‘Owning’ Our Faults & Inconsistencies

Background Reading


Nico Deportago-Cabrera and Christina Peck.

Nico Deportago-Cabrera and Christina Peck.

Why institutionalizing speeding is a bad idea

In the latest Chicago Tribune story on the city’s photo enforcement program, the reporter quotes national safety experts who seem more concerned with keeping cars moving as fast as possible than making our streets safer.

5674041488_ddcf5a1dfc_zThe Trib uses its handpicked experts to make the case that Chicago’s yellow light times are too short and we should lengthen the time to accommodate drivers who are already speeding – and even consider raising our speed limits.

“What I see here tells me that in many cases throughout the city the yellow lights are too short and the speed limits are too low,” safety consultant Hugh McGee says in the story. “That is a problem.”

Contrary to this traffic consultant’s view, the city’s goal should not be to lengthen yellow light times to accommodate drivers travelling at or above the speed limit. Rather, we should be doing more to ensure that drivers are travelling at the appropriate speed to stop or get through an intersection in a reasonable amount of time.

Speeding kills and seriously injures thousands of people walking, riding bikes and driving in Chicago every year. Last year, there were more than 77,000 traffic crashes in Chicago that caused nearly 21,000 significant injuries and killed 145 people.

In urban areas with high volumes of people like Chicago, we should be doing more to design our roadways and enforce existing laws to calm traffic to appropriate speeds, not doubling down and institutionalizing dangerous road behavior.

Heather Schady is the senior transportation planner at Active Trans.


One member of the Chicago ChainLink Forum asked a day or so ago why auto commercials are always so ‘focused on speed‘. I agree that it is annoying and probably can only be explained in crass terms. Advertisers are paid to make their product look ‘sexy‘. Evidently a fairly large segment of the population thinks speed is sexy.

And yes when you lengthen yellow lights you encourage people to speed up, unless you add countdown timers. Drivers who ‘amber gamble‘ are usually not already speeding. They speed in a effort to avoid doing what every bicyclist hates, wait for a red light.

And that is probably the most important point to be made here. We have to get beyond the urge to revive the ‘War on Cars‘ every time we want to say something significant in preparation for the inevitable donation request. It frankly gets tiresome. But even more to the point we need to be sensitive to the ‘need for speed‘ that we project every time we launch an AlleyCat Race Video.

The thing that is unfair about our attitude is that in true adversarial tradition we ignore our own failings in search of the failings of our foes. And that is a real problem. Automobiles and the automobile culture is not our enemy. Human nature is the problem.

Every recent video clip and article put out by Red Bull is centered on ‘how fast‘ we like to travel. One ChainLink Forum Participant recent wrote:


This speaks volumes about the nature of our mutual need to be concerned with our failings. If indeed the general consensus is that:

The point of riding a bike in the city is to get places faster than cars.’

then I need to reconsider my support for Urban Cycling. It makes the idea of getting healthy and relieving stress seem inconsequential and they should not be.

If both sides could realize that the problem lies within our selves and not just the other guy, we could perhaps come to a common agreement to change our behaviors. But that is not going to happen so long as our advocacy groups forget to report the problem with some semblance of balance. And of course the same is true of newspaper reporters who rant about cyclists.

This is a problem we all must deal with in our own camps and understand that the ultimate losers are the pedestrians. Witnesses to the deaths of pedestrians in Central Park remarked that the speed of the cyclists was the overarching problem. Cyclists like to ride fast. So do motorists. I suspect that it is exhilarating to some people and if they are heading home on a Friday with a few lunchtime beers under their belts a bit of amber gambling seems just fine.

But cyclists have in addition to the ‘amber gambling‘ a fairly solid tradition of ignore altogether stop signs and performing maneuvers at intersections where the traffic light is already red:

Urban Cyclist "Idaho Stop" Two-Step Variation

Urban Cyclist “Idaho Stop” Two-Step Variation

More often than not this translates into actually using the pedestrian crosswalk to venture across the intersection and even riding against traffic before executing a u-turn to finish the crossing!

We undertake this maneuver because we lack the horsepower to travel at the higher speeds of automobiles between intersections (assuming that the traffic is freely flowing). But suffice it to say that getting from one side of town to the other faster than an automobile is indeed speeding or in many instances involves completely ignoring the Rules of the Road.

But be assured that municipalities are going to be taking that sort of thing by cyclists seriously:

So rather than employing the ‘so’s your old man‘ strategy we learned in Junior High School why not act like the adults we really are a ‘own our failings‘.

Everybody in this culture seems to want to speed!

So since we have admitted to ourselves that this problem is nearly universal perhaps we can find a way to make the activity unglamorous. If we do not guess which groups suffer the most? Pedestrians and cyclists. So we have a very good reason to control our own behavior and to point out to others their shortcomings afterwards.