walking around in tap shoes and pyjamas since 2010 - my cycling log (opens in new window)

Friday, July 08, 2011

A Nice, Safe Red Herring

In a recent article cited by the famous, infamous BikeSnob, New York Times writer Christine Haughney observes that women still lag behind men in the ranks of New York's bike-riding crowd at least in part because they simply don't feel cycling is safe.

However, she also says this:

Data tracked by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the nation’s 10 largest cities shows that in 2009 New York City had 12 cycling fatalities. But the city ranked fifth in per capita deaths. 


Not to make light of those twelve deaths, but has anyone tallied up the automobile-related traffic fatalities in New York for the same year?  I suspect there were probably more than twelve -- but few of us hesitate to hop in the car because it's 'not safe,' and we tend to snicker at those who do*.

I can't help but think that the statistics rather give the lie to the notion that cycling is super-dangerous.  Even if you consider the fact that there are probably fewer people who ride bikes in good ol' NYC than there are people who drive cars, you're still talking about a small fraction.  Likewise, those statistics probably include people who (again, not to blame victims or make light of their deaths or their families' suffering) might still be alive if they adopted safer cycling practices.

Moreover, I would hazard that at least some of those deaths could have been prevented if more of their fellow New Yorkers piloted bikes instead of automobiles.


First, more cyclists means safer streets.

Second, more cyclists means fewer cars -- and fewer cars should, in theory, mean less traffic congestion, which should mean less driver frustration, which should mean less aggressive driving: all good things, if you're on a bike (or in a car, or on a rolling sleigh drawn by eleven Canada geese, for that matter**).

Third, where there are more cyclists, drivers are more likely to become accustomed to bikes as part of the flow of traffic.  If you want to see a good demonstration of this idea in action (and you have ... ahem ... nerves ... of steel), ride Broadway towards the highlands at rush hour, then ride south on Dixie Highway at ... well, pretty much any time, really.  Drivers on Broadway tend to accept bikes in the flow of traffic and to behave themselves reasonably well; drivers on Dixie ... well, not so much (even though one of Louisville's longest-lived bike shops is on Dixie Highway).  Dixie Highway is one of the few roads in the immediate area by which I feel pretty darned intimidated -- and that's not because it's like nineteen and a half lanes wide, with a speed limit of Mach 5.  It's simply because drivers on Dixie often don't seem to know how to react to bikes, and so they do strange, crazy, and sometimes dumb stuff.

What I'm trying to say, here, is that perceived safety has a great deal more to do with things than actual safety.

Driving is inherently unsafe -- not only to driver and passengers, but to everyone and everything in sight.  To a lesser extent, riding a bike is also inherently unsafe -- but mostly to the person sitting in the saddle.  And only one of those options saves you money and leaves you with buns of steel.

What it boils down to, really, is that life is inherently unsafe.  My Mom once read a book called In the Long Run, We're All Dead.  I was about seven, and was never sure whether it was a statistics manual or a murder mystery -- but that's about what it boils down to.  We are all going to die, even if we do everything in our power to eliminate all potential sources of danger.

Likewise, there's a great deal that can be done to suck a lot of the danger out of cycling.  I frequently see folks riding the wrong way up one-way streets, helmetless, on poorly-maintained bikes that barely fit (if at all), on the sidewalk, running red lights*** all the way ... yet they believe riding on the sidewalk is somehow safer than riding in the road, and apparently also makes them immune to the dangers associated with all the other crazy stuff they're doing while riding on the sidewalk.  Needless to say, I imagine many such riders, when they eventually have a run-in with a car, blame the 'danger' of cycling.

The folks in question perceive their method of riding as safer, even though it is probably the single most unsafe method of cycling known to man (perhaps riding on a high wire suspended over a tank of angry sharks is less safe).

Meanwhile, women in New York City apparently perceive cycling as far more dangerous than driving or riding in cars.

Likewise, it's human nature to report sad tidings -- our newspapers rarely say, "No Car or Bike Accidents All Week!"  They don't remind us of the sixty-eight bazillion miles of perfectly safe driving and cycling that take place in the US every day.  They only tell us when bad things happen -- when a cyclist gets badly hurt or killed, or when the same happens to a driver, a passenger, or a pedestrian.

Most of us have enough exposure to cars that we automatically see those unhappy events as exceptions to the rule -- but only those of us who ride bikes a whole lot come to feel that way about cycling.  Instead, we hear about accidents in which cyclists get hurt or killed (and minor-injury inducing bike accidents, like all three of mine -- only one of which involved a car; the other two were just me being a dumkopf all by myself) are pretty much never reported in the papers****.  Thus, excepting those of us who rack up miles like they're going out of style, most of us imagine that all bike wrecks are catastrophic and life-threatening.

So what, you may ask, do I propose to do about this problem?

Honestly, I have no earthly clue.  The United States has become a disturbingly alarmist place (OH NOES!), and I suspect that, to some extent, our unrelenting fear of cycling is a function of our addictive alarmism.  Likewise, we seem to have lost some of our intrepid spirit -- it used to be that we, as a people, were up for anything; now we're up for anything as long as we might not break a sweat or possibly be in any real danger ever for even like eleven seconds.

At the same time, though, we admire people who take crazy risks, as long as we understand why they're doing it -- so maybe the problem is as much one of understanding as anything.

Last night, DD mentioned that it's hard even for him to understand why someone would choose to do everything by bike.  He doesn't find it offensive or anything, just a little alien.  Foreign, perhaps.  As a guy who didn't even learn to drive 'til he was twenty-five, he wasn't commenting on the use of 'alternative' transportation -- just specifically on why someone would choose cycling specifically.

It never would have occurred to him, really, until he met me, that riding a bike was actually a feasible mode of transport.  Now bikes are constantly on his radar, almost as much as they're on mine -- we went out with some friends last night, and the TdF was on TV.  I passed a lovely hour or so explaining racing tactics (also, why cyclists all have great butts) and so forth; DD asked intelligent questions (OMG!  He's been paying attention!).  But, still, at the end of the day, I'm someone who made a choice a long time ago to ride my bike everywhere, and who -- for some reason -- saw that as a viable mode of transport, while other people might not, and he isn't.  And both of us are curious as to why.

In the breakdown, I will always say that I believe automobiles are useful: DD's truck, in fact, is really useful for getting my bikes to distant events (or getting them and me back home when they explode).  As much as I am a proponent of a bike-oriented lifestyle, I also probably wouldn't want to attempt to move a grand piano by bike (though now I want to do it just to prove it can be done).  Especially not uphill.

However, I believe that for most trips, their flaws outweigh their strengths.  They insulate drivers and make it easier to forget that the people and animals outside are real living, breathing things; they do nothing to improve one's physical fitness; they eat money like cyclists eat pasta; they inhale non-renewable fuels and exhale poison.  Perhaps more importantly, they make us feel caged in and cut us off from a lot of the beauty of life.

And, regardless of what anyone may think, they're pretty darned dangerous -- yet we accept the risks associated with driving as a matter of course, because we don't see it as a choice.

One last thought: as Americans, we tend to buy into the idea that childhood is a happy and carefree time when the world is new and wonderful, and that as we grow older and novelty wanes, so does wonder.

I suspect that if you interviewed a bunch of us crazies who have chosen to ride our bikes everywhere, you'd find that, at heart, we're largely big kids who have maintained our sense of wonder, and for whom novelty really isn't all that important.  We love our old bikes just as much as our new bikes, and we have never lost the thrill of the first fast descent.  I suspect many of us -- even those of us who are not, as 'grown folks,' racers or speed-demons -- were the kids pedaling our brains out heading down the hill, as our parents shouted after us, "SLOOOOOOOOOW DOooooooooowwwwnnnnn!!!"

We were the ones who went over the bars, bashed our chins on the pavement, got up, got back on, and did it again.

Maybe that's the thing that makes us who and what we are -- and maybe that's what makes the 'safety' argument sound just as alien to me as it must have sounded to DD the first time I said, "I ride my bike to work."

In the end, I guess only time will tell.  My totally unscientific sampling method (riding around and noticing more and more bikes) seems to indicate that more and more people -- at least around here -- are overcoming their fear of riding bikes.  Perhaps as more guys get out on the road and don't wind up as overpriced Cinelli pancakes, more of the ladies will follow (for the record, I don't think it's that women are less brave than men -- just less dumb, and they probably realize that it makes strategic sense to let someone else test the waters first).  More riders will draw more riders.  That's just human nature.

And that -- I hope -- will really make us all a little safer and -- paradoxically -- a little braver, too.


*I will freely admit, by the way, that riding bikes has made me much, much warier of riding in cars.  I may be in danger of becoming a snicker-ee.
**Like cyclists, Canada geese employ rotating pacelines, echelons, and other formations to conserve energy.  Also like cyclists, they are known to throng local parks during most of the year, eat everything in sight, and will bum-rush anyone who shows up with a feed bag.  They do not, however, wear sponsored logos on their jerseys, and only the French Canada geese refer to their feedbags as 'musettes.'  Also, it is rumored that Canada geese eschew the club-ride scene in favor of tweed rides, if only because they are restricted by their very natures to the wearing of tweed at all times and in all places.
***If you roll through a crosswalk against the light while mounted on a bicycle, is that jay-biking?

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