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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for August 18th, 2008

It’s time we paid more attention to the troubling side of two-wheeling

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An opinion piece in the Province from Derek Moscato – a bike commuter himself, he says.

The piece is troubling in that he really does not come up with very much of substance.  For example

the stats show that cyclists here are seven to 70 times more likely to be injured, by trip or by distance travelled, than automobile occupants.

which you must admit is quite a wide range. It is also curious that ICBC refuses to contemplate insurance based on distance driven, saying for cars there is not as much correlation as with other factors, and it is those that set premiums based on risk. Less of course politically incorrect factors like age and sex.

Of course a car occupant is less at risk of injury than a cyclist. They are strapped in a crash tested steel cage, with air bags that deploy on impact. The vehicle body is design to absorb energy. The cyclist, like the pedestrian, is not protected at all. And that includes the helmet we are forced to wear here. Again the evidence in helmets is equivocal – and some studies show that drivers will treat cyclists worse if they wear a helmet!

[Politicians] don’t seem nearly as interested in following through with funding for safe-cycling infrastructure, such as separated bike lanes and stepped-up traffic law enforcement directed at both drivers and cyclists.

But there are some cycling advocates who are against segregated facilities, and insist on their right to be on the road. Indeed the whole Critical Mass movement is to get drivers to accept that cyclists are “traffic”.

Drivers in Vancouver have got worse since I arrived. They have faster cars and are more determined to use the power under the hood for acceleration and illegal speed wherever they drive. The abolition of photo radar was a positive encouragement of this trend.

Just as troubling are those who feel that riding a bicycle entitles them to run red lights or race through pedestrian crosswalks.

Except that the risk of injury in a collision is much less if one is hit by a bicycle than an SUV. But yes, there are cyclists who relish being as casual about compliance as drivers. Moscato does not mention the speeds being driven by cars on Vancouver’s posted cycle routes. Or the frequency of the wrong way round the traffic circle manoeuvre.

The reason cyclists are made to wear helmets is what happens when a bike is hit by a car – not the risk of a fall from a bike. And In North America in general cyclists are much more at risk because there are still very many fewer cyclists than drivers, and most bike injuries result from mountain biking and other recreational activities, not commuting. To the extent that the data is any use at all – as “accident” reports complied by police are notoriously poor as a data set. In Europe there are lots more bikes on the road, and governments in general are more pro-bike – in countries like the Netherlands and Denmark. Even Paris has calmed its traffic and there are advanced stop lines for cyclists at major intersections. London used some of the congestion charge money to improve cycling facilities.

I suspect that part of the problem (lack of attention from politicians) is driven by the statistics. We still do not see people as the essential unit of accounting. Most traffic engineers think in terms of vehicles – or “passenger car units”. This distorts decision making. We now need policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions – and local air pollution. We also need urban strategies to make our cities more people friendly and less auto oriented. We cannot afford to emit more pollution – it must be cut drastically – and we cannot afford any more sprawl. That means putting people before cars. And judging priorities not in terms of increasing “traffic flow” (i.e. cars) but the ability of people not just to move around but also to use the spaces between buildings for social interaction. Streets must be able to serve a wide variety of functions, and the ability of cars to zip through is not the most important.

We should not continue a debate about road safety that is based on a false dichotomy – “two wheels good, four wheel bad”. Obviously in this region compliance with the rules of the road must improve. And hard engineering is needed in many places to slow cars down. Direct routes for human powered movement are needed especially in suburbs designed to limit through car traffic, but absent any facilities for safe walking or cycling. Mostly we need to reallocate road space to improve efficiency. 1000 cars per hour per lane is not enough – which is why we need bus lanes (NOT HOV) on through routes and much better sidewalks and bike paths. I think it is very significant that even when there is a sidewalk and a bike lane, many people abandon the sidewalk. Maybe it is something to do with the number of driveway crossovers.

Moscato of course only has a short column – and the Province is not for people with long attention spans. But what he has identified is merely a symptom of a much bigger issue. We have a leadership that is still stuck in the 1950s. They talk about GHG and being green, but their actions show a different set of priorities. And they get much more excited about bogus bomb alerts – which threaten nobody – than the daily carnage on the streets which threatens us all every day.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 18, 2008 at 11:49 am