Urban cycling advocacy is about to lose one of its biggest arguments for increased riding. For years, advocacy has relied on the idea that cycling mitigates three problems: pollution, public health, and traffic. But the handwriting is on the wall for the pollution argument, in my estimation the most compelling of the three, the one that often makes politicians sit up and notice. Consider these trends:
- 2017 may be the tipping point for the battery electric car, with at least two models breaking the 200-mile range mark and selling for prices the mid-to-upper-middle class can afford. Also, almost all car makers are adding plug-in models, even status marques like the Mercedes S-Class, Porsche, and Ferrari.
- The electrical power sector — the source of power for all these electric cars — is now cleaner than the transportation sector for the first time since 1979, cracking open the long-tailpipe argument.
- Improved technology and cheaper prices for renewables are accelerating the trend towards cleaner and cheaper power. Solar has reached grid-parity wholesale rates in sunny climes. Oregon’s mandate for fifty-percent renewables by 2030 will barely raise electricity prices to consumers. Germany occasionally has to pay people to use wind and solar power.
- With electric cars getting cleaner, cycling may actually pollute more than driving under certain conditions.
Now, it’s true that the full impact of these trends won’t be felt for years, even decades. Electric cars now account for less than one-percent of overall sales, and renewable electric generation still comes in less than fifteen-percent of total production. But if history is any guide, politicians looking for excuses not to support cycling will find them where they can. For instance, the City of Beverly Hills is betting on a fleet of self-driving cars to solve the subway’s last-mile problem, even though such technology is still in development, and may not happen for as long as thirty years, and against arguments that the bicycle solves the last-mile problem cheaply. Similarly, I expect we’ll soon hear of politicians dismissing cycling’s ability to clean up our air, given how fast the car is approaching parity.
Cycling advocacy still has many arrows in its quiver. In any case, the loss of the pollution argument will also mean winning on the issue of cleaner cities, an improvement all around. But when our best arguments now often give us gains measured in signs and paint, we need to find other compelling reasons for city action. Will traffic congestion be enough? Is public health enough? Will other arguments for cycling infrastructure — like complete streets, vision zero, and quality of life improvements — be enough?
How fast do you drive? I don’t mean to ask how fast have you driven, or how fast you wish (or think) you drive, or what the speed limit is. Instead, I want to ask how fast you drive, door-to-door, on the drives the make up your daily life.
My car has a computer that tells me my average speed for every trip. A trip starts when I start the car, and stops when I turn it off. I wonder if people would think differently about driving if all cars had a computer like this.
These photos are from my car’s dashboard. The photo on the left shows my commute on one Friday afternoon when I left my office at 4PM and drove the usual route home, about ten miles. It took me about sixty-two minutes; I averaged about ten miles-per-hour. The photo on the right shows a more spritely commute, the following Monday morning going the opposite way, when I was able to average about fourteen miles-per-hour. These times and speeds are normal, in customary city traffic between Century City and Silverlake.
(And yes, my car is a fuel hog. Most big cars you see around town are.)
I asked my girlfriend awhile back how fast she thinks she drives on city streets. She said she drives the speed limit, about thirty-five miles-per-hour. When we actually calculated her average speed from drive time and distance, we ended up with something closer to my computer readouts.
The fact is that when we drive in town, we mostly drive at bicycle speeds (on average). Most of us don’t have this fact staring in our faces everyday. But maybe more people would rethink cycling if they realized they are almost always driving at bicycle speeds already. If you’re already going at bicycle speeds, why not make it formal, get out of the car, get some fresh air and exercise, and bicycle instead?
The powers behind Los Angeles’s new Mobility Plan probably weren’t making this calculus explicitly. However, the constant predictions of city growth, combined with the hard facts that we have no more space for new streets, should make anyone with some sense of the inevitable look around for viable alternatives for using our streets more efficiently. Predictions of doom and gloom coming from short-sighted detractors miss the point: our traffic is already driving at bicycle speeds. We can’t really slow it down much more than it already is. Safe bicycle lanes just facilitate different kinds of traffic at the same average speeds at the rest of it, and bring lots of other benefits beyond.
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 — 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.
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.