way on the street at night without lights aren't merely breaking the law: they're being nearly suicidal. Sadly, the traffic laws, for cyclists, can be self-enforcing.

A lot of "bike vs. car" threads are very confrontational, but they shouldn't be. There are a few of us who live without cars, but overwhelmingly, cyclists are drivers and drivers (at least occasionally) ride bikes (or teach their kids to). Cyclists and motorists are our neighbors, our friends, our kids; mostly, we all just want people to get from here to there without being injured or killed. I lived without a car at all or some years, but after after we got married, my wife of course kept her car; we have a one-car household, although I prefer to commute and run errands by bike. These modes of transportation complement each other more than they conflict. If you are driving down Bardstown Road and see a cyclist, that's one less person taking up a parking space that you could use.

Cyclists are often very defensive about motorists, because negotiating the roadway with cars can indeed be very intimidating. There are a few assholes out there that threaten and harass cyclists. But there are many more drivers who go out of their way to be considerate (sometimes ~too~ far). I see way, way more "Share the Road" license plates than drivers who harass cyclists. And drivers, who are mostly afraid of hitting cyclists, appreciate people who follow the rules.

When I'm driving and see a cyclist, or when I'm cycling and see a driver, I am not filled with hatred and loathing. If the other person is doing something stupid and reckless, like running red lights, speeding, not using lights at night, or darting out into traffic, the emotion I feel is more like a private, reproachful disgust at the self-destructive folly of others, about which I can do nothing but try to avoid the consequences.

Lots of people point to cycling as a way to help the environment or reduce our carbon footprint, but I don't think it's the most compelling argument, and I don't think it's the main reason that cyclists stick with it. Cycling can be a lot of work, which means it's great exercise. It's outdoorsy, in both fair weather and foul. And bicycles are inherently fun, which is why people often think of them more as a form of recreation than as a practical means of transportation. Any sunny spring day in May, I'd rather feel a spring breeze in my face and smell the trees leafing out than lock myself in what is essentially a motorized refrigerator. Bikes are cool, and easy to individualize. And it is very satisfying in a very basic and hard-to-describe way to get somewhere (literally) under your own power. Driving dozens of miles is a chore, but cycling dozens of miles is an accomplishment.

There is absolutely no way that our society could convert from using almost entirely cars to using almost entirely bicycles. There's no reason we should: we need cars, trucks, boats, trains, airplanes, feet, and bicycles. Also rocket ships and eventually space elevators. We need safe roads and bridges and airports and docks for people to use. For one, it's inconvenient to go from central Louisville out to the big box stores in the exurbs on a bicycle, just as a consequence of how this city has been built up. I think two to five miles or closer is about the distance that it's practical for most people to cycle, although some people enjoy going farther. I love cycling everywhere, and I think more people would probably enjoy it (especially if they had racks, baskets, and fenders, and the roads were safer). I don't think everybody would love it, or that it's realistic for everybody. But I think there's probably a group of people who are on the fence, and to them I'd say: give it a try! It's fun, it's good exercise, and it's cheaper than driving.

Pedal Your Blues Away

No comments:

Post a Comment