Thursday, July 30, 2009

Thursday Cycling Soapbox: Those Darned Bikes Shouldn't Be on the Street!

Whenever a cycling-related accident happens anywhere, it seems, the occasion of its reporting in local media brings out a certain group of people holding the belief that the only vehicles that belong on the street have motors.

Case in point: the recent drunk-driving case of Edward Miller and the late Steve Barbour. Story from the Dispatch, of course.

If you head out to the comments for the article, most people are calling for drivers to be more judicious about when they get behind the wheel after having had a few drinks, or about helping stop your friends from driving drunk.

But of course, there are a few who take this stance:

I feel sorry for the loss but when are bicycle riders going to wise up and ride where it's safe? I just find it STUPID to use the same access that a car uses - there are paths all over the counties now called BIKE PATHS! Blame it on alcohol - that's fine .. but watch out the next time someone behind the wheel behind you has a heart attack, aneurism, or something similar!
Or this one:

Wait for all the facts. ANYONE who has seen bicyclist downtown running lights, going the wrong way,ileagally passing stopped traffic at stoplights , ect know the driver, MIGHT be telling the truth.If the deceased ran a stop sign, or jumped to the street from the sidewalk, ect he could have committed the first HARMFUL event in the incident. As bikes become more prevalent, it is incumbant on riders to obey ALL the traffic laws, all the time.

Or even this one:

Many bike riders seem to think they are invulnerable and will stay in the lane with cars backing up behind them. I have seen them flip people off and and say stuff and in general act very arrogant. But mostly it's the idiots that insist on staying in the driving lane when they know a car is coming up behind. It doesn't matter whether somebody was drinking in some cases. It could well be that the bike did swerve into the path of the car. Everybody that wasn't there thinks they have it solved.
So let's start with the idea that bikes don't belong on the streets, but on bike paths alone. I'll give this commenter credit for not saying "get on the sidewalk." As many studies have shown, it's more dangerous for bikes to ride on sidewalks than on the street (see Ken Kifer's webpage for Why Sidewalk Cycling is Dangerous).

Bicycles are not simply toys and recreational vehicles. There are many (vastly increasing numbers, in fact) of people who use their bicycles for basic transportation worldwide. As the price of gas goes up, more people take to the streets on two wheels instead of four. And the trend seems to be that those numbers don't go back down all the way when gas gets cheaper. People discover just how convenient it is to ride to their destinations instead of having to drive, park, pay for parking, pay for gas, etc. They get exercise and in many cases get to their destinations more quickly.

If bikes were simply for recreation, then I can see an argument for using bike paths alone. But given the use of bikes as transportion, that argument fails. Bike paths are not designed with destination in mind. Look at the paths in Columbus (pre-Bicentennial Bike Plan, naturally). They follow the rivers, the intent being to give cyclists and other path users a pleasant ride while they enjoy their exercise. But the rivers in Columbus all run north-to-south. If a rider is trying to move across town east-to-west, there are no facilities for doing so. So forcing cyclists to use paths to get to their destinations simply is not feasible. And cyclists pay more than their fair share for the streets, a topic I'll get to in a future soapbox article.

The next comment brings up the predictable "scofflaw cyclist" arguments. The "cyclists don't stop at lights, don't use turn signals, ride erratically, etc." accusations always rear their heads in such discussions. And it's true - many riders don't follow the traffic laws. I'll be the first to admit that I see such cyclists every day, whether they flout the law because of lack of knowledge or simple wanton ignoring of the law.

But this is definitely a case of who's going to throw the first stone. If every motorist was to avoid rolling stops, stop behind the proper line on the road, use their turn signals, and most importantly NEVER speed; in other words follow all the rules of the road to the letter, then there'd be a place to argue this point. But we all know this doesn't happen. Prime example: I ride past the Franklin County Courthouse every day on my commute, and there are clear "no stopping" signs along High Street in front of that building. Yet, despite these signs, people stop to drop off passengers there almost every day as I pass. It's illegal, yet motorists just ignore the signs.

So who's to blame here? Well, the vehicle operators know the law and ignore it. But the ones who are supposed to enforce the laws, namely the police, let these sorts of things go all the time. Enforcement of supposedly minor traffic laws in the Columbus is hideous. I've ranted before about this topic, and even written a letter to the mayor about it on one occasion. If you're going to have a law but not enforce it, then it's the same as not having a law. And those who DO follow the law are put at a disadvantage to the selfish other people who don't follow it as the roads are less safe, road rage rates go higher, etc. Proper consistent enforcement of the existing law would clean things up quickly.

Finally, there's a lack of knowledge in this city about how to properly ride a bike. And this is on top of the previous issue of "scofflaw cyclists." I'm talking about drivers knowing why cyclists do things and what's legally allowed. Yesterday's post addresses that last comment immediately, as the commenter is quite clearly describing his dislike of cyclists who take the lane. The post discusses how and why to do it, and also quotes state law making it not only acceptable but legal.

I'd like to see motorist education be mandatory - including the testing of cyclist-specific knowledge in order to get your driver's license EVERY time you renew it. Teach it as part of driver's education. The League of American Bicyclists has a Motorist education course. With the preponderence of League Certified Instructors that Columbus will have (after this very weekend as Columbus is hosting its first LCI certification seminar, which I'll be attending) getting someone to teach such a class will be very easy.

So, as usual, it's easy to tear apart most motorists' dislike of cycling as pure selfishness and haste. Auto-related deaths (both bike/car and otherwise) number in the 40,000 range each year, but for some reason this is regarded as acceptable as long as people are able to get where they need to go quickly. Well, it's not acceptable. The key factor that should drive all roadway decisions, whether by drivers, planners and politicians, engineers, or otherwise should be safety. It's not, obviously, but hopefully we'll get to a point where it is.

People, not speed.

8 comments:

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  2. A+ soapbox! Honestly, in the past week, I've seen more cars blatantly running red lights than I've seen cyclists doing anything illegal. This city needs to realize and be educated on the fact that the cars don't OWN the road and it's not their "right" to drive, it's a privilege allowed to them by the state.

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  3. I also want to know though, how do we get cyclists to stop running red lights? I've started telling other cyclists not to do it when I see them (and irony of ironies, I got yelled at yesterday by a motorist when I started rolling before the light actually changed).

    But I'm really getting aggravated at the cyclists who seem to think they have a right to run red lights if no one is coming. I caught the critical mass ride by coincidence on my ride home about two months ago, and my biggest issue was the riders who kept trying to get the other riders to run red lights. Not only does this totally undermine our credibility, if you get hit while running a red you're on the hook for any injuries you sustain and possibly for damage to the motorist's car.

    How do we make this stop???

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  4. Eric - thanks for the comment! I think certain parts of the city do realize that, particularly the mayor's office and urban development team (I can't recall the name of the group right now). The trick is to get the Division of Police to realize it. I understand that crime is a big issue as well, and that the police would rather concentrate on that aspect of their mission. But if you go back and read my interview with Liz Lessner you'll see her small-business-owner's view of the value of bikes as extra eyes on the street.

    It's been documented all over the place that more pedestrians and bikes on the street means that crime has a harder time hiding and that crime rates go down. Encouraging honest driving and cycling will go a long way to helping that effort, I think.

    Perhaps that's a topic for another soapbox... :)

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  5. Cycho - that's the question, isn't it? Like I said, I think increased and consistent enforcement is one way to do it. Education is another. But getting over the arrogance of some people, especially in our culture of instant gratification, is going to be difficult. Perhaps a PR campaign about cycling responsibilities would be in order. Unfortunately, such things are expensive. I don't know the answer there.

    Critical Mass is a different story altogether, and I waver between massive support and guarded negativity for the ride. I love that they call attention to riders on the streets. I hate that they may be doing more to piss off drivers and make them hate cyclists more.

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  6. Would people feel the same if for every bike related accident (caused by car) it was instead a child on foot instead of a cyclist that got injured or killed?

    Steve S

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  7. Zdad - interesting comparison and thought!

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  8. Thank you for saying this. The fact that we even have to have this debate shows how far we are from real transportation justice.

    I met someone last night who had been hit a few weeks ago by a hit and run driver while on High St. We talked for a while about how sick it is that a driver can be reimbursed relatively quickly if their car is scratched by another car in a crash but if a cyclist is hurt or worse there is often nothing done to the driver.

    Our talk ended with an offhanded "oh well, what can you do?" That is the question, isn't it? Clearly inaction isn't an option and letting the justice system run its course as Judge Green suggests is partially why we're in this current situation.

    Our goal should not be a heavy sentence of the man who killed Mr. Barbour because no matter how severe Mr. Miller's sentence is Mr. Barbour will continue to be dead. What we should push for is the creation of a system that will allow us to avoid situations like this all together. It's cold comfort knowing that the person who kills you will be punished; I'd rather know drivers are looking out for me.

    "Bikin' Mike" sounds cool but nicknames aren't going to solve this problem for us. I know Consider Biking does work with the Major and has accomplished some great things but we need to become a more tightly-knit community with a stronger voice. Do you know if C.B. has regular meetings where we can brainstorm?

    This city could be a great place to bike but we all need to work towards that goal; it won't be given to us.

    I enjoy the blog.
    Thanks,
    Shane

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