We must DEMAND safe cycling infrastructure. We need separated bike lanes because cars are much BIGGER than bikes, and human beings are NOT perfect. Motorists make mistakes; cyclists make mistakes. Our mistakes should not have to be fatal. That’s the most important reason why we need safe, separated bike lanes that keep all cyclists of All Abilities and Ages (AAA) safe at all times. And there are two other good reasons why we need safe cycling infrastructure, which I write about in this post. And it’s not just me – all research shows that when you don’t have safe bikeways, most people don’t ride bikes. But as soon as you put in safe bikeways (read: physically separated bikeways), huge numbers of people start riding bikes.
— Average Joe Cyclist (@AvrgeJoeCyclist) June 19, 2016
Cars and bikes should not be mixing it up on the same field, because it is not a level playing field. We don’t ask people to walk on the street – and then pass a law that requires them to wear walking helmets, pretending these will magically save them from injuries caused by huge vehicles – when in fact the stats show clearly that most pedestrian and cyclist deaths are caused by catastrophic, multi-organ injuries to the entire body. Instead, we build sidewalks so that people can walk in relative safety. Now, we just have to build cycle ways as well. The city I live in has done wonders in just 10 years. For example, the photo above is an aerial view of the separated bike lane on Dunsmuir St. in Vancouver. This is off peak hours – at rush hours it gets very busy.
And below is a little girl cycling on one of the separated bike lanes in Vancouver. This one is on Hornby Street (where one business man cynically complained that bike lanes would deprive his business of parking spots, while at the same time deliberately posing so that the photographers would not capture the empty parking garages right behind them – despicable!) This little girl looks a lot like one of my kids. And I STRONGLY believe that her life is worth more than a parking spot!
Yet some people argue that building separated bike lanes is unnecessary. Simply force everyone to obey the law at all times, and cyclists will be safe, they say. However, forcing people to comply with the law 100% of the time is not actually possible. There has never been an instance of this approach succeeding in keeping cyclists and pedestrians safe.
People do NOT obey laws 100% of the time – this includes motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians
People simply do not obey laws 100% of the time. Anyone who cycles will tell you that most cars crossing bike lanes will do a rolling stop straight through the stop sign, usually only stopping well over the stop line (and reluctantly) when the only alternative is to crush half a dozen cyclists. And any (honest) person who cycles will admit that sometimes they do something a bit reckless, or get angry and make an unwise choice.
Why we need separate bike lanes – because NONE of us is perfect all the time (not even you)
And speaking of unwise choices … the GIF below shows very clearly why we need separate bike lanes. Both the cyclist and the drivers make unwise choices – with the result that a toddler is endangered. These photos were taken on a bike route, outside a school, in a 30 km per hour zone. And yes, there was a toddler in the trailer – I know because I was right behind them, and pass them most mornings. All of these conditions did not stop the motorists from squeezing in a father towing his tiny son in a bike trailer.
How this real event actually happened, and how and why the toddler was put in danger’s way
I was right behind these two, and witnessed the whole event from a few feet away. The father was waiting to cross on a red, with his right foot on the sidewalk (as many of us do). The pull-off was a slightly difficult one, as it is on an uphill, and he had a weight to pull. Just before the lights changed, A car pulled in front of him, probably hoping to make a right on the red, but was quickly impeded by pedestrians. So the motorist was stuck and therefore boxed in the cyclist, while the cyclist was trying to pull off on an uphill with a trailer. So the cyclist was going to miss the green. The cyclist then did the human thing that many of us would do in that situation – he lost his cool, yelled angrily, and went around the car.
Should those motorists have made more space for that cyclist? Yes, that would have been better, but it would have required cat-like reflexes, which not every driver has.
Should that father have remained calm and just stood there, waiting patiently for the next green and hoping another car wouldn’t box him in the next time? Yes, probably. Pity about that whole being-a-human-being-and-therefore-not-perfect-all-time thing.
Or even better, should the father have (serendipitously) recently graduated from a cycling skills course, and known that the safest bet would have been to take the whole lane, so that none of the cars on that chaotic little street could cut him off? Yes, perhaps. Although the problem in that scenario is that he would be placing his toddler son between himself and cars behind him. So it would just take a moment of driver distraction (a mom keeping an eye in her rear-view mirror on the child she has just dropped off, for example) – and the toddler could be dead or seriously injured. (And a million internet commenters would have angrily pointed out that it was the father’s FAULT for putting the child in harm’s way.)
All of the stats were stacked up against the toddler in this scenario
In fact, all of the stats were stacked up against the toddler in this scenario: 75% of cyclist deaths occur at road intersections. 73% of such collisions involve either driver or cyclist error, or both. And in 25% of fatal cyclist injuries, the front of the car hits the back of the bike – in this case, it would be the toddler in the trailer who took the brunt of the hit. NOT good for a human being weighing in at about 25 pounds. (Source: Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents)
Human Beings do NOT make Perfect Choices all the Time (that’s why we call it “Being Human”)
I am not trying to assign blame to the motorists or to the cyclist. So PLEASE don’t write a comment blaming someone. Not even if you are the wisest human being on earth and know exactly what should have been done in this situation, and would have infallibly done exactly that if you were in this situation.
On the contrary, my point is that we are all human, and none of us can make perfect choices every time. (And it seems to be especially hard for us to make perfect choices in traffic, for reasons that escape me.) That’s why we need infrastructure that actively keeps us safe. If that cyclist was in a totally separate bike lane, the situation could not have happened, because the car would not have been able to get into the bike lane, the cyclist would not have lost his cool, and the baby would never have been in danger.
Watching this, it seemed like the motorists were out to get the baby – but obviously they could not have been (if they wanted him, they could have got him). Really, they were probably just oblivious. Anyone who drives a car knows how hard it can be to notice smaller objects (like potholes, children, cyclists, pedestrians, etc.) The car insulates you from sound and creates multiple blind spots. And that’s why cars are so dangerous, even though most of the people driving them would never want to hurt any one.
The point of the GIF is simply to illustrate the first of the three very good reasons for separated bike lanes:
Reason #1 for Separated Bike Lanes: Danger and the Perception of Danger Stop People from Cycling
Mixing up vulnerable cyclists with larger vehicles does result in many deaths and injuries. But going beyond that, the possibility of being injured or killed by cars is intimidating. Research clearly indicates that many more people would like to commute by bike, but are simply intimidated by cycling with cars. This graphic sums it up:
Who can blame them? Being on a bike right next to several tons of rapidly moving vehicle is intrinsically unsafe. It’s not like being afraid of heights or spiders – motorized vehicles really can kill you.
Then there is also the strange fact that many routes are shared by buses and bikes. In that situation, the disparity in size is even more intimidating. As Mrs. Average Joe Cyclist has said a few times: “Putting bikes and buses in the same lane – whose brilliant idea was that?” She’s right – there is NOTHING fun about having a bus a few feet behind your tail light.
Yes, most bus drivers are polite and careful. But I personally witnessed a bus run a cyclist off the street, on a designated “bike route.” The cyclist escaped by hopping his bike up onto the sidewalk. I was just behind, and I thought, “If that was me, I would not have been athletic enough to hop like that, and I would have been hit.” The cyclist pulled up next to the bus at the next stop and yelled at the driver, “What would have happened if I couldn’t get out of the way?” The bus driver looked at the young man as if he was a tree stump, not somebody’s son, and said: “I guess I would have killed you.” I tried to persuade the cyclist to report the incident, as I would have been happy to be a witness, but unfortunately, he declined.
Reason #2 for Separated Bike Lanes: Cycling Needs to be Fun and Pleasant
Even if laws could force people to drive safely, it would still not be any fun for motorists and cyclists to share space. The aim should be for cycling to be pleasant and fun, not merely non-fatal.
One London cyclist commented on the situation.
This same cyclist went on: “There are plenty of things I can do and be pretty sure I won’t die as a result of. That generally isn’t a sufficiently good reason for me to go out of my way to do them; I want to actually ENJOY them. To encourage mass cycling, you need to provide an activity that is not only non-fatal, but actually pleasant. Playing musical chairs with smoke-belching rhinoceroses is not everyone’s idea of fun, fatal or otherwise.”
Lack of Cycling Infrastructure Makes Cycling Unpleasant
The point is that people are prevented from cycling not only by a fear of death or injury, but also by a lack of the decent cycling infrastructure that would make cycling pleasant. For many, it is so far from fun that it can cause serious problems. Here’s a comment from a woman who has commuted by bike in London for four years:
“I feel the hatred is getting worse and worse, and am at my wits’ end. Because I do not pedal in the gutter or door-zone, I am frequently the target of deliberate dangerous driving and abuse. The repeated attempts on my life (because that is what they are) are getting so bad that I keep having nightmares, particularly while I’m just nodding off. … I hope that by using some of those flight-or-fight chemicals by the actual exercise of cycling I might not get some serious anxiety-related symptoms, but I’m considering stopping the very thing that used to make me feel SO happy, SO liberated and independent.”
This comment comes from a post called “Not dying is a low bar. Aim for happy cycling” by Rachel Aldred. She says she got the inspiration for that post title from a feminist slogan, “Consent is a low bar. Aim for enthusiasm.”
I can relate to that cyclist in London. When motorists verbally abuse or endanger me, it often ruins my day. As a cyclist there is no safe way to fight back, and it’s both disempowering and depressing. When it’s not infuriating me, it makes me despair for the human race. Once a driver screamed at my wife (Mrs. Average Joe Cyclist) and called her the C word (no, not Cancer, the other one) while she was cycling to work. Not for any particular reason, but just because he resented her taking up space on “his” street. That was about a year ago, and I still get angry when I think about it. A man in a car screaming abuse at a woman on a bike is not only abusive but also despicably cowardly.
In short, there is just little that is fun and pleasant about competing for street space with much more powerful competitors, some of whom hate you merely for existing. Fortunately, the majority of motorists are extremely careful and respectful around cyclists– after all, what sane and decent person wants to kill someone on their way to work? Many times, my heart is warmed when motorists politely stop for me. Just last week, I had a motorist slow down to yell through his window at me: “LOVE the lights!” (I make a point of always having very bright bike lights, including very cheerful monkeylectic lights – reviewed here).
However, when cyclists (and other vulnerable road users) and motorists are forced to share road space, it only takes one motorist who is careless or hate-filled to ruin a cyclist’s day – or even kill a cyclist, or kill many cyclists, as sometimes tragically happens.
Reason #3 for Separated Bike Lanes: So that Cyclists and Pedestrians can Breathe
A research project has shown that cyclists on separated bike lanes breathe a better quality of air than those pedaling on traditional roadside bike lanes. The researchers measured the ultrafine particulate matter that is spewed out by motorized vehicles. They parked a car on the median dividing a separated bike lane from the cars, and measured exposure to the offending particulate matter on both sides. Effectively, they were comparing air quality in two zones that were separated by a mere few feet.
The researchers found a significant statistical difference between the two zones. It is hard to believe that a few feet could make a difference, but the findings were clear: air quality is better in separated bike lanes than in traditional roadside bike lanes.
Also, the difference was even more pronounced when traffic volume was high. So the more pollution there was, the greater the benefit that was provided to cyclists by separated bike lanes. And let’s not forget that the separated bike lanes cause pedestrians to be even further away from the cars, so they are also protected by the separated bike lanes.
The photos above show Hornby Street in Vancouver before and after it got separated bike lanes. The man in the left-hand photo was not only endangered by the surrounding traffic, but was also breathing in a lot of fumes – and I am pretty sure he was not relaxing and having fun.
By contrast, the cyclists on the right in the separated bike lanes illustrate all three of the reasons for having separated bike lanes: they are safer; they appear to be relaxed and having fun; and they are breathing less toxic fumes. Also, notice how much further the pedestrians are from cars. Obviously, these separated bike lanes are making life more healthy for pedestrians as well.
And let’s not forget the horses! The other day I snapped this photo of horses enjoying the separated bike lane on Hornby Street in Vancouver. Nice to know that these horses were safe from cars, and were also breathing in less pollution through those giant nostrils of theirs. I wrote a post a little while ago to remind people that just a very short time ago, the streets belonged to pedestrians, cyclists and horses, and CARS were the (very frightening and unwelcome) intruders – see #ReplaceBikewithCar.
Cars have had control of the streets for a century, but it IS possible to take at least part of the streets back. In his Pedaling Revolution book, Jeff Mapes suggests that we are seeing a grassroots revolution of people taking back part of the streets from cars. Think cycling routes, car-free days, car-free streets, livable communities – it’s all happening.
Some people say that the rest of the world cannot be “like the Netherlands.” As if cyclists who don’t live in the Netherlands just have to accept being in danger all the time. But it’s not true. In the city where I live, massive changes have been made in just a decade. Downtown Vancouver has gone from being scary and unsafe, to being cyclist friendly in just 10 years. Take a look at this guy leaving work in the heart of downtown Vancouver – what could be easier and more people friendly than this?
The message is clear: we need separated bike lanes to protect the lives and health of cyclists, and to make cycling more attractive, pleasant and fun. In that way, more people will cycle, which will lead to more safe cycling infrastructure, which will lead to more cyclists …
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