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A street sign depicting a bicycle with the text “wrong way.”

Choice, freedom, cars, and the path to biking and walking

To drive a car is to be free, at least so-says our culture. I don’t need a citation for that. You can see it for yourself in every car commercial or by querying any member of the public. But it’s also an illusion.

Where does the idea come from? Most of us grew up living in un-walkable, dangerous, communities. The only way we could safely travel anywhere outside of our homes was by car. As children, this meant being chauffeured by adults or older siblings. As adolescents, getting a car and a license was the first step to living free of our parents. And even as adults, we still associate driving as an expression of our independence.

Car culture and its narrow definition of liberty

Let’s step back and look at the big picture. We’ve made questionable assumptions about not only how our communities are built, but about the concept of freedom itself.

First, this worldview takes for granted a culture built on top of car infrastructure. Our car-based system is not simple or cheap, nor is it maintained easily. Freedom to live by car means that everything in your life must exist inside that system. When you think about it, the fact that we can live our entire lives without stepping outside that car-culture bubble is incredible.

Second, it assumes a narrow definition of “freedom” itself. We want to be able to travel where we want, when we want, with who we want. But in order to do that, we need the state to build and maintain roads for us, then we need to take a driving class, then we need to visit the DMV and register a license, then we need to buy a car, which likely involves taking out a loan, then we need to pay for insurance, and then, finally, we are free to drive. Even then, we still have to follow traffic laws, which are some of the most strict and pervasive laws we encounter on a daily basis. As long as you follow those steps, and as long as you’re physically able to drive, and as long as the state keeps building roads, then yay freedom?

A richer liberty with biking and walking

One way to think of freedom is with a series of forks in a road. Each of our actions is choosing a direction. Getting a license was a choice, as was taking out a loan, as was buying a car, as was following traffic laws, and so on. Sure, anyone could choose not to register for a driver’s license, or choose not to take out a loan, but that would sidetrack them from the path to car ownership “freedom.”

This illustrates the false choice that car-culture presents us. To be “free” we have to always make all of the exact same choices. To choose not to drive a car is simply not an option for most people. Whether or not you think this tradeoff is worthwhile, it is certainly not freedom.

Now imagine the multitude of crossroads that exist outside of the ones leading to car ownership. You could choose to walk, take transit, or perhaps even stay home without feeling restricted. One of the ideas behind bikeable and walkable communities is that they are truly free in that they don’t offer false choices. Choosing to walk is just as valid as taking transit and just as valid as driving a car.

This concept is called “positive and negative liberty” in philosophy. “Negative liberty” is the freedom from obstacles. At every crossroads, there are no roadblocks on either path. But “positive liberty” is the freedom to make your own decisions. If everyone feels compelled to choose a certain path, then perhaps they aren’t truly free.

This isn’t just my idea

I saw an article published by AARP recently, Why Older Americans Should Give Up Their Cars, and I was struck by its subtitle:

It’s not what you think. Today, tossing the keys often means freedom, not infirmity.

It also has a great quote by quote by Jeff Speck from Brookline, MA:

Uber, carshare, bike lanes, bikeshares, good transit — with these, people can make a choice to own fewer cars.

Both of these lines echo the idea that biking and walking is a product of freedoms and choices.

AARP has been an advocate for bikeable and walkable communities because they understand that the same standards of freedom don’t apply to everyone. Many people simply cannot drive, or driving imposes too many difficulties for them. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t enable people to make the mobility choices best for them.

This makes you a better person, too

One of the concepts related to “positive liberty” is that it leads to self-actualization. If we are each enabled to make the choices best for us, then we can become the best versions of ourselves. When you spend hours sitting in your car week after week, year after year, is that the best version of yourself? Do you feel like you have any real choice in the matter? If not, then maybe it’s time to start advocating for biking and walking in your town.



One lesson from the pandemic: reforming streets requires community participation

When the pandemic stopped cars around the world, there was a lot of buzz about cities repurposing their empty streets. From California to Florida to France, you could see streets transformed into car-free parks or dining areas. It seemed like a silver lining to a terrible year. But the rest of the story wasn’t so simple.

Bloomberg CityLab has an article by Laura Bliss which describes how these swift projects actually disrupted some of the communities they aimed to help. She uses an example from Oakland:

A few weeks into the project, a survey revealed that, while affluent, white and non-disabled residents were overwhelmingly proponents of the program, people of color, people with lower incomes, and people with disabilities reported much lower levels of awareness, use and support. Local nonprofits criticized the city for its lack of community outreach and for not focusing instead on more urgent pandemic-related issues. Some felt that the street closures themselves sent a mixed message.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an uncommon pattern. In 2019, Detroit received pushback against its free tree planting program for similar reasons, as Bloomberg also reported. The problem then wasn’t the trees themselves, it was the fact that the city wasn’t communicating with residents, and residents didn’t implicitly trust the city.

Detroiters were refusing city-sponsored “free trees.” A researcher found out the problem: She was the first person to ask them if they wanted them.

The story on street closures is a bit more complex than free trees, though. Bliss explains in her article that many cities’ poorer residents were more car-dependent during the pandemic than before, so closing streets to cars was counter-intuitive. Another issue is that street “safety” in the context of the George Floyd protests means much more than simply getting rid of cars.

I’ve written before about the importance of local leadership in reforming transportation. This episode shows that even city-level leadership isn’t always connected with the individual communities within their cities. There is no one-size-fits-all plan for every neighborhood.

Another article from 2020, Towards a More Inclusive Urbanism, has some criticism on the broader issue:

The most widely read and disseminated urbanist thinking around urban design and public policy has little or nothing to say about heavily disinvested places. It is written mostly by, and for, people who live in economically successful places.

[…]

These topics, by and large, are further up the pyramid on Maslow’s hierarchy of urban development needs. Many urban places struggle with issues that are much closer to the base of the pyramid.

But I don’t want to sound discouraged about these projects or their proponents. The idea of reforming streets is great, even if the execution was sometimes misguided. In the case of Oakland, Bliss notes that the city officials did learn from their missteps and soon reworked their program with feedback from the residents. Hopefully, this experience helps guide future projects.


Marley Blonsky’s five tips for inclusive groups rides

Marley Blonsky recently blogged her five tips for making your group ride more inclusive. Having been through a variety of group rides myself, I think each one of these seems like great advice.

You can read the whole thing here on her blog Life on Two Wheels. Here’s the summary:

  1. Be honest about what pace you’re going to ride at and stick to it.
  2. Publish your intended route before the ride.
  3. Have a sweeper at the back of the ride who knows the route and intended destination.
  4. Regroup at the top of hills, and actually give the last people up the hill a chance to rest.
  5. Drop the judgement-based descriptions such as “beginner” or “advanced” when you actually mean slow or fast.

One thing that sticks out to me is how easy each of these should be to follow. For example: you probably know how fast you intend to ride, and you probably know where you’re going, so why not communicate that to everyone? It only takes a small amount thoughtfulness to make the ride better for everyone.


Ridesharing companies cause slight increase of car ownership, new study finds

Many people have speculated on the long-term effects that companies like Uber and Lyft have on cities. A new paper aims to provide some scientific insights. Its data shows, among other things, that car ownership increases slightly when a ridesharing company enters a market.

The paper is titled “The impact of Uber and Lyft on vehicle ownership, fuel economy, and transit across U.S. cities.” It’s published here, open access, by the journal iScience.

“The impact of Uber and Lyft on vehicle ownership, fuel economy, and transit across U.S. cities” graphical abstract.

(Image credit: Ward, Michalek, Samaras, Azevedo, Henao, Rames, & Wenzel. “The impact of Uber and Lyft on vehicle ownership, fuel economy, and transit across U.S. cities.”)

The research shows that ridesharing causes an average 0.7% increase of vehicle ownership. This is slightly higher in car-dependent cities, perhaps unsurprisingly. On average, transit ridership isn’t affected, but there are wide differences between cities. Some cities saw transit use decrease while others saw it increase. The correlating factors for transit seem to be a community’s wealth and amount of households with children. Ridesharing had virtually no effect on fuel economy across all cities.

So what does this all mean?

Anecdotally, I’ve found that Uber and Lyft make living car-free easier in a car-dependent city. They offer a kind of plan-B for the times when you absolutely cannot ride a bicycle, walk, or take transit. This study, however, seems to show that they have the opposite effect on most people.

I assume that living car-free is not a goal for most people, at least not directly. No matter how much we all hate traffic, car payments, and maintenance, people view those as necessary evils.

I also assume that ridesharing does a lot to reinforce car-dependency where it already exists. People who use ridesharing to go places that require cars are probably more likely to purchase cars. Without the rideshare companies propping up the car-dependent locations, those same people may be more inclined to visit and support alternative locations instead.

But this is all just my own analysis, and I could be missing part of the bigger picture. The data itself, however, makes one thing clear: Uber and Lyft aren’t saving us from car dominance. If anything, they’re making it worse.


A photograph of Areli Carreón.
Image credit: BYCS and Areli Carreón.

BYCS interviews Areli Carreón, an activist & the bicycle mayor of Mexico City

Areli Carreón is a co-founder of Bicitekas, a bicycle nonprofit based in Mexico City. She is also a member of the BYCS Bicycle Mayor program. BYCS recently interviewed her and discussed Mexico City’s history, the work that Bicitekas does, and Mexico’s recent “right to mobility” amendment, which she helped push.

An excerpt from the interview:

Before COVID-19, road deaths were one of the principal causes of death in Mexico city as well as for young people and children in the whole of Mexico. In this process, we found out it was necessary to reform the constitution to make a bill that could not be challenged by companies or governments unwilling to comply.

It is such a large and complex process that many of our colleagues were initially unwilling to engage in it. It seems like an unattainable goal. For a law to be firm and to really protect the Mexican population this seemed like the only true option. So 2 years ago, we went for it, and it has been amazing to see how relatively fast it went and how successful we were in getting legislators from all parties involved and on board. One of the things that emerged from this opportunity was to engage with the angle of Mobility as a Right. Now, the right for a safe, mobility, efficient, accessible, equitable mobility is in our central constitution. I’ve been told we are the first and only country that has such a clause in its constitution.

One takeaway from the interview is how much of what Carreón, and Bicitekas as a whole, does is specific to the needs of Mexico City. She identifies unique challenges that the residents face, and she explains how bicycles fit into the solutions for those challenges. This illustrates how local leadership is critical for reforming mobility.

I briefly wrote about Mexico’s “right to mobility” amendment when it first hit the news. I don’t possess the expertise to deeply analyze this topic, but I will mention that bicycle related ballot measures are quite popular in the United States. This seems to align with Carreón’s experience of “how successful we were in getting legislators from all parties involved and on board.” Perhaps something similar happening in the US isn’t as unrealistic as it once seemed.


A comic depicting the bike riders and transit users crammed next to a car driver with comfortable space.
Image credit: “The injustice mobility space” by Fabian Todorovic

Urban Cycling Institute (@fietsprofessor) holds a 2020 mobility meme contest

The Urban Cycling Institute recently held an election for 2020’s best mobility memes on their Twitter page. There are quite a lot, and I think they’re all good. You can view the full list here. Below, I’ve included a few of the highlights:

Revealing road space injustice by Karl Jilg

A comic of people crossing and walking along a street that has been replaced with a bottomless pit.

The injustice mobility space by Fabian Todorovic

A comic depicting the bike riders and transit users crammed next to a car driver with comfortable space.

Roadkill Bill by Ken Avidor

A comic comparing modern traffic deaths to ancient human sacrifice.


NY Times takes an interest in the 2020 pandemic traffic death surge

The 2020 pandemic emptied many of America’s streets while people stayed home. Paradoxically, that caused a sharp spike in traffic deaths. This unexpected phenomenon has started new conversations about how and why our roads are so dangerous.

Now Christina Goldbaum, writing for the New York Times, has a new article on the subject.

The spike in traffic deaths defied historical trends: Economic downturns and reduced congestion typically lead to fewer fatal crashes, federal researchers say. But during the pandemic, it seemed that drivers who felt cooped up in their homes flocked to wide open streets.

[…]

New York was not an outlier. Across the country, fatality rates for traffic crashes increased for the first time in years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a federal agency. Between April and June, the fatality rate rose to around 30 percent higher than the first three months of the year, federal researchers found.

The spike can be explained, in no small part, by the coronavirus crisis.

I previously wrote about this topic the last time it hit the rounds. The short explanation is that our streets and roads are designed for dangerous behavior but, in the past, this dangerousness was muted by congestion. Drivers couldn’t take full advantage of our giant roads when they were stuck in traffic. But with the streets now emptied, the drivers that remain are free to be as reckless as they like.

The moral of the story is the same. We must seriously rethink how we’re building our streets. Their dangerousness wasn’t an accident. It’s the result of decades of building infrastructure that allows as many cars as possible to move as fast as possible. That wasn’t safe before and it certainly isn’t safe now. We need slow the cars and prioritize safe behavior.


A photograph of my bicycle on a bridge over the Chattahoochee river.

Looking back at my 2020 Coffeeneuring Challenge

The 2020 Coffeeneuring Challenge was subtitled “One Good Thing” in recognition that it could be at least one silver lining in a wild year. This annual challenge has always been fun for me, and thankfully the 2020 version was no different.

I originally posted these entries on my personal Instagram page. I’ve reposted them here for posterity.

October 10: ride one

A photo of my bicycle in front of Midtown Coffee House.

For my first day of the challenge, I rode about 3.5 miles to Midtown Coffee House for coffee and breakfast. I managed to beat the remnants of hurricane Delta before it hits us later that day.

October 14: ride two

A photo of my bicycle in front of Fountain City Coffee.

I biked 7 miles downtown to Fountain City Coffee to have breakfast. I took a detour across the Chattahoochee river to ride the Alabama side of the river walk before looping around back towards home. Fountain City Coffee was great, as usual!

October 22: ride three

A photo of my bag, helmet, iPad, and coffee on an outdoor table.

A 5.7 mile round trip to Iron Bank Coffee via our Dragonfly Trails. I enjoyed some breakfast on the sidewalk while I wrote a new Bike Walk Life blog post.

October 27: ride four

A photo of my bicycle in front of Parker's Pantry.

I biked 3.3 miles around the neighborhood to check out the Halloween decor this year. I stopped by Parker’s Pantry to get some to-go coffee and lunch.

November 3: ride five

A photo of my bicycle in front of an art piece titled "We Cannot Walk Alone."

For my fifth Coffeeneuring ride, I opted to bring my own coffee in a thermos and ride along the Columbus, GA Riverwalk. I found the latest public art installation, We Cannot Walk Alone. Then I stopped under a tree in the park to enjoy my coffee, away from the crowds and loud rapids.

Total distance: 7.2 miles.

November 8: ride six

A photo of my bicycle in front of a church.

After my usual bike ride to church in the morning, I headed to Fountain City Coffee for lunch. I always like riding on weekends because you see so many more people on the Dragonfly Trails here in Columbus. Plus the traffic is lighter, which always helps!

I rode 6.75 miles and got home just before some gusty rain started drizzling on us.

November 10: ride seven

A photo of my bicycle in front of a sign for "Chattahoochee Riverwalk" and under a pedestrian bridge.

For my final Coffeeneuring 2020 ride, I visited the north end of the Columbus Riverwalk. This was the first time I had been here since they completed the expansion, and I have to say it’s impressive. The new bridge takes you up over the dam and through the old mill. I stopped on top for a while to drink my coffee (packed from home, since there aren’t any cafes way out here). I think this is one of the most (or THE most?) scenic areas in Columbus now. Absolutely worth riding (or walking).

Total distance: 12.5 miles.


Virginia is decriminalizing “jaywalking”

Regular Bike Walk Life readers know that I’m no fan of “jaywalking.” I even choose to write it in scare-quotes because the word itself carries derogatory connotations. Fortunately, though, one state is working to decriminalize it. Wyatt Gordon reports for Virginia Mercury that a police-reform bill includes a provision that decriminalizes pedestrians crossing the street.

His article includes some good commentary on why this is a big deal:

Most countries would consider the concept of jaywalking a scam that Americans have been conditioned to believe is normal. In the Netherlands, for example, traffic engineers and urban planners have actually worked to lower the country’s curbs so as to encourage people to cross wherever they like.

Before the advent of the automobile, pedestrians in America were widely recognized as having the right of way in all situations. The road to car culture’s dominance in the United States was literally paved with blood — drivers had already killed some 200,000 people by 1920. In response, auto industry groups launched a “jaywalking” campaign to place blame for collisions on pedestrians rather than drivers.

He discusses some of the other larger issues at play: the fact that enforcement is racially biased, whether or not this makes it “ok” to jaywalk, and how likely this is to make streets safer.

Regarding whether or not jaywalking should be “ok,” I’ve written before on why jaywalking is a natural behavior. Skeptics will correctly observe that our streets are dangerous and pedestrians walking in them can be fatal. I won’t argue that isn’t the case, because it clearly is. But we have two basic choices for how to deal with it: either we crack down on the people walking (who are getting killed) or we crack down on the driving (that is doing the killing).

Anti-jaywalking laws are solidly in the former category. It’s time now that we take a look at the other option.


Going “to the poorhouse in an automobile,” and why cars are unequal burdens.

There is a great blog post by Todd Litman on Planetizen about why car dependency is a major factor in fueling poverty:

Entertainer Will Rogers once noted that, “The United States is the only country ever to go to the poorhouse in an automobile.” This has become tragically true for many low- and moderate-income families.

For example, thousands of automobiles regularly line up to receive food bank packages, as illustrated in the photo above.

These are mostly nice SUVs, light trucks and vans, the types of vehicles owned by responsible families living in automobile-dependent communities. Automobile food bank lines are, to a large degree, a self-fulfilling prophesy: Because residents must drive everywhere, they have high transportation costs, leaving inadequate money for other essentials like food, shelter and healthcare, which forces them to depend on charity.

He writes a convincing argument, and I recommend reading the whole article. One of our biggest collective mistakes has been making car ownership the entry-fee for participating in society.


Mural bike ride in Brunswick, GA, and why we should do more of them.

On January 17, local riders in Brunswick, GA will host a ride for people to view their town’s murals. Terry Dickson reports for The Brunswick News:

Beyond that, he said it’s a great way to show off the downtown area and draw attention to the hard work put in by artists, city officials and business owners to beautify his hometown.

“I think it’s going to be pretty significant,” Robert McDonald said. “It’s a good little ride, it only takes about an hour, an hour and a half. It’s good for beginners, it’s not fast-paced. It’s on alleyways and side streets, with history and cobbles. It’s a good ride.”

I don’t have any affiliation with this event, but I love the idea of it. It seems like a great way to build a community around the joy of riding bicycles.

An unfortunate side-effect of our pandemic era is that many community and cultural activities have been restricted to car drivers. From drive-throughs to curbside services, we’ve sidelined bicycle riders and pedestrians. But this isn’t because picking up your food in a car is necessarily safer than on foot. This is an accident of our car-centric infrastructure. It’s about time we offered activities for non-drivers too.

Many people (including myself) go out and ride bicycles together just for the sake of riding bicycles. That’s great, but it’s also important to have events with a purpose beyond simply riding.


Nobody wants sharrows. Why do they exist?

“Sharrows” are those painted arrows with bicycle symbols we see on some streets. Many bicyclists dislike sharrows and ignore them. Most drivers have no idea what sharrows are and ignore them. Why are they so misunderstood? And what are they really for?

I flipped through my copy of the Georgia Bicyclist Pocket Guide to see if there was any mention of them. Here’s what it says:

Sharrows: While not a facility, sharrows are on-street pavement markings that indicate a preferred bike route and alert motorists to the presence and typical lane position of bicyclists on the roadway.

They can be effective wayfinding signage and can raise awareness of bicyclists to low volume, low speed roads.

When riding on a roadway with sharrows, you are not required to ride in the space designated by the sharrow.

So they’re mainly wayfinding tools, like signs. Why not use a sign? Either way, it’s notable that they’re misunderstood enough that the guide needs to explain what they aren’t for in a bolded paragraph.

But this wayfinding feature does check out with how I commonly see them. Sharrows are often on roads that connect bike lanes or trails. Again, why not have a sign?

Tom MacWright posted this on his blog recently, which I found enlightening: Sharrows, the bicycle infrastructure that doesn’t work and nobody wants.

The purpose of a sharrow is to encourage good bicyclist and driver behavior. Sharrows don’t increase legal penalties for drivers or cyclists. They encourage cyclists to take the lane, but cyclists are permitted to do that anyway, on any narrow street. Sharrows are supposed to make motorists aware of cyclists. When drivers kill people in sharrows, there aren’t any additional consequences. The consequences for hitting people with cars are minimal.

Sharrows do constitute class III bikeways, which bring with them higher penalties for illegal parking.

Their purpose is to “encourage” good behavior without any actual enforcement. Considering that most bicyclists and drivers have no idea what sharrows are supposed to mean, I suspect that little encouragement is happening. In fact, sharrows are more likely to be the butt of jokes.

MacWright notes the Federal Highway Administration’s official purpose for sharrows:

  1. Assist bicyclists with lateral positioning in a shared lane with on-street parallel parking in order to reduce the chance of a bicyclist’s impacting the open door of a parked vehicle.
  2. Assist bicyclists with lateral positioning in lanes that are too narrow for a motor vehicle and a bicycle to travel side by side within the same traffic lane.
  3. Alert road users of the lateral location bicylists are likely to occupy within the traveled way.
  4. Encourage safe passing of bicyclists by motorists, and
  5. Reduce the incidence of wrong-way bicycling.

I consider myself fairly fluent with pointless bicycle terminology, and I have never heard of “lateral positioning” before. Apparently it refers to riding away from the “door zone,” the area where parked car doors swing open and hit bicyclists (“dooring”). Now that I know this about sharrows, they actually make more sense to me. However, sharrows in my city are usually in areas with no on-street parking, so this issue never comes up. Which leads us back to the original question: why have sharrows at all?

MacWright’s post includes some quotes from actual research into how effective sharrows are. I won’t reiterate it all, but the data indicates what every road user already knows, that sharrows don’t do anything.

Sharrows exist because our streets are so starved for bicycle infrastructure that we’re willing to accept anything, even non-solutions. Sharrows are something that committees can use as a compromise between doing nothing and doing something useful, but they’re just as good as nothing. Meanwhile, drivers are still free to hit, honk at, and verbally harass bicyclists.