Does size matter?

One of the barriers to encouraging bicycling as a mode of travel in the US is the perception that cycling is not “safe”. The fear of injury, and the insecure feeling of being run off the road by cars is one of the main factors many people cite as the reason they won’t take up bicycling on the streets. They certainly won’t ride to work, or even just a mile to run an errand.

When I was a kid, we played in the street all the time. Basketball, baseball, tag, or whatever game we were into at the time. We ran around in front of our houses with little fear of being run down – we knew to pause and let cars pass – but in general, it wasn’t a huge concern.

I think the same thing applies to cycling. When I was a kid, I regularly rode my bike from my house to my best friend’s house which was six blocks away. I never worried about the safety of the ride, nor did my parents really, (as far as I know). But these days when I ask friends who tell me they would like to ride, but won’t because they don’t feel safe, what do they report that feels unsafe?  It’s cars and the feeling of the inequity of sharing the road. It’s a mismatch when you are on street: just you versus a multi-ton vehicle. I wonder, what’s changed since the days of my youth on the streets of Portland, Oregon? For one thing, the size of the cars and trucks that crowd the streets now. And the 60’s and 70’s are well known for  gas guzzling muscle cars, and big luxury cars like the Buick Electra “Deuce and a quarter”.

Old-Skool Deuce and a Quarter

I recently reflected on this when I borrowed a full-size pickup to pick up a load of mulch and to make a run to the transfer station, or the dump as we used to call it.

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This truck is a Toyota Tundra. It is incredible how large this thing is. It’s at least six and half feet off the ground, and is probably two feet longer than my old Toyota mini-van which was huge in its own right.

And it’s not my imagination: take a look at this picture of the Tundra next to an older truck at the Transfer Station. It’s mammoth in comparison to this good old Ford truck that was big enough for the same kinds of jobs 30 years ago, and still is today.

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When these giant vehicles pass you on the street, on your  bike or on foot, the sun is blocked out momentarily. It’s ridiculous how over-sized they are and surprising how ubiquitous they have become on our streets. Giant pickup trucks and massive SUVs are everywhere across American cities. People use them as “commuters”. Nutty!

It’s no wonder new cyclists feel unsafe. Imagine being 10 years old riding a bike in the street to school while one of these squeezes past. It’s incredible that we have allowed this to happen.

But that is where we are in America. What makes you feel unsafe on the street?

Rules of the road – Is It OK to Kill cyclists?

This weekend there was an interesting article in the New York Times, written by Daniel Duane, titled Is It O.K. to Kill Cyclists?.

Duane relates how dangerous it can seem to ride a bicycle in the US, and the fact that people driving cars are rarely prosecuted for car crashes that kill people riding bicycles.

I agree with Duane’s assessment of the difficulties of riding a bicycle in cities: “… the social and legal culture of the American road, not to mention the road itself, hasn’t caught up. Laws in most states do give bicycles full access to the road, but very few roads are designed to accommodate bicycles, and the speed and mass differentials — bikes sometimes slow traffic, only cyclists have much to fear from a crash — make sharing the road difficult to absorb at an emotional level.”

Like the writer of this opinion piece, I love riding a bicycle. Unlike this writer however, I don’t find that cycling is automatically dangerous. Bad things absolutely happen to people doing all kinds of things, including riding a bicycle. I’ve been in many crashes on my bicycle over the years, thankfully, none of them fatal. On the other hand, driving a car is dangerous enough that 33,803 people were killed in automobile accidents last year in the United States. And according to the World Health Organization, automobile accidents have become the 9th leading cause of death worldwide. 

WHO-data

I know that not as many people ride bicycles as frequently and as far as we drive automobiles, but why do you suppose people’s perception is so skewed? The rare fatal traffic accident involving a bicycle here in Seattle almost always becomes front page news. Compared to fatal car accidents? Maybe a line or two in the local  section, but it is so common place to die driving a car that it barely rates mentioning in the news media.

Duane finishes his article with a lame plea that relies on personal responsibility as the answer to create the view that cyclists deserve respect:

“So here’s my proposal: Every time you get on a bike, from this moment forward, obey the letter of the law in every traffic exchange everywhere to help drivers (and police officers) view cyclists as predictable users of the road who deserve respect. And every time you get behind the wheel, remember that even the slightest inattention can maim or kill a human being enjoying a legitimate form of transportation. That alone will make the streets a little safer, although for now I’m sticking to the basement and maybe the occasional country road.”

Traffic laws, and car focused road infrastructure are reasons why use of the road is often difficult for cyclists. This is why a law abiding citizen will break the law while riding a bicycle. Respect? At many intersections, it is very difficult, if not impossible, for a person on  bicycle stopped in the road at a traffic light, to be able to make the traffic light change. We need to make the roads work for all users. I have wondered for a long time why a pedestrian waiting to cross the road has to wait for an entire light cycle to get a walk signal. Wouldn’t it be nicer while on foot, to hit the walk button,  and have the light change so the pedestrian has the right of way? Instead, we’ve made it easiest for automobiles at the expense of other modes of transportation. To change this attitude will take a fundamental shift in how we view automobile transportation in the United States.

Washington State passed the Vulnerable User Law in 2012. This kind of law helps underscore the seriousness and the possible consequences involved when driving an automobile. These kinds of laws are a good legislative step, but only help close a loophole after the fact. I believe that attitudes about transportation choices are slowly changing for the better. This won’t happen overnight and will probably take a generation or more for it fully take hold. It will take work by a legion of people who believe that it is fundamentally fair and economically necessary to promote transit, cycling, and walking as alternatives to driving a car. The plea by Duane for cyclists to always follow the rules of the road to the letter of the law, and stay in the basement isn’t going to help make it happen.

 

Safer Streets

Safety vest

On a walk to my local grocery the other day I observed an older gentleman walking in my neighborhood. He was average looking in every way except that he was wearing head-to-toe florescent orange safety gear. For a walk in the neighborhood. How dangerous do our sidewalks and streets seem to people that some feel the need to wear clothing that looks as if they are working on a highway crew? The absolutely absurd has become completely normal.

I read an interesting article by Jerry Large in the Seattle Times this past August titled “What Can Make Streets Safer? You”. He starts out his essay with the statement “Cars are not the only danger on the road, but they are the most deadly…”

I’ve been thinking a lot about safety and bicycles and cars lately. I was surprised to learn that every year for the last 10 years, 30,000 to 40,000 people die in car accidents in the United States. 30,000 to 40,000 people. Per year. The US leads the race to the bottom in this statistic compared to other industrialized countries. In fact, we have won this race to the bottom handily.

If the US had some other transportation system that suffered 30,000 fatalities a year, the public would be up in arms and studies would have been conducted to help understand and solve this serious safety issue. Imagine if 30,000 people a year died riding Amtrak. Unthinkable.

Large’s article goes on to mention that pedestrian traffic deaths have risen over the last several years, and that DOT blames the victims. Are there more intoxicated or distracted pedestrians? That might explain it.
Statistics provided by the federal DOT also show that in a majority of accidents, the driver of the car was traveling within the posted speed limit.

To return to the quote that I started with above, cars are the most deadly transportation choice we make. On the Walking in Seattle Blog there is a really interesting and sobering info-graphic that shows this in the number of roadway deaths in Seattle for the last 10 years. Study the graph. It is astounding that we have become so accustomed to the violence that automobiles create all around us.

We can improve the safety of our streets, but we must stop blaming the victims and focus on the true safety issues. In general we travel too fast for most of the conditions we drive in on city streets. It would be much safer for everyone if we reduced speeds for cars in all neighborhoods.

Update traffic laws to better serve all users of the road. Let’s make the streets safer for all.

National Pedestrian Crash Report
http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pubs/810968.pdf

Seattle Times

What Can Make Streets Safer? You – by Jerry Large

http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2021561523_jdlcolumn08xml.html

Walking in Seattle

http://walkinginseattle.org/?p=3543