Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bicycles: Can we acheive harmony and respect?

The bicycle is a marvel.  A human-powered machine of utmost simplicity. It is often referred to as the most efficient form of transportation around.  Burns calories, not fuel.  The bike is being rediscovered and celebrated around the world, as a cheap form of transportation suitable for young and old alike.

Enabling and supporting bicycling furthers many important public objectives.  More bicycles means fewer cars on the road.  Fewer cars means less congestion, less air pollution,  fewer greenhouse gas emissions and less parking demand.   These benefits accrue to everyone, not just the bicyclists.  More bicyclists means more healthy physical activity, reinforcing Brookline Health Departments' Brookline on the Move initiative.  A bike can be an essential means of transportation for someone who cannot afford or chooses not own a car.   So, in making it safer to ride a bike by providing designated bike lanes and more convenient bike parking, we are supporting many worthy goals.

Improving bike safety will encourage more people to ride and therefore, more benefits will stack up.  Mobility and access are improved for everyone, including those who do not drive.  The air will be cleaner and safer to breath.  People will get healthy exercise.  Being on a bike lets us encounter our surroundings and the world in a more immediate and direct way, maybe even leading to more community involvement.  With the new Hubway bikeshare system, visitors, employees and residents will have easy access to a convenient, healthy way to get around.  Tourists will be able to enjoy more of what Brookline has to offer.  

So, why is there so much animosity and derision hurled at bicyclists?  Why is there so much vocal opposition and obstruction when it comes to improving conditions for biking in Brookline?  We hear over and over how bad bicyclists are at following the rules and that they don't exercise prudent riding styles.  No doubt there are few bad apples out there, for whom some scorn is justified.  But this does not explain the militant anti-bike fervor we see.  After all, there are plenty of motorists and pedestrians who behave badly too, but we never hear a collective call of hostility and degradation for motorists or pedestrians.  The mean spirited disregard for bicyclists' safety is shocking and inappropriate.  And yet, it seems to be accepted and tolerated.  There is something bigger going on here.

For many years (since the 1950's) planning, infrastructure and street design have all catered exclusively to the automobile.  Much of the American landscape has been transformed into a land of roads, parking lots and private garages, dominating both visual and spatial dimensions completely.  Walking or riding a bike became precarious, dangerous and viewed with suspicion, perhaps a sign of social deviance or poverty.  How inhumane those sub-conscious thoughts are, and yet in most places in the US this reality is all there is and going car-less is virtually impossible.  Fortunately, Brookline was settled well before this time.  We are blessed with compact walkable and bikable landscapes.  We can get around to many of our destinations without driving a car.  Trust me, we are envied for this aspect of our lifestyle.   Yes, we have narrow streets.  Yes, Massachusetts breeds a particularly forceful street behavior, pitting ourselves against those impeding our progress.   All of these forces have carried over into the latest form of this conflict, Article 23.

Article 23, which will come before Brookline Town Meeting this spring, began life as a Home Rule Petition that sought to strip our Transportation Board of its authority to approve and implement a certain type of bike lane, called a contra-flow lane.  This type of bike lane is suitable in rare and particular conditions where a short connector is needed to allow bikes to travel a safe and logical route on a street where cars have been limited to one-way travel.  Opposition to the Home rule petition led to a re-working of Article 23.

So now, Article 23 has been amended to be a resolution calling for our T Board to draft criteria, with the explicit input of certain town boards and commissions, which will define when contraflow bike lanes may be appropriate and to describe what factors and relative weights will be given to various perspectives and concerns. In other words, our staff and T Board must justify and defend themselves to the satisfaction of their critics.  These folks don't trust our professional Town engineering staff to utilize appropriate judgement and they don't trust our Transportation Board to be thoughtful and considerate of multiple stakeholders.  This despite the fact that their decisions have not resulted in any safety problems and they hold multiple well-noticed hearings on each decision they make.  It is hard for some to see the validity of doing anything on behalf of the bicyclist, despite the many benefits alluded to earlier. 

It seems that the idea that bikes require any kind of specific treatment or accommodation really doesn't sit well with those opposed to bikes in the first place.  There was a sentiment expressed that if bicyclists can't follow the rules, then we should not make any attempt to accommodate them.  This is a catch-22, as it is the lack of accommodation that can make biking that much more challenging, leading to unorthodox riding behavior.  It was argued that because pedestrians jaywalk and drivers park on the wrong side of the street, we can't legalize a bike route that might conflict with these other illegal behaviors.  What?  Here we see an articulation of a biased preference and unconscious hierarchy that prejudice some persons' world view.  I don't hear bicyclists decry sidewalks and roadways because motorists and pedestrians don't always follow the rules.  Treating bicyclists as a third class citizen is pervasive.  Pitting one "mode" of transportation against the others fosters aggression, animosity and ill will.

We can't afford to think this way.  Being safe and accommodating each mode appropriately is possible and necessary.  What is lacking here is empathy.  This isn't surprising.  If you've never tried to ride a bike in traffic you cannot understand the degree of vulnerability you feel on a bike.  You couldn't possibly understand the intricacies of how difficult it is to safely navigate a left turn on busy multi-lane streets on a bike.  You would not understand why it seems like a bicyclist is swerving randomly, when in fact they are trying to stay erect by dodging debris and potholes at the side of the road.  And yes, it might make sense and be safe for a bike to travel a short way down a road in a direction prohibited to cars.  The adage "Same road, Same rules" is helpful because it establishes that the appropriate place for bikes is in the street and admonishes everyone to think of the bike as a vehicle.  But, it is overly simplistic.  A bike is fundamentally different, and infinitely more vulnerable.  So let's try to be safe, courteous, conscious and empathetic out there.  We don't need to impose more burdens on our Transportation Board.  If someone doesn't like a decision they can appeal it to the Board of Selectmen.  Let's send a message that we support bicycling and bike facilities.  Vote no on Article 23.


Chris R said...

As a driver and pedestrian (soon to be cyclist), I think the biggest gripes about cyclists is the disregard for driving rules. I can't tell you how many times I've been crossing a crosswalk only to be nearly run over by a cyclist who thinks he or she doesn't have to obey the rules of the road.

if cyclists want respect they need to earn it rather than demand it. If cyclists travel with vehicle traffic they should obey the rules of vehicle traffic.

I'm looking to purchase my first bicycle soon, but I'll be obeying the rules of the road. See you out there!

Anonymous said...

Chris as a pedestrian I've had a lot more near misses by vehicle owners than cyclists who refuse to stop for me in a crosswalk. We, as a community, spend thousands of dollars on crossing guards at crosswalks because we can't trust drivers to stop for school children at crosswalks. We also spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on traffic calming because we can't trust drivers to drive responsibly through our residential neighborhoods. Yet no one says car owners shouldn't get respect or paved roadways. As a non-cyclist I don't like the double standard that cyclists are held to in this town and hope how leaders stop their double speak of being pro-bike while killing funding for bike lanes.