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Bike Walk Life

News and commentary from the world of biking and walking.

Traffic sign that reads: "GA ROADWAY FATALITIES THIS YEAR: 1182 / DRIVE ALERT."

Our transportation system is a disaster to human life, and no one cares

I have believed that one powerful argument in support of transportation reform is to simply show how deadly our car-centric system is. Millions of people have died, and will continue to die, in part from the volume of cars on our roads and how the roads themselves are engineered. But, as damning as that sounds, even die-hard car drivers don’t dispute it. Everyone is aware that our roads are deadly. They just don’t care.

Imagine if the US federal government instituted a giant project that impacted every single neighborhood in every single town in the entire nation. Then, decades later, a whistleblower exposed that this Big Government project had been directly responsible for millions of deaths. It’s not hard to imagine what would follow: protests, campaigns for defunding, and investigations into the project’s officials.

Yet, in the real-life version of this story, the scandalous data has always been out in the open. People are so unfazed that the government itself even advertises it:

Traffic sign that reads: "GA ROADWAY FATALITIES THIS YEAR: 1182 / DRIVE ALERT."

(Photo credit: B137 on Wikipedia.)

Our officials normally put those kinds of warnings on things that they want people to avoid, like tobacco products, but here our government is advertising how deadly its own infrastructure is. No one cares.

Maybe you think that you’re an exception, that you do care. Then I challenge you to ask yourself: does your concern truly match the seriousness of this issue? Do millions of deaths caused by a government project scandalize you? Have you written letters to your officials? Have you marched in the streets? Or is it just another bullet point on your list of reasons for reform in general?

This deadliness has become so normalized that it doesn’t even come up often among people who support transportation reforms. More commonly, we base our anti-car arguments around climate change, physical health, and monetary cost. (Just to be clear, those are good topics too.) When we do talk about traffic violence, we never treat it like it’s a scandal.

I believe that one element to this phenomenon is a failure of imagination. As I wrote before, people have trouble even imagining a version of their community that’s not car-centric. We can envision a world without wars, without taxes, and without gun violence, but not without cars. Sure, maybe those multi-lane roads through our neighborhoods are loud, ugly, and literally killing people, but the alternative, a world without those roads, seems absurd. It’s easier to convince ourselves that the status-quo is fine.

Our roads are very deadly. No one disputes that fact, so our only disagreement comes from a matter of perspective. Is millions of traffic deaths “just how it goes” or is it an unconscionable scandal? Is each death the victim’s fault, is it just an accident, or is it all of our faults for allowing this deadly system? I don’t know any easy way to change the public’s perspective, but we can start by treating the situation with the severity that it deserves.



The search for justice continues for Obianuju Osuegbu, the 17-year-old bicycle rider killed in 2020

In 2020, Obianuju Osuegbu was riding her bicycle on her way home from work when a car driver, who was high on drugs, struck her and ended her life. Law enforcement placed the blame on her and have yet to prosecute the driver. Now her family is doing what they can to make sure justice takes place.

You can see more about the story at WSB-TV and at FOX-5 Atlanta.

According to the initial toxicology report from the responding state trooper, Adam Dodd, Rawlins had four drugs in her system, including meth and valium.

Bruce Hagen, the attorney working with Osuegbu’s family, specializes in bicycle cases. He said this is a “prima-facie case for felony vehicular homicide.”

However, the Barrow County District Attorney won’t charge Rawlins because the trooper’s report lays the blame on 17-year-old Osuegbu. The incident report by the Athens-area trooper said that Osuegbu didn’t have a light on the back of her bike and she wasn’t wearing reflective clothing. The report also claimed that she should have been on the right side of the road despite the fact that she was about to turn left to go home.

In the state of Georgia, where this took place, bicycle riders are not legally required to have lights on the back of their bikes, much less required to wear reflective clothing. The fact that those details seemed to have influenced the trooper’s decision is a problem by itself, even before you consider that the driver was high on four different drugs.

When a teenager gets blamed for her own homicide when she did nothing illegal, and the driver high on drugs who hit her doesn’t get charged for it, then it doesn’t take a lawyer to see a misapplication of justice taking place.

The driver didn’t get away completely scot-free, though. She was charged with child endangerment. But that wasn’t because she killed a teenager. It was for the children in the car with her.

As ridiculous as this case is, we would be remiss to merely consider this as a failure of law enforcement. Here’s what the site of the crash looks like (on the right, you can see the ghost-bike memorializing Obianuju’s death):

A photo of a rural highway as seen from a car.

This does not look like a safe route for bicycles at all. Yet, we had a teenage girl rely on it to get home from work. Even without the drugs and the neglectful law enforcement, our underlying transportation system enables disasters like this to happen all the time.

If there’s any consolation, it’s that the Osuegbu family has lawyers working for them, and that the media has picked up the story. No matter the outcome of this case, it can serve as yet-another example of how much bicycle riders need justice on their side.


Dealing with anti-bicycle internet trolls

The Guardian posted a profile of Andrew Tierney, a UK man who has begun fighting anti-bicycle trolls. It delves into the kinds of online abuse he sees and his strategies for addressing it.

Tierney, who goes by the name @cybergibbons online, is part of a new breed of cycling activists. After noticing an increase in the amount of abuse and violent threats on social media directed at people who ride bikes, Tierney decided to take action. He started calling out the posters online, with the result that many deleted their comments or even their accounts.

[…]

“There can be videos of them with their kids, yet they’re making a statement that they want to go out and harm someone, and they think that this is completely acceptable because it’s a comment about cyclists. That genuinely shocked me.”

You can read the full article here.

While the abuse aimed at bicycle riders is far from the most toxic behavior that exists on social media, it’s still troubling. Tierney observes that these threatening comments would get quickly called out if made against any other class of person, but making them against people on bicycles is seen as socially acceptable.

“If someone says something racist [online], on the whole, people will challenge those views,” he says. “It should be the same for threats made against cyclists; challenge those who make these statements.”

Social media companies should definitely put this on their radar and clamp down, but it also exposes a deeper social problem. These people aren’t anonymous trolls. Ordinary people, the kind who go online to post videos of their kids, are feeling enabled to casually post violent comments.

Which means that companies can only be one part of the solution. Andrew Tierney can’t change this alone. We need to all help make violent comments against bicycle riders socially unacceptable.


Americans want to change their lifestyle due to gas prices, but can they?

AAA revealed some new survey data on how Americans are reacting to rising gas prices, and it shows that we’ve possibly crossed a threshold.

Over half (59%) said they would make changes to their driving habits or lifestyle if the cost of gas rose to $4 per gallon. If gas were to reach $5.00, which it has in the Western part of the country, three-quarters said they would need to adjust their lifestyle to offset the spike at the pump.

Read the full AAA statement here.

AAA’s analysis of how we can save our personal budgets is lukewarm, though. They cite that people will likely carpool and combine trips and errands. They also offer some feeble advice, such as “keep your vehicle in top shape” and “map your route.” Thanks, I guess?

Common sense tells us there’s a physical limit to how much we can optimize our routes and our engine’s performance. More importantly, those suggestions are still car-dependent. They keep us tethered to gas prices in one form or another.

When someone needs to fix their dependency on junk-food, they can’t win by giving up only green M&Ms. They need to radically change their entire diet. Likewise, we can’t just cut a few of our car trips and expect that to save us from transportation costs. Americans need to look beyond car dependency.

So how many of those survey respondents will start biking and walking instead of driving? The reality is, most of us can’t. As I’ve written before, our car culture offers us a false sense of freedom. Opting-out of driving is a Hobson’s choice for most Americans. If you decide you don’t want to buy gas, don’t want a government-issued license, and don’t want tens of thousands of dollars of personal debt just so you can go to work in the morning, then too bad. Our society disproportionately subsidizes cars at the expense of every other mobility option.

When the car subsidization ends, or at least becomes less effective, then suddenly everyone reconsiders how much they love driving. The best thing we can do now to fortify ourselves against events like rising gas prices is to make diverse mobility options viable. We need to get serious about investing biking, walking, and transit infrastructure.


Investing in imagination

The Cycling Professor on Twitter often says, regarding bicycle infrastructure, “we have no lack of space, just a lack of imagination.”

This is a refutation of the argument that we can’t build bike lanes because we have no space for them. Any street can be made bicycle friendly as long as we discard our assumption that public space’s prime directive is car transportation. The problem is that most of us have trouble imagining what that would be like, so it seems impossible.

The vision that created car culture

It sounds cliché, but imagination is powerful. A couple of generations ago, people imagined that all of our communities could be connected by giant highways. There was no space for that either, but they did it anyway. They tore down neighborhoods and forests to make way for interstates. Within a few decades, our entire culture was realigned in service of car infrastructure.

To people today who were born into this environment, this status quo may seem normal and natural, but it never was. It only exists now because our grandparents believed that the society of the future needed to be oriented around cars.

The problem with our current discourse

A lot of our transportation and urbanism conversation revolves around cities that have existed since before car culture began. Advocates talk about tearing down highways and restoring city streets to the human-centric environments of their past. That is a good conversation, but it doesn’t resonate everywhere. I’ve lived most of my life in the southeastern United States. Almost all of this region’s growth occurred after interstate expansion became the norm. The historic city centers here are hollow kernels amidst sprawling developments that were never walkable. To the generation that grew up here, a walkable and bikeable community seems like a fantasy world.

Urbanists use terms like “traditional development” to refer to the way towns were built throughout history until the suburban experiment. But I’m always cautious using those words. Where I’m from, words like “traditional,” “old school,” and “classic” evoke the opposite images. People think of highways, malls, and drive-thrus. The communities here are young, and the only “tradition” that ever existed for them is car culture. Human-centered design, including walkability and bicycle lanes, feels like a newfangled modern invention.

If you’re tempted to just sneer and dismiss the opinions of people who feel that, then I challenge you to put yourself in their shoes. Pick almost any populated area in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, or any other southeastern state. Drop yourself there (you can use Google Maps) and look around. Can you imagine what it would look like if it was walkable or bikeable? And if you are able to imagine that, do you think you can communicate that vision effectively to someone who lives there?

Imagining a future for people, not cars

I don’t want to sound pessimistic, just realistic. The obstacles we face from our culture are arguably even bigger than our engineering problems. Too often, urbanists only talk to other urbanists, and their message just flies past the rest of us. To make lasting change, we need to invest in the public’s imagination. People need to be able to imagine what a walkable and bikeable life is, and why they would want it.

In fact, I think that this is a great time to be more optimistic than ever. The past hundred years, even the past decade, has been filled with changes that seemed beyond the imagination to a majority of the population. No part of life has been safe from this effect: technological, political, social, and so on. People with great imaginative creativity, who are often a minority, have successfully made their visions into reality again and again. Our status quo is never as stable as we like to believe. We need to foster the imaginations of people who can create the change we need.


Widespread pro-autonomous vehicle bias found across AV public acceptance studies

Researchers analyzed 91 peer-reviewed scientific studies on the public acceptance of AVs (autonomous vehicles, or self-driving cars). They found that a majority of these studies have a pro-AV bias in either their methodology or their sentiment.

Read it here: Empirical evidence of bias in public acceptance of autonomous vehicles.

Highlights

  • Disadvantaged groups barely were involved in public acceptance of AVs.
  • Sentiment bias is assessable in 65% of the AV studies.
  • Systematic errors exist in the surveys of public acceptance of AVs.
  • Existing research does not confirm the idealistic expectation of AVs advertised by media.

The studies in question survey public opinion about AVs, and their findings convey that people generally think that AVs will make our lives better. However, this paper demonstrates that those studies don’t necessarily paint an accurate picture. Many of their methods are flawed by using population samples that don’t represent society as a whole, or by using “proxy respondents” (i.e., asking people without disabilities if they believe AVs will help people with disabilities). They also use leading questions, such as asking if AVs will contribute to “less traffic” or “increased safety.”

Issues with the methods aside, it’s also important to put public opinion in context. The way people answer questions is reflective of the media and popular narrative that they consume, not on the reality of what AVs will actually do. Even when a majority of people believe that AVs will increase safety, that says very little about the actual safety of AVs.

But one of the most interesting findings is the sentiment bias of the papers themselves. In a vast majority of the articles, their analysis has a more positive sentiment than the actual results. It seems obvious that the researchers are personally interested in promoting AVs, regardless of their findings.

It’s worth remembering that our car-oriented status quo is a relatively new social aberration. Throughout history, our streets were used by pedestrians, horses, carriages, bicycles, trolleys, and cars alike until car manufacturers actively campaigned to drive everyone else out. It’s not a secret that AVs will make our streets even more dangerous to pedestrians and bicycles. Biased scientific research continues to be a tool to promote car dominance.


The Atlantic: "Big Cars are Killing Americans"

The Atlantic recently published an article by Angie Schmitt which gets right to the point. Our cars are getting bigger and bigger, and traffic deaths are going up as a result.

Read it here: Big Cars are Killing Americans.

One common notion—though auto-safety experts will say it’s not that simple—is that it’s safer to get around in what’s basically a tank. But those benefits, exaggerated as they may be, are only for people inside the vehicle. People outside—pedestrians, cyclists, wheelchair users—are in more peril.

In 2003, a study found that SUVs were three times more likely than sedans to kill pedestrians when they struck them.

People who keep up with mobility news are probably familiar with Schmitt’s advocacy work. It’s good to see more mainstream media outlets picking up her message.


Bicycle Infrastructure Manuals

Bicycle Infrastructure Manuals is a website that hosts documents about (as you may guess) bicycle infrastructure from around the world.

Here you will find cycling infrastructure design manuals, strategy guides and more all curated from all over the world and organized into one easy-to-use database. Missing anything? Let us know!

bicycleinfrastructuremanuals.com

This seems like a useful resource for anyone in search of bicycle literature. It also reveals which regions lack such manuals. For example, some US states haven’t had a new bicycle transportation plan in decades, and many have never had one.

In case there are any gaps that the site maintainers have missed, they do have a form for submitting suggestions.


First study of its kind shows that we can prevent 15K early deaths in the US by shifting to bicycling

A new study aims to quantify the lives we could save by bicycling instead of driving cars in the future. Its “ambitious high bike use” scenario predicts that 205,424 early deaths would be prevented globally by 2050. Of those, 15,309 would be in the United States.

The paper, published late 2021, is titled Premature Mortality of 2050 High Bike Use Scenarios in 17 Countries. It analyzes the health benefits of bicycling compared to its risks of traffic violence and breathing air pollution.

It turns out that the health benefits outweigh everything else, and it’s not even close. This chart shows how physical activity saves far more lives than the dangers combined, based on replacing a mere 8% of car trips with bikes:

A graph showing the premature deaths caused by physical activity, air pollution, and traffic fatalities in different countries.

This is the first study that’s analyzed bicycling’s impact on global mortality, and its findings are a conservative estimate based on existing numbers. It’s important to recognize that this study doesn’t account for other variables, such as how many driver’s lives would be saved from fewer crashes or how “vision zero” policies can protect even more people.

One thing that this data makes clear, though, is that we currently aren’t taking the health benefits of bicycling seriously enough.


Twitter's Cycling Professor is looking for 2021's most powerful mobility meme

The “Cycling Professor” (@fietsprofessor) is one of social media’s most active evangelists for bicycling. The professor’s annual mobility meme contest has opened for its 2021 round of submissions.

Here are a couple of the candidates so far:

"Things kids have sacrificed for drivers: playing on their street, safe school streets, walking to school, walking to the park, random play, crossing the street, playing at night, independence, quality street life, air quality, etc... Things drivers have sacrificed for kids: "

A cartoon that shows houses with various personal objects taking up space in front of them on the street, with text explaining that all of them are prohibited except for the car.

Do you have a #MostPowerfulMobilityMeme for 2021? There are a lot of great submissions so far in the Twitter hashtag.


Mobility as a Hobson’s choice

As more people want to live somewhere with better transportation choices, many communities are promoting their walkability and similar features. But every time a person moves to a “walkable” or “bikeable” neighborhood, they end up driving everywhere anyway. I think our towns are presenting us a Hobson’s choice.

Thomas Hobson was a 17th-century stable owner. He had a large stock of horses which attracted many customers. But whenever a potential customer had visited and had seen all of his horses, he presented them with his eponymous choice. They could either take the horse closest to the door, or none at all.

That may seem like questionable business, but it worked. Customers were lured in under the belief they had many options. When they found out they only had one horse to choose from, they would rather take anything at all than leave empty-handed.

I wonder if this is what happens when people move to new neighborhoods. When someone visits a potential new home, they see nearby walking trails, parks, cafes with quaint cobblestone sidewalks, and maybe even a bike lane and a bus stop. (Of course, they see all of these things from inside their cars.) What a nice area, they think, this is so much better than my last town that was full of interstates and car traffic.

But when the actually move in, they still just drive everywhere. They have no other choice. Getting from their house to work, to school, or to any of the (big-box) stores requires a car. The “walkability” and other features are merely an aesthetic.

Maybe an aesthetic is what some people really want, quaint scenery for when they commute by car. Maybe some people just don’t know what real walkable communities look like, since they’ve never lived in one. Or maybe mobility choices just aren’t that high of a priority for some people.

Either way, no one has any option but to keep driving. That’s the deal, take it or leave it. And whether you like that deal or not, building half-baked mobility choices that aren’t really choices at all is a disservice to everyone in our communities.


Braess’s paradox: why traffic seems to always get worse

If you’ve ever wondered why our overall traffic congestion never improves, no matter how many new roads we build, then the answer is Braess’s paradox. It states that adding more roads to a network can actually slow down traffic. That may seem counter-intuitive, but we can plainly see it happen in all of our modern towns.

One thing about Braess’s paradox is that it’s not simply observational. It’s based on mathematics. Like all paradoxes, it only seems counter-intuitive on the surface, but it’s actually logically sound. In fact, we have formulas for calculating exactly how the paradox works. (Wikipedia has a wealth of explanation.)

Since the paradox was first discovered in 1968, the real mystery now is why do we keep ignoring it. Towns across North America keep trying to improve traffic by adding new car lanes, and we act surprised when congestion keeps getting worse. Our expanding roads tear neighborhoods apart, pollute our communities, kill more and more road users, and make biking and walking close to impossible. On top of that, they don’t even fix the problem we built them to solve.

The existence of Braess’s paradox isn’t controversial, but its application is. Expanding roads today is entangled with emotions and politics. But our society’s love affair with car infrastructure will have to end sooner or later, since the status quo is unsustainable. Accepting the reality will have to be the first step.