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Begging for scraps at motordom’s table

David Arditti of Vole O’Speed writes about 1934, the year “it all went wrong for cycling in the U.K.,” quoting Chris Peck of the Cyclists’ Touring Club: “‘We were still very much of the mind that we should try and recapture the roads from the motorists, so the construction of cycle tracks was seen as defeat.'” Perhaps if they had looked a bit west, across the pond, they might have seen the automobile experience in the U.S., where “[b]y 1930 most street users agreed that most streets were chiefly motor thoroughfares” (Fighting Traffic, Kindle loc 93 of 4958). In an ironic twist, the English viewpoint came full turn to a sleepy 1970s Palo Alto, where U.K.-born John Forrester successfully scuttled the city’s proposed separated bikeways as “at least 1,000 times” riskier than the streets, citing the CTC’s experiences. Perhaps if the city council had looked a bit east, across the pond, it might have seen that the British example didn’t work, and that by 1970 cycling usage had declined to about three percent from double-digit post-War highs.

If you’re of a mind to want bicycle paths and cycle tracks, you’ll likely lay much blame for their non-existence at the feet of these cycling pioneers. Their voices, the most powerful of their times, carried the day. It’s also a sobering thought to realize that they were our own, advocates for cycling, who believed the best path forward lay in achieving parity with other road users. They were fighting marginalization and segregation, terms that in most other contexts everyone fights, and they did too. Perhaps they saw the future all too clearly, the increasing and triumphal advance of “progress,” the historically inexorable march towards motorization, and the inevitable domination of the automobile. In this context, it was a positive result that cyclists still had access to the roads. The alternative might have been outright banning.

These men and their organizations “won” our access to the streets. But it was a proverbial pyrrhic victory. Yes, the vehicle code still allows us — and horses (?!) — on the streets, but one can’t help but agree with Arditti that a one-percent modal share proves a banning “more effective than could ever have been achieved by legislation.” In our fight for access, we have missed the bigger picture, that cycling is now damned dangerous and all but impossible except for the brave. In our fight against marginalization in terms of access, we have been marginalized in terms of use.

Last December, Milt Olin was killed by a sheriff driving his patrol car distractedly. Two weeks ago, the Los Angeles District Attorney released a detailed analysis of the incident and declined to press charges. Outraged, Los Angeles cyclists have asked the DA to reconsider by organizing a ride in Olin’s honor and holding a candlelight vigil. [The story continues to develop.] All of these actions are well-intentioned. But I wonder whether we are asking for the right stuff. Is a call for “justice” for the harm and injury that drivers inflict on us really going to make our streets safer? By calling for enforcement of laws, rather than installation of infrastructure, are we asking for the same meager and awful road access our forebears misguidedly demanded? Are we still begging for scraps at the table of motordom?

I think we should really focus whatever political capital we have in the direction that it will do the most good. We can argue the viability of the Olin case to no end. The DA reached one conclusion, you may reach another. It’s a judgment call. Meanwhile, the Olin family will have its day in civil court, perhaps winning millions from a defendant with deep pockets and accountability. That is justice too, and it’s more justice than most injured cyclists and pedestrians are ever able to achieve, in this day of rampant hit-and-run crashes and uninsured motorists.

Unfortunately, the Olin case is not unique. All road users are fallibly human, and this predictable, tragic story will be told again someday with a new cast of characters. We need to ask for stuff that “stops the murder,” to paraphrase the 1970s Dutch protests. Instead of justice, a form of which Olin’s family may get anyway in civil court, why can’t we instead ask for infrastructure? A long stretch of K-rail installed alongside the Mulholland Highway bicycle lane will do a better job of protecting future Milt Olins than all the “justice” we can get. Why not ask for cycle tracks? Why not ask for a meal instead of scraps?

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