Cyclists Need Cars To Grow Their Infrastructure

Background Reading


Houston we have a problem. Ron Hagquist writes:

A Texas study shows that drastically higher motor fuel taxesor something elsewill be needed soon to compensate for revenue losses from increasing vehicle fuel efficiency.

— Ron Hagquist

But the problem is even more acute than that. We are facing the onslaught of a new sustainable technology which to some degree has us comparing “apples to oranges” in terms of fuel efficiency for both hybrid and electric cars. So the additional questions becomes at what rates do we tax these kinds of vehicles so that they are fairly assessed opposite their gasoline sipping cousins?

Hagquist goes on to write:

But fuel tax rates have not been adjusted to meet growing needs for highway investment. The last increase in Federal fuel taxes was in 1993. Since then, highway construction costs have risen substantially. Recent spikes in fuel prices have reduced travel and hence fuel tax revenues, and voters have been reluctant to increase fuel tax rates.

Inflation in both construction and maintenance also have contributed to the highway revenue needs gap. At a time when fuel costs are continuing to increase, consumer demand is decreasing, and the institutional environment is staying the same, a long-term solution could take a while. Where does that leave the transportation community?

Actually cyclists should read that last sentence as “Where does that leave the cycling community?” Remember the fact that we are now struggling to find a place at the table each funding cycling for projects that help increase the installation of more bicycle infrastructure. Those protected bicycle lanes (PBLs) do not just build themselves. And while cyclists are unwilling to pay their fair share of road use taxes they are more than willing and in fact desperate to have access to those paid by motorists.

The situation is complicated by the fact that many cyclists are also motorists. But frankly this is a bit of a “red herring“. Owning a car is not the real issue here. It instead is centered around how much fuel you purchase and that of course depends on how much actual driving you do in and how efficient that vehicle is. More fuel efficient vehicles actually accelerate the widening of the gap between monies needed to keep highways and bicycle infrastructure maintained and extended and the revenue generated.

Cyclists who proudly announce that they do not drive as much because their miles are now shifted onto the wheels of their bicycles are in fact admitting that their contribution to the fuel tax pot is dwindling. So the complaint that cyclists are not paying their fare share has some merit.

The problem for cyclists is that the highway needs are on-going and inescapable. Interstate transport is the backbone of our commercial system. Goods of all sorts (food, supplies, bicycles, bicycle accessories, home building supplies, computers, etc.) are transported across state lanes most often by trucks to reach distribution points where they are sold. Let that highway infrastructure fail and you are in danger of having the very economic lifeblood of the Capitalist system bleed away. Our system could die of exsanguination.

Trying To Think ‘Globally’ And Not Just As A Cyclist

Velomobile and Wind Turbines

Velomobile and Wind Turbines

There is more to thinking “globally” than just being conscious of sustainable fuels and practices. Lots of the things we do (e.g. using SmartPhones and tablets) require batteries. Batteries are one of the less sustainable facts of life for us all. Unless you can recharge them they end up in landfills after a single use. Rechargeable battery technology is not good enough to be relied upon for most high use, high efficiency products. So most of our electronic paraphernalia is constructed with rechargeable batteries of very sophisticated design. But over time these batteries no longer hold a charge and the device itself has to be ditched. That of course eventually means a landfill.

The kinds of lights that cyclist love more often than not use batteries. Few cyclists allow their sustainable thinking to filter over into the purchase of a headlight for their bicycles. And yet we have very good hub generator technology which could power headlights and even tail lights for our bicycles. But far fewer of these are sold each year than the more powerful and far less sustainable headlights favored by most cyclists. It is quite the anomaly in thinking this favoring of battery driven headlights by folks who bike just to be more “earth friendly“.

The Arrogance of Space

Mikael Colville-Andersen is at it again. He brings a distinctly Eurocentric view of traffic design to his consulting gigs here in the New World. It is however borne out of a climate in which space is at more of a premium than it is here. So his most current reflections are centered on what he perceives as a “waste of precious” space by the traffic designers who provide lavish road dimensions where none are needed. He writes:

We have a tendency to give cities human character traits when we describe them. It’s a friendly city. A dynamic city. A boring city. Perhaps then a city can be arrogant. Arrogant, for example, with it’s distribution of space.

I’ve been working a lot in North America the past year and I’ve become quite obsessed with the obscenely unbalanced distribution of space. I see this arrogance everywhere I go. I see the insanely wide car lanes and the vehicles sailing back and forth in them like inebriated hippopotami. I was just in Calgary for five days and from my balcony at the hotel I watched the traffic below on 12th Ave. A one-way street that was never really busy at all.

From above, the arrogance of space was very apparent. Even more so than in a car driving down the lanes. The photo, above, is the car lines divided up with their actual width. Watching for five days – okay, not 24/7 … I have a life after all – I didn’t really see  any vehicles that filled out the whole lane with their girth.

So, in a very unscientific way, I decided to take a bit of each lane away.

Narrowing the lanes slightly, space was created. Obviously. Duh. And there was still ample space for the vehicles – including the big trucks and SUVs.

We know that narrowing lane width improves safety. Just like tree-lined streets – or streets with utility poles, etc – make drivers slow down and concentrate, narrower travel lanes have the same positive effect. There were posters all around Calgary with the catchy headline “Crotches Kill“. I can understand why texting is deemed easy when motorists are given so much space.

So, narrowing lane widths is safer. But what to do with that extra space?

Let me first take exception with what he says about lane widths. But in order to make my point let me talk about what we Yanks do when it comes to health.

We love to cite reports in which a group of people (e.g. nurses, nuns, octogenarians or whomever) are found to have specific rates of cancer that are lower say than the general population. We sift through their daily habits and find that two things stand out:

  • They eat more sunflower seeds and kale (on average) than other groups 
  • They bicycle more often and for longer distances then other groups

Now depending on who is funding this study these finding get reported as “Eating more sunflower seeds and kale along with riding your bike will extend your life“. This is fairly valid because in the absence of certain cancers the life expectancy would like be extended. What is not provable is whether the increased use of bicycles or for that matter the increased ingestion of sunflower seeds and kale are the things that account for this increased longevity. All we know is that this particular group of nuns lives longer than their married counterparts of the same age and ethnicity.

Could it be that child-bearing contributes to greater rates of mortality? Are their other environmental factors that contribute to the shortened lifespan of women who are not nuns? Perhaps a study of single women who live outside convents is in order? At any rate you can see that sometimes pronouncements gets a bit wonky.

Now with respect to the assertion that “narrowing lane widths increased safety” that is poorly stated. What should be said is that slower traffic speeds can increase safety. How you achieve this is up to the people who design the streets and the automobiles. If you make streets narrower and do not lower posted traffic speeds and rather increase them, narrowing streets might have just the opposite effect.

Lowering speed limits however is not only likely to save lives it should also be possible to predict that it saves on fuel costs. But that fact is in itself a problem for roadway users who count on the revenues being distributed from gasoline tax collections. Something we began this discussion trying to make clear.

Cycling Movement Gurus Are Just Like Spiritual Gurus

Heavens knows that we all need gurus. When I first took up photography and discovered the works of Ansel Adams, I was starry eyed. There is something like that in most everyones experience of a guru. These people exhibit a keener sense of life (in a specific area) than most others and we tend to gravitate towards them.

Gurus are (at least in this day and age) however “all about the Benjamin’s“. One notable hindu mystic taught asceticism to his followers while indulging himself in the ownership of elite automobiles and beautiful women. Who could blame the guy. Gurus like Colville-Andersen get paid to tell people what they already know they want to hear. They get their travel expenses paid to visit cities and tell folks exactly what they should do to make their cities more sustainable. The things that he is going to preach are already known before he arrives.

The people that bring him in already admire what they have heard from and about him in the past. So he gets paid a good deal of money to help them showcase the things they want to try and “sell” to their constituents. And it often takes an “out-of-town” prophet to do this.

Now Jesus himself had pointed out that a prophet has no honor in his own country.
John 4:44 – New International Version (©2011)

Another premise that Colville-Andersen likes to make is that “creating more parking space for automobiles means that more will come“. It sounds good. But it is factually inaccurate. What he really means to say is that when human beings see that there is more room for themselves and their possessions they are attracted to a place and settle in. In the modern age that means cars come with them and are parked outside their residences for those times when they are needed. But the cars themselves do not make the journey of their own volition. It is humans who are responsible for that.

So the inundation of urban space by the automobile is really not the issue at all. It is rather than people are coming, lots of people are coming. And when they come they bring pets, which poop on the sidewalk and which if left unattended end up on the heels of your shoes. Should we therefore poison dogs and cats? No, far better to simply limit the number of people moving into an area.

The Great Western Migration of population here in the United States was initially random. People moved west to find land to grow food. They looked for bodies of inland water and sheltering hills surrounding valleys. Places that reminded them of the European landscapes they had left. Eventually our government decided to move Europeans westward to occupy the lands we had taken from the Native Americans who lived there. And so we came in droves often shooting the bison from the railroad cars of moving trains, just for sport.

Again should be ban trains from the far west? Not really, the presence of technology is more a factor of population density than the technology itself. If you want to make cities more livable keep the population density lower. If you want to make streets safer lower the average speed of vehicles in that space. That could be achieved by narrowing the spaces between moving vehicles to the point that nervous drivers slow to avoid collisions. Or it could also be achieved by arbitrarily lowering the speed limit. Or it could also be achieved by designing cars that read sensors embedded in the road surface that limit the speed of the car electronically. Or you could simply ban cars altogether in a given Congestion Zone and as with evacuating a space of the gases in it reduce the number of collisions without having to make the space smaller.

The problem with the approach that Colville-Andersen takes is that he like many Cycling Advocates is draconian in his style. He writes:

On so many streets I’ve looked at in North American cities, even a two-lane street can cough up enough space for a Copenhagen-style cycle track.

Addendum: It’s not possible to see it on these photos but the car parking at the bottom is an indentation in the curb in front of the hotel, so the cycle track runs along the curb, as it should.

I tire of hearing the incessant “we don’t have space for bicycles” whine, especially in North American cities. The space is right there if you want it to be there. Removing car lanes to create cycle tracks is, of course, doable. So many cities are doing it. Not making cycle tracks for those who cycle now, but for the many who COULD be cycling if it was made safe.

However, when you live in an arrogant city, space is readily available. Often not even involving removing lanes or parking. It’s right there. If you want it.

I can hear the traffic engineers complaining already. This, of course, messes with every computer model they have. It’s not, however, about them anymore. They’ve had their century of trial and error – mostly error. We’re moving on now. We’ll redesign our cities and tell them what to do and how to help us – based on human observation, rationality and logic. They’re brilliant problem solvers. We’ll just be telling them what problems to solve.

This quote by Andres Duany is appropriate:

The problem with planning is that it has been overtaken by mathematical models – traffic, density, impact assessment, public costs etc. discarding common sense and empirical observation.”

I for one do not believe that any one person or group has a monopoly on understanding the needs of a society. Attempting to force feed your own brand of logic is what Fascists were very good at. Indeed the Soviet Union had a steady diet of top down five year plans that were all about the wisdom of the few despite the misgivings of the many.

In short draconian thinking is all about “sharing” your wisdom with the masses whether they like it or not.

Americas budding Colville-Andersen devotees are chomping at the bit to bring enlightenment to a nation that they perceive as having gotten drunk on the easily availability of cheap gas and free or inexpensive parking and want to drag us kicking and screaming into the future as they envision it. Meanwhile despite all the protestations to the contrary there is a movement afoot that puts the lie to the orderliness bicycle infrastructure is supposed to provide.

Reply by Mr. Ray Joe Hall 12 hours ago
Stop signs are so lame. Especially when someone else has the right of way at one. Brakes too.

— ChainLink Forum

Nothing speaks to the crisis of faith in the Church of Urban Cycling like the words of this acolyte. The High Priests represented by Colville-Andersen consistently talk about how to make urban streets more livable. By this they mean that the quality of life improves. And by improvement they really mean that the “pace of life” slows down both figuratively and literally.

Making streets narrower is really all about trying to provide so very little space for automobiles to maneuver that the more cautious members of the herd instinctively slow down. You see this sort of thing in parking lots behind car dealerships. Everywhere you look the cars are parked in rows narrow enough that only a very slow moving vehicle can avoid collisions if another one suddenly backs into the lane.

You also see this in urban drive areas where the lanes are so tight that they are impossible to navigate in winter with snow clogging them. And when cleared of snow they are still so tight that you have to travel at 5 MPH to avoid hitting things. The reason of course that these are safer is because everyone is given more reaction time due to the slowed pace of movement.

If you substitute the presence of automobiles (which are inherently fast-paced modes of travel) with slower ones like feet and bicycles you gain a measure of safety. But we already know that if even if you move to bicycles as the primary mode of travel, removing the brakes from these vehicles without reducing their speed spells “death”.

Mr. Ray Joe Hall is a merchant of death in that he thrives on speed and relies on a brakeless bike.

Fixed gear bikes that are devoid of brakes are cool. In fact the riders of these bikes thrive on narrow spaces and speed. It is ironic, but just when Colville-Andersen has convinced us to narrow the roadways and make additional room for slower-paced bicycles and pedestrians, along comes fixed gear speed freaks to turn the whole thing on its head.

Gone in a flash is the justification for slowing the pace of life by switching to bicycles. And in its place are a host of riders (mostly young) who have no use for two stage turns (as required when using Bike Boxes) or for that matter designated green lanes with PVC bollards because these folks use any and all lanes including those we normally think of as sidewalks.

The hipster community, the very ones we are trying to base our increasing numbers of riders upon as the reason for building all this bicycle infrastructure is actively working against the very notion of an orderly progression of stately travelers on bicycles alongside cars. Now talk about unsustainable conditions. This is that in spades. Until such time as Colville-Andersen and Ron Burke can address this growing threat it makes the idea of increasing bicycle infrastructure a stretch.

Why build something as stodgy as PBLs for a group that really does not plan to use them on a consistent basis?