Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Beyond statistics

A comment on this thread at People for Bikes stated that overtaking motorists strike cyclists in only about 10 percent of recorded collisions. The debate was about protected bike lanes. Should they be called that? Are they really protected? Are they really desirable? Every rider has an opinion.

Statistics provide no comfort on a real street. Overtaking crashes may be rare, but harsh and threatening expressions of opinion from overtaking motorists are all too common. They may be verbal or nonverbal. Nonverbal threats other than the car horn include close passing, extended objects, thrown objects, even car doors opened on moving vehicles, depending on local fashion. Also, seeing a motorist make a dangerous pass, crossing into oncoming traffic because they didn't want to wait, is an additional source of stress. Even a veteran traffic-herder loses control of the mob from time to time.

The worst case scenario in any human interaction is simply a bloodbath. We've proven time and again how bad we can get. So you can only plan for an expected statistical average of bad behavior and operator error. You hope you're somewhere else the day the dookie really hits the propeller. For many riders and potential riders that "somewhere else" is a path or lane designated as their sanctuary.

I can't find the other thought-provoking comment I read on a cycling site in which the commenter stated that bicyclists "aren't taken seriously" as part of the traffic mix. This was cited as a reason infractions against cyclists are not prosecuted vigorously in most cases, if they're prosecuted at all.

The debate over what to call a protected bike lane and the lack of support from law enforcement both stem from the vague legal status of bicycle riders. And that stems from the fact that people can start riding bikes shortly after they're old enough to walk and continue to do so until they are old and feeble.

I was riding my bicycle on the streets, transporting myself to school and friends' houses, from about age 7. I rode with the traffic flow. Within a few years I learned how to make the proper hand signals, although some of them felt dorky to me. But because the bike could go places cars couldn't I felt fully justified in riding through those spaces as well. Sometimes it included the sidewalk, though I never felt right there. And riding the wrong way on a one-way street just felt like asking for trouble. But cutting through a field, a park, a yard or parking lot, or riding down a path or alley just made sense. And it didn't just make sense to me. Adults did not usually raise a fuss unless they saw child riders too close to dangerous equipment or in areas posted as hazardous. Good thing no one saw me the day I discovered I could fit underneath the tractor-trailer parked behind the IGA in Thomaston, Maine.

Moving forward to the surge of bicycling in the 1970s, the Baby Boomers brought their youthful habits into their teens and early twenties. We rode across school and college campuses, down streets and alleys much as we did in grade school. Even though awareness was growing of the bicycle's potential for adventure travel and competitive recreation, the majority of riders just rode.

As the Baby Boom set precedents in everything else, so it was with traffic cycling. It had been a long time since that many people wanted to ride bikes as adults on the public rights of way in this country. It might even have been since the 19th Century, when bicyclists got the hoop rolling to have more roads paved to a decent standard at all.

In Europe and Great Britain bicycles had persisted as transportation. For a long time they were naturally incorporated into the heterogeneous flow. The devastation of the Second World War probably helped keep the bicycle a viable option because for many in the aftermath it was considered a step up even to have that. The United States, its prosperity virtually unchecked by the war, hit the gas and rolled onto highways increasingly tailored to motor vehicle needs.

Bicycling was what children did until they could get a license and a car. So the progression of Baby Boomer bicyclists from schoolkids to young adult cycle tourists, commuters and racers did not figure in transportation planning any more than long hair and bell bottoms did. I'm sure a lot of transportation authorities hoped it was all just a phase, like rebellion and pot smoking and that awful music. No need to plan for the future of something that has no future. Just wait for it to go away.

In other words, bicyclists weren't taken seriously. That has been the basis of bike-related policy ever since. Sure, things are changing now, but from a mindset that views the adult cyclist as frivolous, voluntarily choosing a more vulnerable, less practical (in their view) mode of transportation. Even the tourist and racer must figure into the transportation mix just as much as the motorhome, the boat trailer, the motorcycle and any other vehicle whose trip is not directly related to earning income or moving products.

What sets the cyclist apart from the other non-essential road users is the neglect under which we operate. Crackdowns by law enforcement on illegal and dangerous cycling behavior are rare enough to draw the attention of bloggers and cycling journalists. They are often motivated by retribution for large numbers of complaints lodged by motorists, alleging multiple infractions by the annoying pedalers, rather than by any institutional desire to see cycling go better for both cyclists and non-cyclists alike. The rest of the time a rider can do practically anything in front of law enforcement and barely elicit a yawn. We're just not worth the trouble. We're not serious.

Riders operate in such a gray area even their supporters don't know what to call it. Bike lane? Bike path? Cycle track? Separated? Protected? Protected how? And what do we do at intersections?

As a rural cyclist I see all the attention lavished on urban and suburban areas and wonder what anyone will do about us hicks in the sticks. Do you know how many lane miles of shoulderless, hilly, curvy, narrow roads there are in this country? They're all some of us have. Having seen the behavior of some drivers "from away" when they encounter a local rider, and dealt with the indigenous rednecks who cherish and refine their predatory instincts and have no patience with some idiot who chooses to wobble along on some bicycle, I wonder how much thought (and expense) anyone will have left to clean up our gray area after making the cities and towns safe for the short-haul riders.

1 comment:

Steve A said...

The "hit from behind" statistic is great for urban cyclists since closing speeds are a lot lower and intersections more frequent. In rural areas, you can go ten miles without an intersection and closing speeds can be in excess of 50MPH. Even Forester related how scared he felt on a 2-lane 60MPH road.