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|
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.
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, along with better city planning that frees women from driving their children school. 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. If U.S. women have less disposable time than Dutch women, Huff and Ralph have not done the hard work of showing it. The paper they cite examines American households, and has nothing to say about how Dutch households allocate their time. There’s no comparative data here, just assumptions and what-ifs. As long as we can invent results, I could say, for instance, that most Dutch fathers use their paternity leave for leisure purposes — say, to play more golf — leaving their partners to handle all household chores with no disposable time left for anything.
But even if we grant them their arguments, Huff and Ralph haven’t shown why giving women more disposable time leads to more cycling. The implicit assumption is head-scratching, that somehow women use their 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 to free up time. They also don’t address why U.S. women in child-free couples, and single women without children, are less likely to cycle. They discount surveys where women say straight out that they are afraid on the road — though one wonders why we should second-guess women who presumably say exactly what they mean. And they they don’t tackle the problem of countries with social policies similar to The Netherlands (Norway, Finland) that have low 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, normal way to get around.
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.
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?
My letter to Mark Lacter in response to his opinion piece on the Westwood Boulevard bike lanes:
Your most recent article has to be among the most poorly researched I’ve seen in some time. Please consider a followup:
1) “[The city is divided] this time between bikers in search of more space and motorists looking to hold onto what little space they have.”
I do hope this quote is hyperbole, as anyone with a measuring tape and calculator will soon discover that motorists are given over the majority of road space (and also public space) in Los Angeles. We have about 6,500 miles of streets, with 140 miles of bike lanes (according to LADot’s website), or about two percent of road mileage. Our traffic problem is not that motorist have too “little space.” The problem is much more complex, and its solutions involve unconventional thinking, including congestion charges, giving priority to usages (like cycling) that minimize street impact, improving public transportation, and other non-car or “less-car” ideas.
2) “Increased ridership has only made L.A. streets more dangerous.”
I’d be curious to see your data. The opposite is usually (always?) the case; that is, I’ve never seen statistics in which increased cycling led to more dangerous streets. Where there are lower speeds and fewer cars, there are fewer injuries and safer streets.
3) “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been nearly run down by a speeding biker.”
Do you have any data other than anecdote? I walk to work, too (Beverly Hills to Century City), and — anecdotally — it’s more common for me to be threatened by a “speeding driver” than a cyclist. Too, if you look at the cyclist-pedestrian injury statistics, deaths are rare, on the order of three or so per year nationwide. Driver-pedestrian and driver-cyclist injury statistics are horrible, dozens or hundreds of annual fatalities in Los Angeles alone.
4) “The city – quite rightfully – will get its ass sued.”
As it stands, the city rarely gets sued for driver-pedestrian crashes or driver-driver crashes, which are common. I’m not sure why it would be sued for injuries or death sustained in a cyclist-pedestrian crashes. Again, do you have data on this?
I’d be curious whether you’ve taken some non-trivial bike ride on L.A. streets in traffic in the last year or so. If not, you might consider enhancing your perspective. Even the “safest” bike lanes on the West side, the ride along Santa Monica Boulevard from Sepulveda to Century City, sometimes leave me shaken. It’s scary out there for cyclists, and we need to do more for them. To my knowledge, they are the only road users that decrease pollution and congestion and improve public health at one stroke.
This September has seen me cycling in France, in the Alps and Provence, climbing some of the storied Tour de France ascents. I tackled a series of passes and a couple of mountains, among others, and they’re all as hard as you might imagine, long and steep, and at racing speeds they are justifiably the makers of legends. I’m probably never going to get around to doing a proper write-up of my adventures, but I made a goofy video of me climbing the Alpe d’Huez, which you can watch here … or not.
What I found interesting, however, is how much consideration the French give to cyclists in these mountains. It’s nothing like the Netherlands, of course, where cyclists generally have separate infrastructure, but there seems to be a conscious effort at integrating cyclists onto the roads. Part of it comes from pure practicality: summer is the slow season in many of these areas, and cyclists bring money. But I also saw many signs that help drivers in their interactions with other road users. In particular, I thought these signs, which tell drivers quite clearly to pass at 1.5 meters, were helpful in a way that our banal and next-to-useless “share the road” signs are not.
So, in short, I say this: if California’s governor does, in fact, sign the three-foot passing bill into law, we should get rid of the “share the road” signs and replace them with something much more useful and instructive, something that tells drivers what to do, something like these French panneaux.
Yesterday, L.A. StreetsBlog ran a piece by Adrian Leung and Allison Mannos about the “missing story” of immigrant cycling in Los Angeles. If I understand the article accurately, it leveled three major criticisms at current cycling advocacy efforts:
► They have ignored the influence of recent “immigrants of color,” for whom riding is a “cultural norm of inexpensive transportation that provides means for survival.”
► They have discounted the “numerous lessons” found in South American and Asian regions, particularly with respect to infrastructure standards and best practices, for which they instead largely look to northern European countries.
► They have failed to focus on poor, non-white communities — who cycle in larger numbers — and instead made “misplaced” efforts to encourage “affluent” drivers “to commute by bicycle.”
Cycling among all income levels and skin colors is desirable, and input from the constituents of all cycling communities is valuable. However, it’s not clear to me that any of these criticisms make sense overall, either absolutely or as guidance to shaping future advocacy. (Actually, I couldn’t locate anything in the article that would show up a specific difference in the concerns between poor and rich cyclists. I’m hoping someone could point a few out.) As I see it now, poor and rich, immigrants and natives, and persons of all hues ride the streets arm-in-arm, and their viewpoints are all shaped by the same external factors — cars, street conditions, and laws.
For that matter, cycling has long been a great leveler. H.G. Wells said cycling had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world” in the nineteenth century. Its relatively low entry cost also helped break down class barriers, and gave access to first rate transportation options to people who couldn’t otherwise afford a horse. Similar undercurrents continue into modern times, with the poor and rich alike participating on equal terms. I’ve ridden in many weekend outings of local bicycle clubs in which the only distinction that mattered was performance.
In particular, I would make these observations:
■ Cycling may help the poor, but consciously associating cycling with poverty is a sure means of ruining it for other income levels. This is a lesson that any marketer – or Tom Sawyer – could give you. If you want to sell something, make it look fun and inviting, and get attractive and successful people to promote it. If you want to kill cycling, promote it as an activity that the poor are stuck doing because they can’t afford a car.
■ In my experience, infrastructural best practices have no cultural boundary, as they are rooted in basic aspects of human-ness: concerns for safety, reaction times, etc. I’ve been to some four dozen countries, each of which have similar (auto) road provisions, despite the color, culture, or creed of the populace. The non-European countries with cycling infrastructure (that I’ve seen) construct facilities remarkably similar to those I’ve seen in Europe.
Too, an increasing number of planners worldwide have looked to the policies of the Netherlands and Denmark for inspiration. These countries have a proven recipe for success. Even Guangzhou, a city with historically high cycling rates, has hired a Danish consultant to work on at least one bicycle project.
■ Cycling advocacy is targeted at the “affluent” (middle class?) precisely because they don’t ride. The poor do. If we want cycling among all income levels, we need to make sure that it’s socially acceptable at every social stratum. If we focus our efforts largely on the poor, we will lose them when they become the middle class. That’s not a recipe for long-term success.
In her March 11 opinion piece for CityWatchLA (h/t BikingInLA), CSUN economics professor Shirley V. Svorny says that bicycle lane supporters (like Stephen Box) need a “reality check” because these lanes will increase road congestion. She says that “road diets” and “traffic calming” are phrases people use when they really want “fewer cars on the road,” but that such solutions increase congestion by removing traffic lanes. She argues that a carbon tax would accomplish the goal better without increasing congestion.
I’m not sure how she arrives at her conclusions. She hedges them with mother-knows-best phrases like “it is unlikely”, “that just can’t be,” and “none of this can be safe.” She quotes no sources for her observations. She makes the assumption that reducing lanes means increased congestion elsewhere, as if traffic were like water pressure, rather than having its own unpredictable and counter-intuitive patterns. (I would strongly recommend Tom Vanderbilt‘s book “Traffic” to bring her up to speed.)
Did Svorny miss a few things?
Svorny may have never heard of the Braess Paradox, from a paper written in 1968 by the mathematician Dietrich Braess. Braess showed that adding a road to a transportation system may slow down traffic overall for everyone, and that conversely, removing a road can speed up traffic. The phrase “road diet” isn’t spin used by “car haters” to get cars off the road. Road diets, instead, are real and proven ways of maximizing traffic throughput.
Svorny may have never studied traffic death statistics. One wonders whether her off-hand statment that “speed limits on roads have already been set to trade off safety and movement” could survive even a cursory inspection. When nearly 100 people daily are killed on our roads, and when cars are now the leading cause of death among our young, it’s hard to imagine that we’ve really made any kind of safety considerations at all in speed limits. (This confession of a traffic engineer is a heartbreaking look at how traffic engineers prioritize autos over humans.) The phrase “traffic calming” is not spin created by propagandists in a “war on cars”; it is, instead, a real and effective way of reducing death on our streets. Frankly, her statement that slowing traffic “is unlikely … an improvement” makes no sense at all. Speed kills. Slowing traffic is the whole point.
Svorny may never have examined how roads are paid for in this country. If she had, one would think that she’d reconsider her statement that bicycle lanes are “a huge loss of a capital investment.” That fact is that roads themselves represent a huge loss, full stop. It doesn’t matter whether we use them for cars, bicycles, or tiddlywinks, our roads are money losers. Repurposing the roads for bicycles doesn’t change that equation. What it does, instead, is open up the roads for more users, and importantly, more efficient use.
Svorny does present the rather intriguing idea of creating a carbon tax to reduce road usage. I would be for such a provision, but I’m not sure at all how the City of Los Angeles would go about creating it. From what I know, carbon taxes are usually the province of the State and Federal governments. I’ve yet to hear of any city that levied a carbon tax; I’d be interested to find out more if so. It would be especially interesting to discover what transportation mechanisms these cities put in place for those persons priced out of driving. Did they, perhaps, install bicycle lanes?
Svorny also presents the issue of very few cyclists on our streets. That is, alas, completely true. Los Angeles has a low bicycle mode share. As she says, the “reality” is that we don’t all ride bicycles. So I would issue a friendly invitation: come join us, Shirley! Come ride a bicycle on the roads with us. Give it a few weeks. Perhaps you might make it into an investigation of unnecessary bicycle lanes. Ride all the lanes you can find. At the end of your experiment, let us know your findings. If you find lanes that need to be removed, let us know which ones. If you find that we need to add more lanes, and safer lanes, we’re all ears, too.