Cars vs Cyclists
This post is prompted by two articles on the vexed issue of cars and cyclists trying to co-exist on the same roadway.
The first is in citycaucus.com and makes the point – unhelpfully – by stating the obvious “When cars and cyclists clash, cars always win”. The car is bigger, heavier and its driver is much better protected than the cyclist. So in a collision the cyclist gets hurt worse. That doesn’t mean the car “wins” – nor does might make right. While there are some drivers who hate cyclists and think they should not be on the road, there are even more drivers who care about other people, and cyclists themselves – who would rather have a safer place to be than most of our roads as presently designed and used.
Some of the citycaucus piece describes first hand experience – in Toronto but that hardly matters since most places in North America are the same in this respect – but also refers to the Michael Bryant incident. And concludes
If any good is to come from the death of Darcy Allan Sheppard it’s that Toronto will get serious about cycling safety.
I think that is unlikely. That is because Bryant is now asserting his innocence, and as CBC tv last night pointed out, it is all about how the PR people handle the incident – not the incident itself. For if the cyclist can be seen as an aggressive attacker and Bryant merely trying to defend himself, then the incident takes on a whole different meaning. As that comment I linked to above by Kelly McParland says, bike lanes had nothing to do with it.
Which brings me to the second article from Seattle which reiterates a point I have made more than once here. Sharrows are a sham solution for bike lanes. They do not actually mean anything or change anything.
Perhaps the ultimate word on sharrows comes from the City of Seattle’s own website, which today answers the question “What do sharrows mean for motorists and bicyclists?” with this damning bit of faint praise: “Motorists: Follow the rules of the road as if there were no sharrows… Bicyclists: Follow the rules of the road as if there were no sharrows.”
Exactly the point — so why waste the paint?
The reason the paint is there is because it is cheap and easy to do – and gives the appearance of doing something. It enables the city to claim that it has increased cycling facilities when it reality it has done nothing of the sort. In fact it is like most paint on the roads – and the signs and other clutter that engineers have been adding steadily over the years. They are almost completely ineffective in achieving their stated objectives as, over time, everyone simply becomes less aware of them. Even the one line that people do pay attention to – the one that shows the middle of the road and what side you are supposed to be on – gets ignored as soon as there is an obstruction that people want to get around. Indeed that is where the whole idea of “naked streets” comes from.
If we are going to continue to allow cars to dominate our lives – and our urban spaces – then separate bike routes are really an essential component simply because of the reality that road space that is not shared is not safe for cyclists – or pedestrians for that matter. But that also accepts the notion that cars now have the greatest share of the trips and therefore must be given the greatest share of the space. It is this shift from the descriptive to the normative that is the error. The situation that we now find ourselves is not only not one that should be continued it is also one that is not desirable either. It suited car makers – and other corporate concerns that make money out of car use – to convince us that having and using cars would make us happy, that it would produce a growing economy and improve general well being. But any objective assessment of what near universal car ownership has brought us throws a much different light on what still appears to be conventional wisdom. Even if we only look at the casualty rates of collisions and ignore all the other social and environmental impacts.
Yes I want to see much safer streets for all users. But I also want to see the spaces in between the buildings used effectively for a much wider range of activities – and not just for moving some people through as quickly as possible. We have accepted the argument that speed is good – and thus higher speeds better – uncritically for far too long. Since cars are not going to vanish overnight, and there will be many people striving to come up with better cars that are safer and have lower environmental impacts, we need to come up with strategies that civilize car drivers – that is make them more aware of their impacts on the rest of us. And that does not mean painted symbols on roads, or bigger stop signs. It means drivers having to accept that in a crowded place they need to give way every so often to other road users.
For far too long we have tried to keep the roads free for fast moving traffic. That has not worked, and now we need to do something different. There is no one size fits all solution and we should be very wary of anyone who proposes seemingly simple solutions to complex problems. Just like building freeways does not solve traffic congestion, building bikeways does not eliminate all conflicts between vulnerable and protected road users. We need a better understanding of how people interact – and the shared street experiments provide a lot of useful data – but also a more determined approach that sees streets as part of a complex urban ecology. Better design will be part of it, but so will better behaviour. And we will also need to wary of adapting the physical structure of places to take account of the exceptional circumstances when one or two individuals behave very badly indeed.