Treating the Symptoms

Wanted: Public champions

Legally speaking, the framework for cycling has never been better. Nearly everywhere, with extensive exceptions granted, cyclists have the same rights to and responsibilities of the road as motor vehicle drivers. The speed at which I travel and the relative sense of traffic flow by other road users generally are not factors of law. There are no minimum speed requirements and no ‘holding up traffic’ provisions that make cyclists second-class citizens of the road. By all rights, it should be a road-sharing paradise out there.

But as anyone that rides a bike in the big city or out on country roads will tell you, this is not the case. That good and substantial legal framework crashes and burns in contact with social behaviors on the road. Slowly though (much too slowly), attitudes toward bicycles and motor vehicles intermingling are changing.

Last weekend the Washington Post ran a story about how planners are taking a fresh look at the planning process as it relates to urban cycling. It is a good read and great to see this emerging progressive view geared toward increased adoption and penetration, however it focuses entirely on the wrong problems and at best will generate improvements at the margins.

First, some definitions:

Adoption: This refers to the rate of increase in the activity, expressed as a percentage or a number. Adopters are people that are taking up riding a bicycle for transport for the first time, or else rediscovering the bike after a long layoff.

Penetration: This refers to the spread of the activity, expressed as a percentage or geographical area of accessible roadways. As penetration increases, cycling moves from traditional or beginner bike routes (bike lanes, separated paths quiet side streets, etc.) to main transit corridors. Increase in penetration not only signifies urban cycling moving out of the ‘stay off the main roads to stay safe’ paradigm, it also signifies acceptance of cycling by motor vehicle drivers as just another mode of transport.

To summarize the piece, a new school of urban planners is moving beyond road design handbooks and sheer maximization of motor vehicle throughput to include satellite maps and data on speed limits, lane widths and parking configurations in the planning and review process. These planners seek to score routes for stress levels as experienced by typical urban cyclists, and also to identify ‘islands’ of cycling; areas of safe and low-stress access that are ‘cut off’ from other such areas by large and fast roads, hazardous crossings or other impediments to low-stress transport riding. This data is then used as input in the planning process.

It is an admirable pursuit and should be lauded and I am not discounting it as a valuable part of the solution for equal access to the roads by all. The problem is that it just nibbles at the crust, it does not cut into the pie. If we want to get into the heart of the matter, the things that really keep people off bikes and those on bikes off the main corridors, we need to examine and improve the social environment around riding a bike.

Socially speaking, there are four main factors contributing to continued low adoption and penetration rates of urban cycling. Each of these factors will be the subject of a longer piece in this series;

1. Normalization of illegal activity by drivers. In the community of motor vehicle drivers, certain illegal activities are highly normalized: Speeding, rolling stops, unsafe lane changes, double parking, gunning on yellow, snaking through red lights, etc. While these are accepted practices on the roads, it is important for all road users to remember that they are actually illegal. Cyclists are by no means immune, and as my longer piece on this topic will cover, my anecdotal experience is that drivers and cyclists break the law at nearly identical rates. Orders-of-magnitude differences in scale (250-pound rider-plus-bike at 15 mph vs. 4000 pound vehicle at 40 mph) and scope (a 5% penetration rate means motor vehicles outnumber bicycles by 20-to-1) of that law-breaking must factor into social behaviors on the road.

2. Outgrouping of cyclists by drivers. ‘Outgrouping’ happens when sectors of an otherwise homogeneous group are treated differently by an ‘ingroup’ with which the ingroupers do not identify. While ingrouping and outgrouping are not explicitly related to majority-minority dynamics, they are very easy to identify in such situations. Examples: Outgrouping of minorities by white majority ingroup (otherwise homogeneity: people); outgrouping of socially timid ’nerds’ by ingroup socially dominant ’popular kids’ (otherwise homogeneity: students); and in the case of road sharing, outgrouping of cyclists by driver majority ingroup (otherwise homogeneity: road users). Outgrouping leads to many types of discriminatory behaviors, including group attribution bias, in which members of the ingroup attribute actions by individual members of the outgroup to the entire outgroup, while excusing identical behavior within the ingroup. This is why anti-cycling drivers think all cyclists are scofflaws after one cyclist buzzes them on a sidewalk, while a driver cut off by another driver attributes that failing to the person, and not to drivers in general.

3. Treatment of the cyclist by drivers as road nuisance. Despite the legal framework of road use, specifically that speed limits are not in fact speed minima, and that maximum throughput and minimum transit time are not entitlements, much of driver culture over the last sixty years is geared toward the notion that the faster mover has the right of way. Combine this concept with the asymmetry of safety on the road between drivers and cyclists and road interactions are ripe for discord. Active measures by drivers reflecting the social dominance of the motor vehicle on the roads include the honk, the close pass (and its specific subset, the punish pass), the tailgate-and-rev and the shout (typically something along the lines of ‘get on the sidewalk, asshole!’). Passive measures include the careless pass (‘I just need to get past this guy’), the right hook and the left cross (borne of misjudging speed) and the crossing into your lane (as when coming around a delivery truck when a driver would wait on an oncoming car but crosses head on in front of a cyclist). When a driver tries to speed up and pass you within the space of one city block, chances are that person is not malicious, just doesn’t understand.

4. Little fear by drivers of legal consequences. Despite the solid legal framework for cycling (clearly a theme of mine), anecdotally it is notoriously difficult for cyclists to obtain justice. Laws that are passed specifically to protect cyclists are twisted by police and the justice system so as to be hard to enforce at best, and meaningless at worst. For example, the three-foot law: Laws requiring drivers to give cyclists a berth of three feet while passing are so common as to be the modern standard. But how is such a law enforced? Progressive enforcement, as cycling and road use advocates will argue, means that if a driver hits a cyclist, and the cyclist is presumed to be traveling in accordance with the law, by definition the driver must have violated the law. Regressive enforcement means the responding officer shrugs and says, well I was not there to measure the gap, so there’s no proof the driver did anything wrong. Police and the courts system are often seen as at best indifferent to the plight of the cyclist, and at worst, favoring drivers, despite the differences in vulnerability of cyclists and carnage potential of drivers. Stories from cyclists in my circles of responding officers suggesting maybe it was actually the cyclist’s fault they were hit from behind, or even worse, basically ignoring the cyclist’s account in favor of the driver’s as a basis for the accident report (‘he just came from out of nowhere’) are far more common than those of compassion and bias toward the more vulnerable road user. In the eyes of the law, cyclists seem to be operating at their own risk.

So what can be done? These are social problems, and they need social solutions. And as it so happens, these solutions are a lot less expensive and can be enacted a lot more quickly than an entire parallel set of bike lane infrastructure:

1. A public commitment by governments, from the local level all the way to the national, to protect vulnerable road users. This is mayors, county executives, governors and the president, county boards, state legislators and Congress, stating clearly that all road users have the same rights and responsibilities, and those governments will not tolerate discrimination on the road. This commitment is a matter of policy decisions and communication, and of ensuring enforcement and the courts reflect this official viewpoint.

2. Review and reform driver’s education curricula and tests and driver handbooks. These mostly state-level actions would focus on educating new drivers at the point in which they enter the driver population. Insert meaningful language and lessons on how drivers are to treat cyclists in accordance with the law. Devote larger portions of the written and road test to handling situations with non-motor vehicle road users.

3. Direct police and sheriffs departments, state’s attorneys and judges to engage with cycling and road use advocacy groups. There is a WABA or Sheboygan Cycles or Move It Albuquerque group in every city in the country, and videoconferences can accommodate those without. These engagements, complete with a permanent liaison, will specifically expose the enforcement and justice communities to attitudes and concerns about road use outside the motor vehicle driver community, and foster common understanding and interpretation of the law as it relates beyond the car.

Why focus on the role of government and the courts and communities, rather than on ground-level cycling advocacy, replete with pictures of kids on bikes and annual reports breathlessly touting a two percent increase in trips by bike? Because when we talk about cycling, we are really talking to drivers. If a driver sees me on a bike, slows down and makes a safe pass out of respect, gives me a thumb’s up and silently thanks me for helping to save the world, that’s awesome. That is not really what I need. What I need is for that driver to see me and say, Ok there’s a cyclist, I need to slow down and give him some room because if he comes off the bike near me, I am in big trouble. Vent all you want inside, hate on cyclists and shake your tiny fists of rage that you have to share the road with an inferior species. As a driver, it is your actions I rely on for my safety, not your thoughts. Ramping up social care for cyclists with the attendant increase in legal penalties for drivers guides behavior.

None of this will be easy. Governments would be required to weather hurricane-level storms of resistance from a heavily biased driver population. And drivers vote. But these are decisions made about how we view one another on the road, and not decisions abot who gets a bike lane where, how much it will cost and how long it will take. Were this to become a national priority, the roads would immediately become safer and more inviting for new adopters and existing riders will become more confident in their route selection.

Longer term strategies include presumed liability legislation, reduction of speed limits, narrowing of lanes, removal of on-street parking and other actions to increase density and prioritize non-motor vehicle modes of transport (including walking), not past the point of deprioritizing the motor vehicle, but only to the point of parity with the motor vehicle. Those are topics for another discussion.

And back to the point of the linked story, yes it is good to see a new crop of urban planners thinking about other-than-motor-vehicles in the planning and review process. Those efforts, if concerted and widespread, will bear fruit. I am not discounting those efforts. Deeper change in needed.

Until powerful people, elected people with nothing to gain and everything to lose by advocating for the cyclist get involved, nothing can change.

About Ben Folsom

Ben Folsom is a founding member of the Bike Commuter Cabal, a worldwide group of transport cyclists dedicated to protecting the rights of all road users and to encouraging people everywhere to ride more. Ben and his bikes live with his family in Alexandria, Virginia.