Thursday, September 1, 2016

Riding Danger

The old expression “it’s like riding a bike” refers to a task or project that once learned always stays with you. If you get the balance of centering your gravity on two wheels while pedaling and not falling down then no matter how long it’s been the idea is that you revert to that balance whenever you get back on a bike. I haven’t tested the concept. The last time I was on a bike that wasn’t stationary in a gym hearkens back to the early 1990’s. Since then no matter what city I’ve lived in I have become the one bicyclists love to hate. At the risk of becoming a social pariah among many – I hereby declare my wish that bikes get banned from the roadway and remain for recreational use.

I live in Boston. Founded in 1630 it’s one of the oldest cities in the United States. Many of the sidewalks are laid with brick – and often when they become too unsteady to walk on the brick is replaced…no concrete or asphalt here. The streets are narrow. I traded in my Honda Accord when I arrived for the more compact Civic just to be able to navigate. I’d probably be better served in a Fit but I doubt I’d fit in one of them. My point is that this city is a city of narrow streets, unstable walkways and a pedestrian class who see traffic signals as suggestions. It’s no place for bikes.

Cyclists have been killed and there are many accidents. According to the Boston Globe’s 2015 report 13 people have been killed while riding in the past five years. “Figures kept by Boston Emergency Medical Services show an average of about 520 fatal and nonfatal [bicycle] crashes annually in Boston from 2010 through 2014.”

Inevitably the blame game begins. Cyclists who are required to follow the same rules of the road as motorized vehicles often don’t. They weave and bob through traffic. They complain that drivers don’t pay attention, encroach on the bike lanes afforded to them and when parking drivers don’t look before opening their doors. As with most things there’s plenty of blame to go around. (There's also the issues that cyclists don't pay for the roads while drivers do.)

Jeff Jacoby a columnist for the Boston Globe wrote last year wrote: “Vehicles weigh thousands of pounds, operate at 300-plus horsepower, and are indispensable to the economic and social well-being of virtually every American community. Bicycles can be an enjoyable, even exhilarating, way to get around. So can horses, skis, and roller skates. Adding any of them to the flow of motorized traffic on roads that already tend to be too clogged, however, is irresponsible and dangerous.”

He continued: “According to the latest Census Bureau data, more than 122 million people commute each day by car, truck, or van. Fewer than 900,000 bike to work. Do the math: For every cyclist pedaling to or from work, there are 136 drivers. Add the passengers who commute by bus and streetcar, and that ratio is even more lopsided. When it comes to urban transportation, bike riders play a trifling role — literally less than a rounding error. Far more people walk to work.”

It’s not unique to Boston. When I was in Los Angeles this summer there was an ever increasing number of cyclists on the streets. California passed a law in 2014 requiring motorists to give bikes three feet of space.

South of LA in Long Beach they have taken a different approach. Bicycle lanes are physically separate from the road that cars used. The lanes are painted in a separate color and there are concrete barriers preventing the two from mixing. In the short time I was there it seemed to work and make sense. Old cities like Boston just don’t have the physical space to do that. Newer cities like Los Angeles are already overcrowded with vehicle traffic.

We may never forget the intuitiveness of riding a bike. But we should remember that city roads are for cars.

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