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.
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?