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One of These Things is Not Like The Other

In his book, Intelligence and How to Get It, Richard E. Nisbett asked Easterners and Westerners to group the words chicken, cow, and grass. The Americans tended to put chickens and cows together, “because they are both animals; that is, they belong to the same taxonomic category.” The Asians, by contrast, “focusing on relationships, were more likely to say that cow goes with grass because a cow eats grass.”

How would you group these three words: pedestrian, bicycle, and car?

It’s not just an academic exercise, because the way we categorize these three transportation modes determines in large part how we think about their place on our roads and in our law — and by extension, how we think about safety measures. If we say that the bicycle and car go together because they are both machines, then we might tend to ask cyclists to mix it up with cars, and talk about licensing, insurance, etc., in the same way we talk about cars. If, instead, we say the bicycle and the pedestrian go together because they are both human powered, then we might tend to think very differently about how we allow them to operate, including making safer environments and writing laws that address their particular needs.

In a compelling talk at the London School of Economics last month (h/t to Amsterdamize), Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, called the bicycle an “efficient way of walking.” He seems to think bicycles are more like pedestrians. Meanwhile, in New York City, the police have cracked down on red-light running cyclists, including those who make a right turn on red, illegal in Manhattan. Sticklers for the law might protest, but it does seem somewhat stupid that NYC allows walking a bicycle around a corner on red but not pedaling it.

What do you think? Are bicycles more like cars or more like pedestrians?

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Categories: Law, Policy
  1. February 3, 2011 at 7:34 PM

    You should have a section on the site, or tag of book recommendations so I can keep up with all the interesting stuff you’re reading! Combine walking and bicycling. That’s why I started riding on the sidewalk when I started cycling in LA. I had previously known Malmo bicycle infrastructure– separate bike lanes and bike signals. Never did I think a bicycle should mix with cars, especially when speeds are 30mph+ so I thought it made the most sense to sidewalk ride.

    • February 3, 2011 at 7:46 PM

      I think you’re right, but I keep going back and forth. Bicycles can go pretty fast, but they’re certainly not cars. I think the tri-mode infrastructure works smartest, but if we only had money to do bi-mode, I’d go with putting bikes with the pedestrians.

      • February 7, 2011 at 8:17 PM

        Like you say, if we have to do bi-mode bikes and peds together is the way to go. I think people oppose this combination mostly because of anecdotal experience with junctions that are designed so poorly for anyone not in a car that bicyclists will say say they’d rather mix with cars. Too often have I experienced the pedestrian crossing be skipped completely or left turning cars have priority over pedestrians crossing or cars pull into the pedestrian crossing before making a move, never yielding to any present pedestrians. But of course you know that kind of stuff..

        What I mean is to say that all these experiences we have as pedestrians or sidewalk riding we feel that safety and speed/efficiency are compromised by being ‘forced’ to mix with pedestrians at times when in fact most of the problems we have are just poor design for anything ‘not car’. No doubt bikes can go fast but still, I’d rather mix with 3mph peds than 40mph cars or even anything above 20mph, but that’s just me…

  2. Tommi
    February 4, 2011 at 3:07 AM

    Bicycles and pedestrians, no doubt about it. Just considering a collision between car and bicycle is far more likely to cause more serious injury than a collision between bicycle and pedestrian I just fail to understand how anyone can claim with straight face that riding on a road is more safe. In UK the excuse seems to be segregated cycling puts cyclists in more danger, but to me that sounds it’s the bad design of the segregated infrastructure that’s causing the problem – the same way bad road design makes driving cars less safe. Just see Amsterdam for excellent infrastructure, or even Finland and other Nordic countries for pretty decent ones.

    Of course there are those who’d prefer cycling with the cars because it would be faster and whatnot, but aren’t those the confident cyclists who cycle *despite* the infrastructure anyway?

  3. peteathome
    February 8, 2011 at 12:12 PM

    Bikes and cars behave more similarly, in their handling, than bikes and pedestrians. A bike cannot instantly stop or turn around like a pedestrians, for instance.

    The reason people say, with a straight face, that riding on the road is safe(r) is because by all measurements riding on the sidewalk, or a “sidepath” facility, is much more dangerous. All statistics show that it is the intersections that are most risky. Riding on the sidewalk or a side path you have to worry not only about cars already on the street you are about to cross but also cars that are turning onto that street from the street that parallels the sidewalk or path. Those cars can’t see you until they turn, increasing your risk dramatically.

    The infrastructures you talk about are intrinsically less safe that riding in the road where car drivers can see you near intersections. The reason the Dutch have lower fatality rates is due to the large numbers of bicyclists, which keep drivers on their toes, and the slower traffic speeds.

    You could achieve most of the same effect in this country by reducing the surface road speeds to about 20 mph and severely enforcing them,.

    • February 9, 2011 at 7:43 AM

      What rubbish. I’ve lived and cycled in the Netherlands for 20 years ago and in my limited experience the segregation of bikes and cars usually represents a huge bonus in terms of safety. In urban environments particularly, intersections are not a problem; many of them have traffic lights – for the cyclists as well as the cars – and most cycle paths are coloured red, even where they cross the roads, so there’s no doubt in car drivers’ minds about where the cyclists are going to be. Yes, drivers are naturally more used to cyclists than they are in your neck of the woods – but anyone who says Dutch drivers are slower than their US conterparts doesn’t know the Netherlands or the Dutch very well! It’s quite simply the cycling infrastructure that makes the difference; it’s well developed, well thought out and well understood.

    • Tommi
      February 12, 2011 at 11:13 AM

      There’s lies, damned lies, and statistics.. Speaking of which I just finished crunching some numbers.

      Statistics for UK 2009 show 21 cyclists were killed and 3423 injured per billion kilometers. (http://www.dft.gov.uk/pgr/statistics/datatablespublications/modal/passenger/tsgb0107.xls)

      For Finland 2009 I calculate (see below) 15 killed and 654 injured per billion kilometers.

      http://www.liikenneturva.fi/www/fi/tilastot/liitetiedostot/Tieliikenneonnettomuudet_2009_netti.pdf only lists number of incidents (20 killed, 894 injured) so I had to calculate number of kilometers travelled. Statistics from 2005 (http://www.hlt.fi/HTL04_loppuraportti.pdf) show average distance cycled per person per day is 0.81km. For 2009 I rounded it down to 0.7km/person/day – a figure I saw in some study I lost – as it makes for more pessimistic result. Together with population of 5.3 million we get the result.

      That said, intersections are most risky. I just don’t see it having that much to do with segregation per se.

  4. peteathome
    February 9, 2011 at 1:28 PM

    The Dutch are probably unique in putting bike-only signal phases at intersections. That should greatly reduce or eliminate the problem. We were talking about everywhere else where this is not the practice.

    And even in the Netherlands they only do this on major intersections or where there is already a light. So the risk is still there at the other intersections.

    Speed limits are lower in the Netherlands than the USA, at least according to official documents.Maybe the Dutch speed much more than in the USA. I didn’t notice that when I’ve been there.

    Meanwhile, your statements are based on opinions, mine on objective studies. I can’t really say about the Netherlands, they may have a system that works, but every scientific study I have read on this issue has found the same thing: facilities are less safe than no facilities. Every single one. Even in Copenhagen – they recently released a study comparing the accident rates in the city before and after bicycle facilities went in on a street. In every case, the accident went up, sometimes very significantly, with the facilities.

    • February 9, 2011 at 2:18 PM

      Bike-only signal phases are found in Copenhagen, San Francisco, Portland, New York, and others. The Netherlands only has the most complete build-out of any country I’ve visited.

      Urban speed limits may be somewhat lower in the Netherlands, but not markedly so. Many residential streets in the U.S., including those of Los Angeles, have a limit of 25 mph, unless otherwise marked. To my knowledge, Dutch limits rarely go lower than 30 kph, or roughly 18 mph.

      I’ve seen a sampling of the studies you mention, including this one. Yes, they sometimes show that cycling on the “sidewalk” is more dangerous than on the street, but the conclusions generally apply only to intersections. Moreover, they do not all come to this conclusion. I’ve yet to see a study showing that riding, say, on the Los Angeles beach bike path is more dangerous than riding along Wilshire Boulevard.

      Statistics aside, the success of cycling in the Netherlands should be enough to convince anyone that separated is better. The Dutch have many cyclists on the streets; most cities in Anglophone countries have few.

  5. peteathome
    February 9, 2011 at 3:20 PM

    I should have said the Dutch are unique in routinely using bike-only phases. The others are experiments. I have long argued that the only way to make side paths safe is to use bike-only phases at nearly ALL intersections.I doubt even the Dutch do that.

    On a beach path without any intersections ( since it is past all streets and there are no cross streets due to the ocean being in the way), yes, the path is safer, at least in terms of major injury and death caused by collisions with cars. I find there are a lot more injuries, minor to moderate on, say, the LA beach path than the roads due to bicyclists and others not following any rules of the road.

    If you can eliminate nearly all of the intersections, yes, a path or road is safer. You can only do that, normally, when there is a barrier preventing cross streets. Otherwise, you must cross lots of intersections.
    Advocates have considered bicycle over- and under-passes to avoid intersections, but this quickly becomes infeasible in an urban environment.

    The Montreal study was criticized by the AAHSTO as having several methodology problems. I looked at it and the problems are not obvious to me. My biggest question would be whether the comparable streets are really comparable. That’s why I like the Copenhagen study so much : before and after on the same street with no change except the facility.

    Because people THINK a facility is safer and use it doesn’t mean it IS safer. People often have a very distorted view of risk.People think bicycling is risky when it is much more risky to sit around inactive. In bicycling, many people are most afraid of cars approaching from behind when what they really need to be worried about are cars turning in front of them. Most facilities are to reduce people’s fears and to get them out of the way of automobiles so they don’t slow the cars down, not to actually make them safer. If people’s fears matched the reality, or facilities were designed to match reality, bicycle facility design would be very different.

  1. February 7, 2011 at 11:07 AM

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