Distraction and Privilege on the Road

3 Dec
Photo by Nate Flu, Flickr Creative Commons.

Photo by Nate Flu, Flickr Creative Commons.

In his most recent “Why Richmond, Why?” column, Phil Riggan takes on the issue of distracted driving.  For anyone who even contemplates riding a bicycle on Richmond streets, this is a huge issue.  I cringe every time I see someone using a cellphone, whether I’m driving a car or a bicycle, and that doesn’t begin to cover all of the other distractions.

While it’s probably impossible to prevent all distraction, it’s worth reminding ourselves and others that, when we’re behind the wheel of a machine that weighs a couple of tons and can very easily take someone’s life (including our own), it’s worthwhile to cultivate a degree of attentiveness proportional to those stakes.

That’s both important and difficult because, as Riggan suggests, most of us drive so much that we 1) try to do all sorts of other things while driving, like texting or phoning or eating; and 2) get so used to driving that we get a bit lazy and develop bad habits because it hasn’t resulted in anything terrible yet.  People are also inclined to think that their driving is good compared to other “bad drivers,” which also reduces vigilance.

How most of our streets are for pedestrians.  Now imagine some scaffolding along the edge to represent a bike lane… From the Swedish Road Dierectorate.

Who gets priority on our streets?  Ironically, the least vulnerable of those using them: cars.  From the Swedish Road Dierectorate.

Privilege on the Road

One way of thinking about distracting driving is not just as a bad habit, but as a symptom of privilege.  This goes back to a  point that I like to hit on quite often — because like other kinds of privilege, it’s generally taken for granted by those who enjoy it.  Our roads are designed mainly for cars and only secondarily if at all for other users.  The fact that Complete Streets policies have become a trend in the last few years is an indication of just how incomplete they’ve been for the last several decades, and for how long the problem was not seen as a problem.

I was reminded of this issue last week by a fascinating blog post entitled “What Riding My Bike Has Taught Me About White Privilege.”  I wish I had written it.  I say that because I’ve had exactly this thought a number of times: riding a bicycle on American streets is kind of like being a minority in American society.

But almost immediately after thinking of that comparison, I thought, “It would be hard to talk about that without sounding like a well-meaning but oblivious white person saying something like ‘I know what race discrimination is like because I experience the same kind of thing when I ride my bike.'”  That would be lame for many reasons, to put it mildly.

The author of the post makes clear that you can think of this comparison without pretending to equate minority status on the road with minority status in a broader, social sense.  His aim is really to suggest a way to talk about privilege to people who have it.

Trying to talk to people about privilege is hard because if they feel they are being blamed personally for it, they tend to shut down or get defensive to avoid feeling guilty.  But comparing our roadways to the structure of our society is helpful in this case, I think: no individual car driver is to blame for the way our roads are, but it’s way too easy for most of them to keep using them and not think that much about those marginalized by that system.

This is good for those of us interested in bike advocacy to keep in mind for two reasons.  The first is that white middle-class people and neighborhoods tend to be over-represented when it comes to advocacy and infrastructure.  Second, thinking about our roads this way might help us find better ways to think and talk about the built-in imbalance in our roadway system.

Humanizing People on Bikes

21 Nov


The advocacy group People for Bikes recently launched a media campaign to do just that.  In a way it seems odd that humanizing people on bicycles would be necessary.  We’re right there, sitting on the saddle, not looking particularly like an object or animal most of the time.

But the mentality encouraged by our fast-paced habits and road design, among other things, makes it easy to see people on bicycles, not to mention pedestrians and other motorists, in one-dimensional terms.  They become an obstacle, a menace, or just a stupid *&%$.  The key thing is that you stop seeing commonality and see only how they are not like you: a bad person in one way or another.

It’s hard to not also begin seeing car drivers in this way when you’re on a bicycle, especially when they bear down on you, pass too close and fast, or cut you off.  It also doesn’t help that a person inside a big metal box is hard to see and communicate with other than through crude gestures.

It may sound a bit flower-child-y, and this is not going to make our streets safer by itself, but trying to keep a three-dimensional view of each other on the road could help.  We’re all people on our way somewhere, wanting to get there in one piece.

Fun Rides Coming Up

11 Nov


One of the many benefits of being able to use coffee houses as my office a couple of days each week is being fairly well-informed about local events via those cluttered bulletin boards.  Otherwise I might not have known about two group rides coming up that sound like lots of fun!  (By the way, if you are planning a bicycling-related event, feel free contact me via the Contact link so I can help promote it).

The first is a Tweed Ride organized by the Art Deco Society of Virginia (see flyer above for details).  The standards are, I think, not super strict for things like this: the idea is to get a bit of an early 20th century retro feel while also pointing out that one can have fund riding a bicycle with absolutely no lycra.  I’ll admit I’ve never been on a Tweed Ride before, mainly because I have a tweed deficit.  But maybe I can scare up something tweedy or tweedish in my closet.

The second is a Bike Parade put together by a group I had not yet heard of called Ride On RVA.  It’s coming November 22 at 2 pm, meeting at the VMFA and riding through Carytown to celebrate cycling and promote safety in Richmond.  The Facebook event page is here.  Hope to see you out there!

Cyclists Only Have Themselves to Blame?

4 Nov
How is it that Denmark has lower injury and death rates than the U.S. for bicyclists, but so few helmets?

How is it that Denmark has lower injury and death rates than the U.S. for bicyclists, but so few helmets?  From streetsblog.org.


At least that is what the recent Governor’s Highway Transportation Association report implies.  Spotlight on Highway Safety: Bicyclist Safety, released October 27, has gotten a lot of attention, for good and bad reasons.  The really disturbing part is the big take-away “facts” that the report highlights: cyclist deaths are reported to be increasing (16% between 2010 and 2012), and two factors — cyclists using alcohol and not wearing a helmet — are said to be major factors behind that.  You can imagine how well that confirms what skeptics of cycling and bike infrastructure already believe: it’s dangerous, and it’s cyclists’ fault.

Responses in Urbanful and other places reveal major problems in these results — problems that reveal entrenched, distorted perceptions of bicycling (see the League of American Bicyclists’ response here, and discussion on NPR’s Diane Rehm show here).

Is Cycling Becoming More Dangerous?

Where to begin?  The biggest one is that the supposed “trend” in greater cyclist fatalities is based on data from 2010-2012.  At the risk of stating the statistically obvious: 3 years does not constitute a trend.  It’s not enough data points.

Second, these statistics do not at all take into account the greater number of people bicycling.  Proportional to the number of cyclists on the road, the trend is downward: cycling is getting safer.  Even the US Department of Transportation statistics support that.

And finally, if you look at the actual numbers on a state-by-state basis, one thing really jumps out: the two states with the worst conditions for bicycling, Texas and Florida, also have the highest increase in cyclist deaths.  So does that mean that there is an especially large number of drunk, helmet-less cyclists in those states?  Or could it be that, ahem, more people are bicycling but the roads in those states are the least conducive to bicyclist safety?

Helmets and Alcohol

This points to the other glaring problem (to put it nicely).  The report states that significant percentages of cyclists who died in crashes had a blood alcohol level above .08 or above, or were not wearing helmets.  But that data was from 2012.  One year.  Even less of a trend.

Secondly, that does not mean that every cyclist included in those number died because they were impaired by alcohol and/or not wearing a helmet.  (Of course it’s a bad idea to ride drunk or without a helmet, but correlation is not causation, so it’s really hard to know how much those factors actually contributed).

The biggest problem, of course, is that focusing on these issues leaves the dangerous conditions on our roads completely out of the picture.  Countries like Denmark with really good bicycle infrastructure have lower rates of cyclist injury and fatality and very low helmet use.

So we’re back to the original point: of course we should discourage drunk riding and encourage helmet use, but it’s misguided to put those in the spotlight when two other factors loom so large: car speeds and road design.

To be fair, the report does in the end recommend measures to make U.S. streets safer for cyclists; it’s just unfortunate that the alcohol and helmet issues were promoted as the most noteworthy results.

Taking It To the Streets

Let’s hope that the skewed message of safety does not become a discouragement for potential cyclists or an excuse to not continue with expanding bicycle infrastructure.

To end on a more positive note, check out the recent local NPR piece about bike commuting and new bike lanes in Richmond.  It features a mom in Church Hill who not only bikes to school with her children, but leads a bike caravan of several kids from the neighborhood to Chimborazo Elementary.  How’s that for a headline on the state of bicycling in the U.S.?

More Buffered Lanes!

31 Oct

For Richmond standards, we’re on a roll.  Buffered lanes were installed on the MLK Bridge/Leigh Street viaduct a few weeks ago; bike lanes were striped on part of Forest Hill that was repaved recently; and now we have buffered lanes on Brookland Park Boulevard!

I took my camera along on my morning commute yesterday to snap a photo of the new lanes, but thought the better of it because they’re not actually done yet.  Phil Riggan over at Richmond.com has a number of photos and some coverage of what’s been done so far, including sharrows (shared lane markings) on Brookland Parkway east of Brook.  (The buffered lane is between Hermitage and Brook).  It should become more clear where the bike lane is once there are hash marks in the thin “lane” near the middle and bicycle icons in the lane itself.

I’m excited about this — and just a bit bummed.  I’m excited because this happened with plenty of community support — and despite some fairly loud opposition from a few residents.  I’m also excited because this project will demonstrate a number of things: 1) giving space to bicycles brings benefits, not just to people on bicycles — in this case, traffic calming; 2) removing a travel lane does not produce a local version of “carmageddon”; and 3) riding on a street with real space for bikes feels great, and so we need more of this!

The bummer is that the traffic people in Richmond who still exert a lot of control over these projects seem to invariably find a way to do less when they could easily do more when it comes to bike accommodations.  In this case the lane ends at Brook Road.  So if you’re traveling east, Brookland Park Boulevard/Brookland Parkway will go from one lane from Hermitage to Brook, change back to two lanes between Brook and Hawthorne, and then go back to one lane from there on.  It would have been quite feasible and more consistent to extend the buffered lane to Hawthorne.  Hopefully the absurdity of such decisions will become so apparent that we can go back and fix it later.  And while we’re at it, we could make the Brookland Parkway commercial district east of Hawthorne a safer bike-walk street instead of just putting down sharrows and calling it good.

With all of that said, I still feel like celebrating.

Complete Streets Coming to RVA?

23 Oct
Cycle track (bike lane with physical separation from car traffic) in Long Beach.  From la.streetsblog.org.

Long Beach, CA: One way to make a street “complete” is to create bicycle lanes in which people of any age or ability can feel safe. From la.streetsblog.org.

Another step toward transforming our streets was taken last week in Richmond city council.  Our representatives unanimously approved a Complete Streets policy.  It didn’t get much if any attention in the mainstream press, but this is yet another measure that signals clearly that we’re moving — if still a bit slowly — in the right direction.

What is a Complete Streets Policy?

As worded in the policy (full text here) adopted on October 13:

Complete Streets are designed and operated to safely accommodate street users of all ages and abilities, including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit passengers, and motorists.

Complete Streets policies serve, in essence, to rebalance the approach taken to street (re)design to give all of those users not in cars a fair shake.  In most U.S. cities for the last few decades the main focus has been accommodating cars.  Prioritizing the efficiency and convenience of car travel did a lot to discourage other forms of transportation — and made a lot of cities less inviting in general.  Suburban areas with multi-lane, highway like arterial roads — without sidewalks or bike lanes — are the epitome of this, but even in downtown Richmond there are plenty of places where it’s just not pleasant or safe to walk or bike.

So now, in technical terms, the manual that Richmond’s traffic engineers and planners use when they are doing anything to a street has to be revised to ensure a better balance.  This is especially important in Richmond because some of the people making decisions about such things have yet to fully embrace the idea of shifting priority away from cars.

Battling Misconceptions and Motorist Privilege 

Changing Richmond’s streets is clearly a long-term process — as is changing the culture that shapes how we see and use our streets.  There can be a good bit of animosity between “us” and “them” — usually car drivers versus people who bicycle.  Some things that bicyclists do contribute to that tension, but a lot of it comes from the fact that motorists are used to being the privileged majority.

That helps explain why Complete Streets policies and bike lanes are sometimes interpreted as anti-car; anything that questions or limits what has otherwise been the overwhelming dominance of cars looks like an attack on driving in general.  If you look at how much money and space is still being allocated to cars, it’s hard not to chuckle (or sigh) at the anger sometimes provoked by giving a bit more priority to others.

That’s why I was so pleased to read Phil Riggan’s retorts to a range of, well, let’s say “somewhat misinformed” responses to a recent “Why, Richmond, Why?” piece dealing with bicyclists’ and motorists’ gripes about each other.  Apparently Riggan got a proverbial ear full in response, and at least a few of them show signs of what I’m calling “motorist privilege.”  In the follow-up he does a very nice job of pointing out some of the skewed reasoning that this engenders.

A lot of it boils down to complaints about bicyclists doing “illegal” things that are actually not illegal (and are in some cases done for the cyclist’s own safety), blaming cyclists for unsafe conditions that they did not create, and — this is my favorite — cluttering up the city with their parked bicycles (!).  Riggan’s response to the latter:

One more complaint, a reader can’t stand all the bikes locked up on sidewalks, blocking pedestrian walkways. Ahem. Cars. Are. Parked. Everywhere. I must ask, where else should the bikes be parked? Dark alleyways?  Richmond needs plenty more places to lock up a bike (yes, we need to lock them to something, not just parked on the side of the street).”

Add to that the fact that you can park about 10 bicycles in the same space required by the average car.  Never mind the incredibly expensive parking decks that also generally create dead space in what could otherwise be a lively street.

Some cyclists in Latvia recently came up with a very creative way to show just how much space cars take up on the road and elsewhere compared to bicycles (see article here):

From designboom.com.

From designboom.com.

Just imagine how much nicer our city would be if we didn’t have to devote so much space for car parking and wide streets.  With the right infrastructure, bicycling, walking, and mass transit could be just as convenient if not more so than driving.  Hopefully we can make sure that the Complete Streets policy translates into streets that truly have space for everyone.

Halloween Bike Parade Sat. 10/25

16 Oct

The response to the last Bike Parade aka Kidical Mass in Bellevue back in May was very positive, so here we go again!  It should go without saying, but you don’t have to live in Northside to come.

Bike Ride


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