Thursday, March 05, 2009

Conventional Wisdom...

This is what happens when I have too much time on my hands and far too much coffee.

Conventional wisdom holds that cyclists have no place in traffic. They should not be on the streets - period. We've encountered this attitude time after time. It's one of the driving forces behind facilities advocacy, and it's deeply entrenched in local planning. When Tulsa's on-street route system was first proposed, a small group of experienced cyclists were invited to critique it. At one intersection, cyclists would have been required to dismount and walk. At another, they were directed up onto a sidewalk that shunted them off on a half-mile detour to avoid crossing at a non-signalized intersection. Planners, presumably well-intentioned and intelligent people, simply regarded cyclists as second-class road users on a par with pedestrians. That hasn't changed.

That is simply one example, and some may regard it as ancient history. But just recently, I learned that part of the on-street route along Archer may be lost to angled parking. It's decidedly unsafe to put cyclists (and motorcyclists, for that matter) behind cars parked at an angle, and it's especially dangerous when you consider that most cyclists ride the right-hand side of the lane. They're almost invisible. I've always believed that we shouldn't implement ideas that enhance safety or convenience for one group of road users if by doing so we degrade the safety of another group. That's precisely what's happening here.

Why did I bring this up? It was an issue I thought was resolved several years ago when the Archer Street plan was first proposed. Again, it may be ancient history. But it's not unlike a game of whack-a-mole. We have to fight to get cycling amenities and we have to fight to keep them. As a sop to the cycling community, a plan was floated offering an alternative route that went through alleys, sidewalks, and even included a wrong-way bike lane. It was an awful design and we quite rightly opposed it then, just as we'll oppose its latest incarnation.

As those two stories illustrate, the devil is always in the details, or as one of my real estate friends says, "The large print giveth and the small print taketh away." If we merely accept an overall plan without checking the details, we'll get blindsided again and again. We have a civic duty as responsible citizens to demand that our government be accountable. That's not arguing or being a hindrance, that's our right as citizens. We ask the uncomfortable questions and tell elected officials, planners, and bureaucrats what they may not want to hear. It would be easy to take a 'go along to get along' approach, becoming little more than a rubber stamp for bicycling programs. It would clearly be a more politic position if we relied on grant money or any funds provided by local government. And it would undoubtedly be popular with some uninformed local cyclists.

Let's face it - the majority of cyclists are recreational riders with little knowledge of advocacy. If they're confronted with a road they deem too dangerous to ride on, they simply take another route. If a signalized intersection doesn't work for them, they take another route or run the red light. As for Archer, maybe the mindset is something like, "I don't ride on Archer, so it's not important." It's easy to make such riders dependent on bike lanes and the entities that provide them. In fact, I ran across one in another city who said that she couldn't get from A to B because there were no bike lanes connecting the two. If that's not dependency, what is? But when someone relies on a bicycle for transportation, route selection becomes a much more critical decision. Just like motorists, commuter cyclists will take the shortest route. And just like any motorist, they have an equal right to use that public space. I've always felt that if you don't exercise your rights, you don't truly have them.

It's an uphill struggle. We read studies and analyze statistics that point toward a "best practices" approach to advocacy. Yet when we sit in a public meeting and use that information to contradict conventional wisdom, we're labeled as obstructive radicals. It would be easy to take the opposite tack and kowtow to that conventional wisdom, accepting as gospel what people believe to be true. I like to point out that at one time a majority believed the Earth was flat. An idea may be popular...and plainly wrong. I prefer to base decisions on reality rather than feel-good issues. Best practices is based on the best information available. It's a way to inform and empower cyclists so they experience genuine safety, not merely the illusion of safety. As an example, there was a study from Copenhagen, widely regarded as a cycling Mecca by some facilities advocates, that reached the astonishing conclusion that area cyclists believed they were safer on the city's segregated cycle tracks, when in fact, just the opposite was true.

My friend Brian believes that safety is most effective when it's based on behavior. I'm in wholehearted agreement on this. One writer describes safety as three concentric zones. The outer one is the cyclist's own awareness and behaviors. The next circle is the road infrastructure, signage, and any other engineering. The final circle (and we all hope we don't have to discover its efficacy) is his protective equipment, mostly helmet and gloves. I tell kids that a helmet is a wonderful thing to have in that instant before something really bad happens, but I want them to learn how to avoid getting into that situation in the first place.

Ultimately, my goal is to see that cycling is so commonplace as to be unremarkable. A cyclist will be just another road user, perhaps a guy on his way to work or a grandmother out to get groceries. It doesn't take millions of dollars spent on infrastructure. It doesn't require super-human abilities or nerves of steel. All it takes is some simple instruction on a Saturday morning. That's what we do because we know it works.



Blogger Risan said...

I was curious about the study you mentioned. It is very interesting.

I live in Tulsa and commute only 5 miles 1 way, and fortunately I have seen a couple others too. I really like the idea of more people getting involved. My problem is I bike near union schools, and have seen some of the worst driving there. I try to avoid the highschool, but I go by the 8th grade center on garnett road. I think a lot of the problems are the it is so uncommon. I think cars think I'm going 10 miles per hour or something because they always seem surprised when I come right on them and have to brake.

9:28 AM  

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