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Who’s Dying on California’s Roads?

From 2001 until 2012, the years for which we have full SWITRS data, deaths on California’s roadways have gone from 3,926 to 2,995, a decline of about twenty-four percent. This is the good news. In 2013, a year for which full data isn’t yet delivered, deaths are already running higher than the previous year, at 3,102. The last four years have actually brought much of the same, with gradual year-over-year increases. Before that, deaths had been falling sharply, from 2007 to 2010, perhaps because high fuel prices and the “Great Recession” kept drivers off the roads.

These overall road safety gains have mostly accrued to drivers of motor vehicles, and specifically to drivers of cars and pickups. Vulnerable road users have seen few safety gains at all. Deaths among motorcyclists have risen an astonishing fifty-two percent (295 to 449), and cycling deaths by twenty-six percent (116 to 147). Pedestrian deaths look flat, down by nearly three percent (721 to 701) for the same period, but 2013 is going to be bad for them, according to the preliminary numbers I’ve seen, with 752 total deaths already reported, erasing all gains.

The stats above suffer from one big problem: they don’t have a base rate, they don’t show us per-capita changes. If motorcycle riding increased by fifty-two percent over the years from 2001 to 2012, then the increase in deaths might explainable. I haven’t spent time (on this lazy Sunday) locating base rates, if it’s even possible. But there is one easy way to use this raw data as is to show how savagely vulnerable users have suffered. We can look at the proportion of deaths each category of road user represents, per year, and look at the changes year-over-year.

Here are the proportion of deaths for all major road user categories for the years 2001-2012:

Year Car & Pickup Occupants Motorcyclists Cyclists Pedestrians Others
2001 68.9% 7.5% 3.0% 18.4% 2.2%
2002 68.5% 7.8% 2.1% 10.5% 11.1%
2003 67.7% 8.7% 2.6% 15.0% 6.1%
2004 61.4% 8.5% 3.0% 16.5% 10.6%
2005 61.1% 9.4% 3.0% 17.1% 9.4%
2006 59.3% 10.3% 3.7% 17.3% 9.4%
2007 60.5% 11.7% 3.1% 16.7% 7.9%
2008 56.7% 15.6% 3.7% 18.4% 5.7%
2009 60.5% 12.4% 3.4% 19.3% 4.4%
2010 58.3% 12.7% 4.0% 22.7% 2.2%
2011 55.0% 14.7% 4.9% 23.1% 2.3%
2012 54.9% 15.0% 4.9% 23.4% 1.8%

The motorcyclist death-rate proportion increase is horrible, one-hundred percent (7.5 to 15), but every other vulnerable road user has also seen huge changes. Cyclists proportion of deaths has increased by sixty-three percent, and the proportion of pedestrians dying has increased by twenty-seven percent. Motorists, by contrast, are the sole road users showing a decrease, about twenty percent overall.

I haven’t done the hard work necessary to explain these numbers, but I’d guess car manufacturers are responsible for most of it. That is, fewer people are dying in cars because cars have gotten safer, while vulnerable users have seen no safety improvements. These users need changes in infrastructure and the laws for their safety, and we — our society and government — have done little with our roads or legislation. We haven’t lowered speed limits, improved pavements, bettered sidewalks or bicycle paths or crosswalks, tightened drunk driving standards, or enforced mobile phone restrictions. We’ve done hardly anything. The stats show up the problems: road users who have no access to better automobile technology are dying in ever greater proportions.

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Categories: Planning, Policy, Safety

Do Dutch women have more time to cycle?

October 12, 2014 Leave a comment

In a puzzling October 3 opinion article published in The Guardian, Herbie Huff and Kelcie Ralph argue that Dutch women cycle more because they have more time than U.S. women. The authors say this extra time comes from different Dutch cultural norms and social policies — like generous paternity leave — along with better city planning that makes distances between errands shorter. They conclude that improved cycling and pedestrian mobility in U.S. cities will require deep changes to social policies, ideas with “far-reaching implications and [that] require serious value shifts.”

These are thin arguments with shaky foundations. The paper they cite looks at time use in American households only. They present no equivalent study showing how Dutch households allocate time, and no studies on whether different social policies actually give women more time to cycle. Without such studies, one could invent results out of thin air. Without research to tell us, for example, how Dutch fathers spend their paternity leave, why can we assume they actually use it to help out at home? Maybe, instead, they spend more time on non-family leisure pursuits — like playing more golf. Maybe paternity leave actually changes mothers’ lives hardly at all.

But even if we grant them their assumptions, Huff and Ralph haven’t shown why giving women more disposable time means more cycling. The implicit assumption is head-scratching, that somehow women use extra time riding bicycles instead of doing something else. How can we assume this about any person or culture? Would the opposite hold — would Dutch women ride less if they had less disposable time? Would time-rich U.S. women suddenly opt to cycle? How do we know that cycling is the go-to activity once women gain more time?

Huff and Ralph don’t tackle counterexamples like New York City, where more than half of households don’t own cars and yet somehow find the time to chauffeur their children around town, all without Dutch social policies. They also don’t address why U.S. women in child-free couples, and single women without children — both classes of women presumably with more free time than their child-rearing compatriots — are less likely to cycle than their Dutch counterparts. They discount surveys where women say straight out that they are afraid on the road, effectively belittling women and their opinions. They also don’t tackle the problem of countries with social policies similar to The Netherlands (Norway, Finland) that have low-ish cycling rates.

One of the subtle and insidious assumptions underlying this article is that cycling is primarily a hobby or non-essential activity. In the cited study, cycling comes in for a mild whipping with the unsubstantiated claim that errands are “easiest to do in a private vehicle, and hard to do on a bicycle or public transit.” That is, only those people with extra time on their hands undertake cycling, perhaps because it’s slow. This assumption came under some small scrutiny in a quick Twitter exchange I had with @JennyGoBike, a car-free mother-of-three in Seattle: “Don’t assume cycling harder til you’ve wrangled 3 tots into minivan. Challenges to both.”

The Dutch — in my experience more practical and as time-conscious as any American — have created the infrastructure that turns that assumption on its head. The Dutch don’t cycle because they have extra time; they cycle because they have no time to spare. They cycle because cycling is the fastest way to get around.

The way I see it, Huff and Ralph have worked a little too hard to find a link between Dutch social policies and cycling. It may be the case that such policies are superior to American ones in every possible way, but the essential lesson of Dutch cycling does not come from them. It comes, instead, from the city planning and infrastructure build-out that has elevated cycling to a first-class, time-saving, and normal way to get around.

Categories: Dutch cycling, Planning, Policy

A certain specious folly

July 17, 2013 1 comment

I’m not exactly sure where we are on the “Ghandi-meter” of change, but Syd Mead’s column on the “specious folly” of bicycle-as-transportation seems to be somewhere between the time when “they laugh at you” and when “they fight you.” The direct comments on the piece address most or all of the practical points he missed, which might be more simply stated that we cyclists have already solved his concerns. Can’t carry a watermelon? Done that. Can’t travel ten miles? Do that all the time. Bike lanes create traffic congestion? Traffic was congested before and getting worse. And so on.

It almost seems too convenient to point out that Mead, a so-called futurist, can’t conceive of a practical future for bicycles in an urban environment. This is even a little ironic. If one looks at the drawings he did in 1988 of Los Angeles in 2013, it’s pretty clear that his idea of the future was a bit different than what we’ve got. His streetscapes include “Metro Rail tubes,” but few sidewalks; futuristic cars, but hardly any traffic; hundreds of buildings, but not a single person in sight. One wonders whether somehow his future is so bleak that people don’t exist anymore, or don’t want to be outside anymore, or won’t enjoy the pleasure of a bike ride.

The column’s biggest flaw? Mead doesn’t provide alternatives. Bicycles go far towards a real solution to at least three problems we face in urban environments: traffic, pollution, and public health. It’s one thing to point out that most people won’t travel twenty miles on a bicycle, it’s another to propose an actual solution to congestion. If he hasn’t noticed, car trips on L.A.’s surface streets now travel at a bicycle pace, rarely exceeding an average of twenty miles-per-hour during business hours. Cars are polluting our environment, and it seems doubtful that his 1970s-era monster “land yacht” would help much. Americans are as fat as they’ve ever been, but somehow it doesn’t seem that anyone would lose weight riding around in one of his “Tron” Light cycles. It’s one thing to snipe at bicycles and their alleged limitations, it’s another to find better ways to replace them.

Maybe he should consider a vacation in the Netherlands. I hear they’re doing some amazing things with bicycles. Stuff that we might be trying to implement here.

Categories: Los Angeles, Planning

Trip planning

October 17, 2010 2 comments

The blue line on the map here shows, more or less, the route I rode from Copenhagen to Amsterdam. It also describes, more or less, the total amount of route planning I put into this ride.

The knowledge that you can ride safely wherever you want, without having to do careful planning, is one of the luxuries of cycling in countries with extensive bicycle infrastructure. This realization didn’t really occur to me until I was about halfway through this tour, when I found myself finally relaxing about the road and concentrating more on the scenery. Imagine planning a ride from, say, Los Angeles to San Francisco: you’ll spend a good percentage of your time selecting bicycle-friendly roads, talking with others who have done the route, and worrying about whether you’ll have fewer big-rigs on this route versus another. And then, even after all your efforts, you’ll always have to think about traffic. It just wasn’t the case on my ride: I hardly thought about cars and trucks at all. To be sure, there were a few times when I found myself on “off-off” roads, where there were no separate facilities, and I did have to interact with other traffic, but I estimate that these instances formed only about ten-percent of my total riding.

Here are a couple of typical paths in Germany:

 

These paths are not located on special roads designed for bicycle traffic. They run alongside normal roads, like the vast majority of the roads I saw, and were almost everywhere, even out in the middle of the countryside, like these lanes. They seemed to be just part of the infrastructure mindset; in other words, if you build a road, you automatically make provisions for pedestrians and cyclists, even if that road happens to be so far away from anything that it will likely see few of either.

I don’t know how to relate this sort of infrastructure to California. The sort of thinking that goes into creating separated paths of this quality requires a sea change in politics, road building codes, and public acceptance. One might argue that in big cities there’s no room for such paths, but even in the California countryside, where I grew up, I don’t recall any instances of infrastructure like this (and I did a lot of cycling in my teens). Of course, cities have different requirements for paths, and I’ll be getting to examples of those later. In the meantime, it’s still a wonder to me how simple it was to plan a bicycle trip through northern Europe — just pick a route, any route, and go.

Categories: Planning, Travel