When Cycling is a Crime

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Cyclist in a painted roadside lane in Campbell, California (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Cyclist in a painted roadside lane in Campbell, California (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Riding a bicycle on the side of a busy street with traffic buzzing past at 35-50 miles-per-hour; it is one of the most uncomfortable, undesirable ways to get around town for the average person, yet many cities encourage it. Not only that, they are also proud of their accomplishments in painting white lines on the sides of main roads.

Even leading bicycle-friendly cities in the U.S. such as Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco exhibit the same bicycle infrastructure  inadequacies. Yet many planners and riders alike in the U.S. are under the impression that a bike-friendly city plan begins and ends with lines painted on the side of a busy road, riverside paths used for recreation (but not as commute routes), and fragments of good separate right-of-ways that do not create useful routes.

In fact, none of these elements make for a bike-friendly city; they only maintain a car-centric city in which bicycles are both a marginalized and dangerous form of transportation, along with a nuisance to drivers.

Cyclists who care about their safety, as well as motorists who are weary of driving next to bicycles should put their cities on notice: Cycling is not share the road signs, it is not a brand new riverside bike path, and it is certainly not lines painted on a road built for cars.

Cycling is a complete infrastructure, it is a dedicated system, and it is a culture; and it is something that most U.S. cities sadly do not have.

Dr. Bernhard Ensink, Secretary General of the European Cyclists’ Federation — a man who you might hear a lot about around these parts — reminds us about the dangers associated with high-speed traffic and on-road bicycle lanes. Dr. Ensink states that in a car/bicycle collision at 20 mph the cyclist has a 5% chance of death; raise that vehicle speed, and the chances of death rise sharply from there, with an 80% chance of death by the time you reach 35 mph.

Safety in Helmets?

Many think it’s not infrastructure, but helmets that are the answer, yet while the U.S. already has one of the highest percentage of riders wearing helmets (an estimated 1 in 2), it also has one of the highest cyclist fatality rates (110 deaths per billion km traveled.)

The Netherlands, by comparison, sees only a small number wearing helmets (1 in 1,000 riders), yet it has one of the lowest percentages of bicycle-related fatalities (17 deaths per billion km traveled.)

The reality is that, helmet or not, nearly all of the people who die in bicycle accidents are being killed by motor vehicles. Bicycles have no business being next to motor vehicles and vehicles have no business traveling next to bicycles.

Despite the logic, statistics, and common sense which would tell us otherwise, we seem to think our system is quite reasonable. Someone from Amstersam, however, might tell us:

“A 3,000-kilo SUV traveling 55kph beside a 10-kilo bicycle traveling 15kph? Are you Americans fu***ng nuts?” — Jaques Brissot, a Frenchman living in Amsterdam.

Okay, well if it’s not helmets, what do the Dutch have that we don’t?

Digging Deep Roots

Bicycles in Amsterdam, Netherlands (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Bicycles in Amsterdam, Netherlands (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

For starters, the Dutch have a proper infrastructure, a safe and dedicated system, and a deep-rooted culture of cycling.

Deep roots must start somewhere, and for the U.S. to grow them, we must realize that, if the majority of bicycle lanes are placed alongside fast moving traffic, people will ride their bicycles less, and fatal accidents will happen far more often. This is especially true if said lanes are not separated from traffic, not respected by traffic, and not given their own infrastructure including the bicycle traffic signals common in much of Europe and Asia.

This is not an issue we can squarely blame on any one entity, both the government and people alike have made the current system acceptable; the government by their actions, and the people by their collective inaction. A few mid-sized cities in the U.S. have become unsung heroes, Boulder, Colorado being one of the notables in the fact that they have a large network of bicycle-only roads, underpasses for safe cycle and pedestrian passage, and they spent 49% of their transportation budget on bicycle, pedestrian, transit and transportation demand management projects during 2007-08.

Boulder successfully changed their way of thinking about the bicycle, and was able to make it a viable transit option.

If we want to make a positive change on a large scale, more citizens and municipalities must begin to look at bicycling in a completely different way, as a healthy form of transportation, a serious form of transportation, and quite frankly, as a big part of the future of local transportation.

Bicycle Boulevard Concept for the Alameda, San Jose, USA (design: Patrick Lydon, illustration: Chiaki Koyama | sociecity)

Bicycle Boulevard Concept for the Alameda, San Jose, USA (design: Patrick Lydon, illustration: Chiaki Koyama | sociecity)

As citizens, we must demand from our cities, that if a person chooses to keep themselves and the planet healthy by riding a bicycle, they should no longer be punished for their efforts in this cruel way, essentially gambling their lives each time they ride. Proper bicycle infrastructure is a necessity for the health and safety of citizens, there is no other way to say it, and there should be no excuses to squirm out of that fact.

We are moving forward into a new found “green” age, and if our world civic and business leaders would like to come along for the ride and support green transportation, they must also make the pledge to do it smartly by placing cycling as a priority, not an afterthought.

Editor’s Note: When this article was published on Nov 29, 2011, it incorrectly noted that Boulder spent 49% of their transportation budget on bicycle infrastructure. This number also includes pedestrian, transit and transportation demand management projects.