11 March 2014

We Remain an Auto Nation

I hear a lot about the growth of cycling

There seems to be more people out there doing it and yet our government is slow to react to this growing reality and protect it's citizens on two wheels. Today I received a "fail" email by the President of the League of American Bicyclists, as I imagine many of you might have. The email begins, "This morning, the federal government released a traffic safety proposal that turns a blind eye to the rising number of bicyclist and pedestrians deaths."

Sounds like a Predident's brutal honesty over slow progress in D.C. for bike advocacy. I would be miffed too if I had just spent a week in Washington D.C. at the National Bike Summit, forcing myself to be courteous to politicians, only to have the DOT (Department of Transportation) basically respond with a you ain't a priority yet.

The President of the League of American Bicyclists email admitted failure with this strong sentence, "The DOT just issued a proposed national traffic safety goal that doesn't include a specific target or goal for reducing the number of bicyclists and pedestrians killed on our roadways."

I'm not surprised. Failing is supposed to be okay in America - it's an indicator to try harder. So what can we do? Write our congressman - forget it. Get out and ride a bicycle to earn needed change. I found new insight through reading an article in Mosaic last week. The article made clear that greater numbers of cyclists insure greater safety and health. City cycling: health versus hazard: Are the fitness benefits of riding your bike worth the risk of an accident? Lesley Evans Ogden takes a tour of seven cities on two wheels to find out.

I'll summarize this article for you with excerpts:
  • ‘safety in numbers’ effect seems to occur: safety improves in a city as the total number of cyclists increases.
  • Bike lanes are safest, low auto speeds are safest, cars parked facing the flow of bicycles (doors) are safest. 
  • Heart disease, stroke, type II diabetes, breast cancer, colon cancer, cardiopulmonary disease and lung cancer – was reduced in people who cycled. 
  • In Copenhagen people who did not cycle to work experienced a 39 percent higher mortality rate than those who did.
  • Getting injured can be catastrophic for an individual, but the health benefits are worth it [for the living]
  • "population-level costs due to fatal accidents are outweighed at least tenfold by the health benefits of walking or cycling."
  • Separated cycle tracks have lower crash and injury rates (or at least no higher) than the street. 
  • Bicycle-specific infrastructure that reduces interactions between cyclists and motor vehicles can reduce the occurrence of injuries, potentially by more than 50 per cent.
  • People will cycle more the more safe they feel. 

Do we have to sacrifice a few for the many?

Apparently the answer is yes. The reasoning goes: Currently it is not exactly safe to ride a bike, but the more people who do it, the safer it will be. As we build our numbers, some will be injured until we hit a safe mass when safety and infrastructure will overcome danger. Is this acceptable? No. Is this scary? Yes.

Is cycling exercise or transportation?

The answer depends on where you live. In Denmark, the majority of people who commute by bike do not consider what they are doing as exercise; what they are doing is transporting themselves. In America 27% use cycling for recreation, 24% for exercise, 14% for errands, and only 5% for commuting.

When I hear that cycling is growing, I do not think of commuters, I think of those 51% of Americans out there doing it for fun or for health. Even though I love the idea of cycling, every time I see a bike commuter out riding in the setting sun, I think, "That is just craziness. No one can see him, he's going to get hit someday, and soon." I don't romanticize it as offsetting carbon emissions. If crazy is not the first thought through my mind, then the second one is, "I bet he got a DUI and must cycle through the snow and cold to work, why else would he be out there?" I imagine all the bad thoughts aimed at that poor cyclist with every passing vehicle, and yet I wish him luck.

Cycling is a lifestyle

I realize that many people cycle because they love it. You might not see me commuting, but I thoroughly enjoy hopping on my bike to go to yoga class, pedal to the market, or visit friends. Its called errand cycling and I admit I am an arrant errand cyclist. I am not alone in my preference to pedal short distances. Forty percent of trips in the United States are less than 2-miles (10-minute bike ride or 30-minute walk), I see biking these short miles as a growing trend.

I bet many of us would idealize a lifestyle where hopping on a bike five times a week to go somewhere, anywhere, would be highly desirable. I smile at the fact that many bike manufacturers now have a "lifestyle" category for bikes. I want a lifestyle bike, or is it a bike lifestyle?

I say get out and do it - locally

I didn't really expect to see our national government help us cyclists quite yet. I believe our chances for improvement lie closer to home; at the town or city level, where officials know the people on bikes as their neighbors, as citizens living our daily lives desiring only to be safe and return home to our families. Safety of it's people is after all a major role of our government, but we won't find any help there anytime soon.

In the United States, roads cyclists are considered as "vehicular cycling". That means we ride in traffic as if operating our own vehicle and must obey all road rules. We cyclists get confused about this sometimes and balk at following all rules. I believe sport cyclists are not bike path cyclists and should not be relegated to riding on bike paths. We love mountain roads and singletrack for a reason.

The article above states, "The vehicular cycling philosophy became incorporated into US guidelines for transport design, and its influence was felt for decades, limiting the building of physically separated cycle tracks and putting cyclists on the road with cars. “It’s something that really stuck in North America.”

In a way - we did this to ourselves

We continue to this day to have a "Share The Road" mentality at best. At worst it can be tragic. Just because we wanted not to be treated differently than automobiles, doesn't mean we can't change what has become a very bad idea.

- I want children to be safe biking to the park or to school with their parents.
- I want to encourage more people to cycle, but I do not want to encourage an activity that will cause harm to others.
- I do not expect my government or advocacy agencies to keep us all safe or happy.
- I do not have much faith in agencies or organizations, I do have faith in the people, my fellow cyclists, to make a change.
- I expect my government to respond as the demand of the people grows. 
- I want automobile drivers to respect the lives of every individual who chooses the freedom and health of a bicycle.
- I want people to be a little kinder to cyclists, I really do not want to sacrifice a few for the many.
- We would probably make more headway with increased penalties for harm and a cyclists are people too campaign. 

What is needed is a growing voice

The truth remains we can make a change if we grow our numbers and thereby our voice. Currently about 13% of all trips in the United States are done on bike or on foot. About 30% of our population will ride a bike each year - that is not hugely impressive.

Annual fatalities per 10,000 daily cyclists seem to strongly reflect the cycling mentality of a country (2010 or 2009 statistics from the article mentioned above):
  • ​Copenhagen 0.3
  • Amsterdam 0.4
  • Vancouver 0.9
  • Toronto 1.3
  • Portland 1.9
  • Montréal 2.0
  • Paris 8.2
  • London 11.0
  • New York 37.6.

Why is Europe so much safer?

The article explains, "So while most other developed nations continued through the 1980s and beyond with road transport design that prioritised the needs of motorised vehicles, a dramatic change was taking place in northern Europe. The shift in thinking catalysed by public protest was that, rather than requiring children and cyclists to adapt to motorised traffic, traffic should adapt to children and cyclists."

The news from the League of American Bicyclists isn't complete failure, we are waiting for a SHIFT in thinking. Let's do the waiting on our bikes.

Paris Vélib' bike share.  Photo by Karen of Pedal Dancer
This still remains our favorite recreational use of bikes in America.  Photo by Karen of Pedal Dancer
We like our cars, but our youth like them less

The United States is home to the largest passenger vehicle market of any country in the world.

Our real hope for change resides in our youth: Why Young Americans Are Driving So Much Less Than Their Parents, By The Atlantic.