Gravel Freeways?

Background Reading


A freeway outside Delft, Netherlands. (Photo: Edwin van Buuringen)

A freeway outside Delft, Netherlands.
(Photo: Edwin van Buuringen)

The most important concept in American streets advocacy right now seems to suggest that all rapid car travel should be abolished.


The article above goes on to say:

That’s the perspective of BikePortland reader Tait, who argued semi-satirically this week that if preventing one person’s death is truly more important than fulfilling everyone else’s desires, maybe we should cut freeway speeds to 35 mph, or even lower.

In a comment beneath our post Tuesday about some Oregon legislators’ effort to raise cars’ freeway speed limit from 65 to 75 mph, Tait had this to say:

Commuters aren’t the only road users. For a 600mi drive down to California or 400mi drive to Ontario, an extra 10mph cuts an hour or more off the driving time, which is significant. (And would be also, to commercial freight and shipping, if it applied to them.)

There is a tradeoff, so just saying “always choose the lower speed” isn’t a feasible answer. Why not make the interstate limit 45? 35? At 35 mph, most car accidents at least are nonlethal, and survivability for non-car crashes is significantly better than even 45, much less anything higher. At 25, we’d even have survivability for a significant fraction of car-to-non-car accidents. I mean, when lives are at stake, what right has anyone to complain about their Tualatin to downtown Portland commute taking 1.5hrs? I’m exaggerating for effect, but as a serious question, what rate of fatality is acceptable?

I think the focus on fatality is actually slightly misplaced. It’s a secondary factor, but the primary concern should be accident rate, not accident lethality. And the effect on accident rates of a 65 to 75mph limit change is fairly small. If we could get the accident rate down, then the increased lethality might be more than offset, resulting in overall fewer lives lost.

Tait isn’t questioning the urgency of reducing traffic fatalities. But this week’s still-rolling discussion of freeway speed limits tests the outer edges of the policy campaign that Oregon Walks and the Bicycle Transportation Alliance launched on Monday.

Vision Zero’s believers, like New York City’s Paul Steely White, say Vision Zero works as a political campaign because it’s easy to understand. But I’ve never yet had a conversation with someone outside the streets advocacy world who finds the concept easy to accept. Is that because they haven’t awakened to its merits? Or is it because, deep down, they don’t actually share the values it’s built on?

Every Generation Has Its Cause

When Dr. King was marching on Selma it was the dream of a great many Americans that full participation in the civic life of the country would one day be possible. That was nearly 50 years ago and the dream is largely deferred.

The Conservation Movement has lurched along in fits and starts and is still largely deferred. It’s replacement cause Climate Change is likely to share the same fate.

And now we have the idea of ‘Vision Zero‘ which is a lofty idea (stolen from the Europeans) to fix the problem of deaths on the roadways of the country. And it too may result in lots of struggle with very little in the way of concrete results. Time will tell.

Movements Lose Steam Over Time

I have noticed of late that the thrust of the Urban Cycling Movement is producing a shallower arc coming out of the next generation of high schoolers. In fact the notion of gravel riding is transmuting over into the Rusted Muscle Car trend.

The GIs that returned from war in my father’s generation loved hot rods. They took ownership of rusting cars from the previous quarter century and transformed them into beautiful pieces of rolling sculpture. Most males today have absolutely no idea of how to ‘fix a car‘. Shade tree mechanics are a dying breed, if not gone altogether.

Electronics and other digital technologies took the ‘fun‘ out of working on a car.  But the idea of restoring a discarded heap of a car is coming back with a vengeance. And into the mix the kids that are barely old enough to drive who have ‘mad computer skills‘ are taking jobs with places that are determined to transform our four-wheeled death traps into collision-avoidance works of art. And I applaud them for it.

Luddites Need Not Apply

Whether or not we attain the ‘Vision Zero‘ goals will largely depend on going to the heart of the problem. Speed kills! It is a universal problem that makes every pedestrian, cyclist and motorist (and his passengers) likely victims on the roadways.

You really cannot design roadways that avoid issues as nicely as has been the case on highways. The distances that we have on city streets are much shorter. So the time one has to take evasive action to avoid a collision is also shorter. In fact so short that it takes a computer to master the skills necessary to apply brakes after having scanned the horizon for moving targets.

Whether or not you like the idea of a helmet that announces your presence or an automobile that is capable of issuing braking commands despite the distracted behavior of the driver is immaterial. Whatever ends up working will be adopted if the costs of manufacture and the reliability of the operation are promising.

It will not be the Luddites whose only solution for the future is the removal of whatever they fear who gain the ascendancy. Cars are far too valuable a commodity to erase from the roadways. Believe it or not this same sort of thinking was being applied by people in Europe during the Second World War as a solution for social problems that dictators felt were insoluble. Only then it was the removal of human beings who possessed genetic characteristics deemed unworkable given the desires of the ruling class.

That same tendency is alive and well today in the Urban Cycling Movement. But we need not bow to bigotry and hatred of others to resolve the problems. We simply need to do what we have always done in the past. Find new ways to solve old problems that keep us from hurting one another.

The Future Looks Bright

Autonomous cars hold out the greatest hope for the attainment of the goals of ‘Vision Zero‘. Who knows, it might be some transgender person who cannot be allowed into a store in Indiana because of their lifestyle who will provide a chance for our children’s children to walk the streets of Indianapolis without fear of being run over by a bicyclist intent on beating his personal Strava times.

One day it might be the case that impaired driving of automobiles is simply disallowed by the technology that controls the vehicle. Or better yet the autonomous nature of the vehicle makes the status of the occupants unimportant. The designer of that new system may never consider riding a bicycle. I don’t mind.

What is important is that we are able to move beyond an artificial reliance on choosing whom we care about based on their chosen modes of transportation. The Nazis Experiment should have informed our collective sensibilities of the dangers of hating others. But that lesson is deeply embedded in our psyches. We seek out others of like mind and form a Movement to reinforce our bigotries.

Those days must end as soon as possible. No Luddites need apply.