Published: Tuesday 12 November 2013
The problem of America’s congested roads has long been simple: too many tires vying for a fixed amount of pavement. But with a growing bicycle culture joining the car culture, the difficulties have expanded greatly. The conveyances now travel at very different speeds, follow different rules of the road and expose their operators to vastly different levels of physical vulnerability.
Let me start with a disclaimer: I am no fan of the car culture. I use buses, trains and my feet, as well as my car. And I’m a fair-weather bicyclist who sticks to routes with little traffic.
But the rise in all-conditions, all-traffic bike commuting is causing considerable anxiety and injury or worse — and for all concerned. Here’s a real-life example:
I’m driving at night on a city street with two narrow car lanes. This is a college neighborhood in which students habitually emerge from between parked cars, wearing earbuds and dressed in black.
As I scrutinize the shadows for darting students, a bicyclist materializes on my right. She passes me in the tiny space between my Honda and the parked cars, offering a high sign. I give her a high sign back out of friendliness but also out of relief that I hadn’t veered 3 inches to my right and done her terrible damage.
The cyclist was clearly operating under a set of dangerous assumptions: That I had eyes on the back of my head possessing superhuman powers of peripheral vision. That the extra eyes were wearing infrared goggles able to detect bodies in the dark. That I was not intoxicated or texting or otherwise distracted.
Different dynamics govern bicycle-pedestrian interaction. Amateur cyclists traumatized by motorized traffic often try to share the sidewalks with pedestrians.
But when the coast is clear on the road, they whiz through crosswalks, frightening those on foot.
My father was hit by a bicycle going the wrong way down a one-way street. He had looked before crossing, but not in the direction from which no traffic is supposed to come. He ended up in the hospital.
Meanwhile, tragedies befalling bicyclists are legion. In San Francisco, a 24-year-old riding in a bike lane was killed when a truck made a right turn into her. It is really hard for a trucker to see a silent low vehicle coming along the right. When the driver was not cited, controversy ensued.
My sister commutes by bike in Boston and offers accounts of death and near death. A friend died after his bike slipped on the snow and fell under a truck. In this case, no one was really at fault. The story sharply curbed my interest in bike commuting, however, though not my sister’s.
You be the judge. I’m driving at rush hour on a busy four-lane with no shoulders at the sides. We’re going uphill, and there’s a slow-moving bicycle taking up the right lane. Actually, he was doing great, considering the demands of pedaling up a steep slope, but he did slow traffic behind him to 12 miles an hour. Because the hill was long, drivers knew they were in for an extended crawl unless they veered one lane left into the stampeding traffic.
Now, the cyclist has a legal right to be on the road. But he is creating a traffic jam and raising blood pressure all around him.
How does one factor in all the factors? You want to encourage biking, but there really has to be separation from motorized vehicles and pedestrians.
Of course, bicyclists should honor the laws of the road. Harder to enforce, though, are the laws of common sense.
The bicyclists behaviors here are generally executed out of ignorance. We do not train our cyclists. This is something of a “free-for-all“. Because we think more of and respect motoring we train our students when young adults and give them road tests. We do not think about cycling this way. And oddly enough neither do cyclists. They resist by any means necessary having their transportation segment gain the valuable training that could save lives. They resist it because they have heard from the European counterparts that Vehicular Cycling is a cult theory. For these folks it is far better to die in ignorance having been needlessly crushed by a turning truck or to suffer painful surgeries because of a Door Zone Collision rather than ever acknowledge that our behaviors are not better than our training.
So we soldier on and blame motorists for our predicament. Motorists who die at any alarming rate and we cyclists have such a small fraction of that carnage befall us that one might wonder where the paranoia about cycling in traffic really comes from. But until such time as we submit to the age old practice of being trained for our time on the roadway and quit fleeing to the ghetto of the Protected Bike Lane we will continue to have bike club presidents who have suffered door zone collisions at least four times in their lives and that of course does not bode well for the less experienced riders who are certain that these collisions happen without warning or prevention. Nonsense!