Maybe The Problem Is ‘Cities’ As A Concept

Background Reading


© Associated Press

© Associated Press

Maybe the problem with cities has little to do with the usual lack of Protected Bicycle Lanes or for that matter basic Bicycle Infrastructure. After all we know that the real and ultimate solution to traffic deaths is the lessening of vehicle speed. As far back as my childhood the safety engineers have used the phrase, “Speed Kills“. Lessen the rate at which a vehicle traverses a given distance and you have a nearly exponential reduction in the “killing effectiveness” of that vehicle.

The Cycling Movement has focused on the wrong thing (in my estimation) when it ttys to make the case that mass of the vehicle is what is dangerous. But that is really not the whole truth. You can do as much damage to human flesh by accelerating a piece of metal the size of  the first joint of your little finger to the speed of sound as you can by having a semi-truck traveling at 60 MPH hitting a person in the crosswalk of any city street anywhere in the universe.

This is not conjecture, we call this physics and we know this to be fact. We in fact depend on this bit of truth to protect our soldiers in Afghanistan as they move about the landscape or sadly we prove it daily (or so it seems) here on the streets of the City of Chicago. Those small pieces of metal we call bullets and at the end of every single weekend we get a report on the radio that someone else has died by lethal lead poisoning because someone fired a gun in his or her direction.

Now should that same bullet be inserted into a shell casing with very old and unstable powder and the muzzle velocity drops down to something approaching the velocity of Governor Chris Christie chasing down a gourmet food truck on foot, then all bets are off that it can do much damage.

The same thing is true of automobile, bicycles, buses, trains and even pedestrians. Slow those suckers down and everything becomes better. Speed them up and you have to deal with mayhem. In fact what makes it so very frustrating to see bicycles run red lights and stop signs is that they are gambling that a fast moving automobile is not bearing down on them unawares at a high rate of speed and resulting in their deaths or serious injury. And for what, a few seconds head start on the waiting engines just behind that white line at the edge of the intersection?

And yet we continue to play “squirrel” for whatever reason with fast moving vehicles and when the driver has been doing the very same thing for luncheon that we were, namely drinking himself into a semi-stupor, and getting behind the wheel of his truck or van or whatever, all bets are off that we can gamble on being in that intersection and not getting hit. The greatest tragedy of all is the fact that if we should die in that intersection our tiny little minds will focus on the sins of the motorist and not our own and will decide that cars should be either banned from the roadways altogether or that this particular driver should be punished for all eternity for doing exactly what we did for luncheon.

We will console ourselves that our transgressions were less because our total mass is less than his, but that is really not any more reasonable an approach to the physical realities of collisions than for you to believe that Global Warming is a hoax. In fact I lump Climate Change Deniers into the same kettle as the “Cars Kill, Bicycles Don’t” crowd. Either set of Luddites is best watched on late night TV with a coffee in hand and the channel set to Fox News.

Speed Is What Cities Thrive Upon

Every time I listen or read or correspond with Mikael Colville-Andersen I am struck by how much unlike the cities I visit are to the ones he is describing as the “cities of the future“. To be honest my home town is more like what he wants to design than is Chicago. In fact I seriously doubt that urban areas like Chicago, New York or San Francisco have the capacity to ever really be like Copenhagen.

Our cities are far more full of criminal activity than will ever be the case in present-day Copenhagen. I think this is largely due to the nature of our culture. We are far more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity and income than virtually every European city with the exception perhaps of Paris. And all that one has to do is look at the results of the BikeShare efforts in that city to understand the problem. If a city is too diverse and too heavily populated it become inefficient and therefore unmanageable.

Die Hard urbanists like John Greenfield might poke fun at suburban life to get titters of sniggering laughter from their peers until such time as they decide to settle down and raise a family. At that juncture they begin to realize that the “speed” of city life is just not conducive to raising a family. Mancow faced this fact a few months ago and decided to move north to a suburb where he felt safer.

Living in a city the size and “speed” of Chicago is something you can afford to do if you are single or cohabiting but beyond that phase of your life you need to anticipate what it means for your children when they approach college age to have been trained and educated in the Chicago Public School System.

Suburbs are a better bang for your buck than virtually any city in America that approaches the size and speed of Chicago.

What characterizes good sound suburban living is the slower pace at which life unfolds. In fact some suburbs are not really suburbs, but rather plots of land outside the city limits with all its faults and woes. And you can tell them by their death rates and reports of theft and brutality. Look for the ones moving at a slower pace and with more a homogenous citizenry.

You need to have a place to live where your wealth does not attract thieves and cutthroats. You need to have a place where you can walk downtown to the Fourth of July parade and wave at your neighbors whom you know by name. You need a place where despite the fact that you have not bike lanes, you can still feel safe riding up and down the side streets to reach the Town Square for the weekly outdoor band concerts.

Speed Kills. Life is best lived at a Slow Pace.

Chicago Cycling is never going to improve just because you add more miles of bicycle lanes. The place is fairly dysfunctional. Even if you could take Protected Bike Lanes along every inch of the city, who would want to? What irony to paint a lane a pretty shade of green and place an elevated lip alongside it only to realize that you are being shot at by someone you don’t even know. How safe can Protected Bike Lanes be if pedicab drivers are using them in a contra-flow fashion when they are only wide enough for a single rider?

How very stupid it is to spend money on bike lanes and not a single dime on reducing the speed in the city overall? In addition to the speed cameras, you need a general reduction of the nominal rate of speed across the entire city. If you can do this and make it stick then you really won’t need to spend precious money on visually appealing lanes that have little bearing on your personal safety and are a bitch to physically maintain.

Your problems in Chicago are all about where you live not how many miles of bike lanes you have. Your problem is that everyone from the transportation cyclist to the cab driver to the soccer mom is rushing hither and yon. The frenetic pace of the city never ceases. New York prides itself in being a city that never sleeps. Who thought that tag line up in the first instance? Why would you need to have a 24/7/365 environment in which to raise a family? You don’t. And the sooner you lower your rate of travel the sooner you will have greater traffic safety. What you still will lack is the homogeneity of the citizenry that makes for harmony. The disparity between the haves and have-nots is far to great to make city living emotionally satisfying. Again, it is the children whom you are raising that will help determine whether you understand the nature of the problem or not. But rest assured you problems have very little to do with how many miles of bicycle infrastructure you create. Slow down the pace of life and you will find an immeasurable increase in the quality of life.