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Even when the law forbids it, “jaywalking” is the rational and natural choice

In the US, we all grow up learning that jaywalking is dangerous and illegal. Most of the time, we don’t question that. Of course people shouldn’t step outside of designated walking paths after waiting for the pedestrian signal to turn and after looking both ways. Of course streets are for cars, so people outside of cars shouldn’t expect to be safe. Eventually this thought process brings us to its ultimate conclusion: of course that person killed by a car brought her fate upon herself, she was jaywalking.

This is the logic that car-culture sells, but we don’t have to buy it. Angie Schmitt and Charles T. Brown wrote a recent article for Bloomberg CityLab: “9 Reasons to Eliminate Jaywalking Laws Now”. They premise it on the idea that jaywalking laws don’t even do the one thing that they’re supposed to do: make our streets safer. For example, pedestrians are killed just as often at crosswalks as they are on other parts of the street, and the laws are enforced unevenly. But one of their points especially stuck out to me:

5. When pedestrians jaywalk, they are often behaving rationally.

Jaywalking laws are not flexible enough to account for the range of scenarios pedestrians encounter, including prolonged signal timings and delays that give priority to automobiles. In some cases, jaywalking is driven by the fear of crime, particularly in low-income communities. In others, there simply aren’t enough crosswalks, or crosswalks are at the wrong location.

Jaywalking may be the most rational choice given a host of bad options. For example, an investigation into the nation-leading pedestrian deaths in Arizona by the Arizona Republic last year found only about a third of the pedestrians killed in Phoenix were near (within 500 feet of) a crosswalk. The reporters concluded there was a need for more crosswalks, not a crackdown on jaywalkers.

Among their arguments about history, engineering, and law enforcement, this is the one that focuses on the walkers themselves. I think that this cuts to the heart of why jaywalking laws are so problematic. Once we start to empathize with the walkers as rational people just like us, the laws are obviously wrong.

When you’re driving at 45 MPH down a four-lane road and you see a walker hustling across ahead of you, it’s easy to dismiss him or her as reckless, criminal, or just plain stupid (which is the actual meaning of “jay” in “jaywalk”). But if you were to switch places with that person, the situation may look completely different. As a walker, you just want to cross the street. You know that the closest crosswalk is far away and has a long light, so only a foolish person would waste their time on that route. Why not just cross here?

Both drivers and walkers are people who want to get from point A to point B. The drivers have the luxury of a transportation system that’s built to make their trips as easy as possible. The walkers have to work against the system. Playing by the rules, walking far away to a crosswalk and then walking all the way back on other other side of the road, is a ridiculous option to anyone in that situation.

Complying with pedestrian laws is so difficult that most walkers would rather just take out a loan on a vehicle and join the winning side of our pay-to-play transportation system. If we want to reverse this cycle, we desperately need to advocate for the dignity, and rationality, of people on foot.



The pandemic-era traffic death paradox

One of this blog’s refrains is that we need to lower the number of cars on our streets to stop people from dying in crashes. Cars are inherently dangerous and, as they get larger and faster, they grow more deadly every year. However, our “new abnormal” has presented a paradox: Americans drove far less this year, but traffic deaths went up. How is that possible? Of course, true paradoxes don’t exist, only apparent paradoxes. Alissa Walker, writing for Curbed, has a report on the topic:

So what was happening? The biggest factor, NHTSA’s report suggests, may be twofold: the type of driver who was still out making trips during the pandemic despite stay-at-home orders and the driving behavior that the empty streets allowed.

(Emphasis mine.)

That second point is the one that got my attention. The big picture is that cars and drivers are not the only the only pieces of the equation. The design of our streets plays an enormous role.

Most streets and roads in America are designed so that vehicles can move “safely” as fast as they want. That means our streets are wide, straight, and clear of obstacles around them. But driving as fast as you want is inherently dangerous, both to the drivers and to the people around them, including pedestrians and bicycle riders. So our streets, ironically, end up enabling dangerous behaviors.

It seems like this cycle was kept at an equilibrium for a while thanks to congestion, which forces drivers to slow down and pay attention. When congestion disappeared, drivers were free to live their Mad Max fantasies.

This particular quote from the NHTSA’s report struck me:

Faster travel, whether or not actually exceeding the speed limit, increases the chance of fatalities in a crash.

In other words, drivers can follow the speed limit, and presumably all other laws as well, and still be at a higher risk of killing someone. That sure sounds like an formal admittance that our streets are deadly-by-design.


Bicycle gear: bikes with two child seats, and a frame bag shoulder pad

I love the gear aspect of bicycle culture. Riders have endless options for customizing their bicycles to match any taste or lifestyle. I’m always delighted to discover new gear, even if I personally have no need for it. And who knows? Maybe someone I meet on the trail will be glad to know these are out there.

Frame bag with shoulder pad

I avoid carrying my bike on my shoulder when possible. It’s heavy and awkward, which isn’t helped by its panniers and other gear. Thankfully, I don’t need to carry it often. But if you do need to carry yours, this product seems like a great idea. It attaches under the seat and inside the frame. It holds your small items and acts as a pad for when you need to swing your bike over your shoulder.

Bicycles with two child seats, by This Mom Bikes

This isn’t one product, but an article by Lindsay Bliek about the options for bicycles with two child seats. You may have not known, as I did not, that there are several types of bicycles that fit this category: longtails, bakfietsen, trikes, and mamachari. Bliek explains the difference between each type and offers suggestions on where you can purchase them. I think utility bicycles like these are always cool, mainly because I don’t see a lot in my area.

Do you have a cool piece of bicycle gear you found or DIYed? I’m always open to hearing about them.


It’s time to do something about car advertising

Car advertisements are everywhere. Until now, there hasn’t been much public discussion about them. Andy Furillo, writing for Mobility Lab, argues that it’s time to change that:

Automobiles impose staggering costs on society. Informed mobility behavior can reduce these costs, but the U.S. auto industry has near-unchecked power to control people’s perception of transportation through advertising. Accordingly, car commercials are a key sustainer of auto-dependence.

In contrast to automobile ads, the public messaging capabilities of other high-cost industries – like tobacco and pharmaceuticals – are regulated, helping manage these industries’ behavioral influence. By using similar strategies to manage car companies – which would build on transportation-industry precedent that already exists – our leaders could improve access for people. These strategies include:

  • Limiting the extent to which car advertisements can portray dangerous driving
  • Requiring car companies to disclose downsides and externalities of their products
  • Retooling traffic safety-related public service announcements to educate people more holistically about the transportation options they have

And he goes on to make the case for why these strategies are necessary. If you haven’t, it’s worth reading his article in its entirety.

The first pillar of his argument is the “high cost to society” aspect. While it’s an important topic, I’m going to overlook it for now. I find those kinds of discussions abstract and impersonal. Sure, it’s awful that people in the U.S. pay $1.3 trillion dollars personally on cars, but how many trillions do we spend on other stuff? Besides, people love cars. When you are in love with something, you find ways to justify the cost.

Car advertisements get away with promoting deadly behavior

His other arguments, I believe, carry much more emotional resonance. It’s hard to dispute his case for how car ads normalize unsafe driving:

Car commercials regularly glorify driving habits that kill and maim people, without making clear that these habits are dangerous. For example, a recent Nissan ad shows a driver making a high-speed right turn through an urban crosswalk that a person on foot has the signaled right of way to be in. Though Nissan USA’s YouTube video of the commercial has nearly seven times as many dislikes as likes, the webpage’s comments section is turned off, preventing the video’s nearly one million viewers from engaging in open discussion about the dangerous driving that likely contributed to the backlash.

I think anyone can agree this defies common sense. Advertisers should simply not be glorifying activities that kill people. Imagine if a chainsaw advertisement showed someone swinging it around on a public sidewalk. The fact that these are permitted is absurd.

He also discusses how car ads disproportionally push larger and larger cars. Larger cars are deadly-by-design, and it's a well known fact now that they kill more people than smaller ones. If the societal expenses are abstract or vague, the numbers of deaths aren’t. Besides, almost everyone simply doesn't need a giant SUV.

Using advertising as a force for good

Furillo touches on using advertising as a tool to educate the public on alternative transportation. I would like to expand the idea and suggest: why don’t we use advertising to combat car culture directly? We have public service campaigns that encourage drivers to wear seatbelts and to not drive drunk, but that’s not enough. Why not have ads that encourage people to drive smaller cars, or encourage people to drive slowly? If we can shame smokers on TV, why not shame aggressive drivers?


No, we don’t need new tech to stop bicycle riders from being killed by cars.

It’s no secret that our cities and towns are dangerous for people on bicycles. But most public discussion of that topic avoids the elephant in the room, that car culture is the direct cause of the danger. The way we build our cars, the way we design our streets, and the way we enforce our laws is all enabling cars to kill people. Unless we can make cars smaller, slower, and in fewer numbers, then peace just isn’t possible.

But that doesn’t stop people from trying to find a magic solution where death-by-car is eradicated but also car culture is free to dominate our towns anyway. John R. Quain, writing for the New York Times, has a puff piece about one such technology: bicycle-to-vehicle devices:

The LINKS Foundation, a tech company, had outfitted the demo bicycle with a global navigation device to determine its precise location and a 5G transceiver to convey that information to nearby vehicles. The concept envisions a future where everything — literally the internet of things — is online to create smart roads and smart cities. Traffic lights will see cars coming, cars will see pedestrians at intersections, and bicycles will talk to cars.

[...]

Such technology can reduce crashes involving cyclists and other so-called vulnerable road users by up to 35 percent, said Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

We should always be open to new ideas that can save lives, but this story gives me a queazy feeling. Even if the proposed system works (it doesn’t yet), then it’s still founded on a broken assumption that car culture is innocent, that drivers and car manufacturers aren’t responsible for the violence they cause, and that people on bicycles are to blame for their own deaths. Quain may not argue that directly, but it’s the worldview that his article encourages.

Or perhaps a shorter critique is: it’s ridiculous for us to expect people on bicycles to buy brand new devices just for the privilege of not getting killed by cars. It’s more ridiculous than the idea that people are required to wear high-visibility clothing if they don’t want to get killed by cars.

Most people on foot or on bicycles who die in traffic crashes are elderly, low-income, homeless, or all of the above. Inventing a new gizmo to sell at bike shops isn’t going to save their lives. If anything, it could devalue their lives even more, since drivers may be less motivated to avoid killing people who their cars can’t “see.”

Although bicycle-to-vehicle technology is pitched as a lifesaver for people on bicycles, the real beneficiary would be the car industry. The tech would serve as a way for them to avoid responsibility for building vehicles that are deadly-by-design.

The good news is that we don’t have to wait until the future when a magic technology stops people from dying. We can act now to make our streets safer. One big step is replacing car culture with one that gives back dignity and safety to people on foot and on bicycles.


I’m feeling these lessons from writing about transportation

John Bennett, a long-time mobility advocate in Savannah, published a reflection on writing about transportation. His lessons are partially about writing and advocacy, and partially about the causes themselves. For example, he notes that he faced criticism from people who see bicycles as a special interest that's misaligned with the public good, and he explains how that’s untrue:

Over the years I’ve received emails and letters accusing me of being a lobbyist for a special interest group and that I care only about people who ride bikes.

The truth is when a street is made safer for people who ride bikes, it becomes safer for everyone who uses it, including people who walk, people who take the bus, people who ride scooters and skateboards, and people who use wheelchairs and other assistive devices. And people who drive.

Since I’m a blogger who writes about bicycle and pedestrian issues myself, I found I have a lot in common with his philosophy. These lines in particular stood out to me:

I’m sometimes asked if it is difficult to find fresh angles on a fairly narrow topic, column after column. The truth is it’s not a narrow topic at all, again, as my editor astutely predicted.

Still, I’ve read back through the archives and I will admit I’ve repeated myself more often than I would like. On the flipside I am able to detect persistent themes that remain relevant.

When I began Bike Walk Life, I had a general idea of what I wanted this blog to look like. I knew it was going to be a narrow topic, and I planned on repeating persistent themes. And, since this is an internet blog with no editor, I have the freedom to repeat myself ad nauseam. I believe that this is not only reasonable, but ideal. It hones the arguments and adapts them to changing climates and current events. Certain themes, like the dignity of people on foot, are timeless and deserve constant repetition.

In his article, Bennett recalls that once Chatham County’s single voting ballot drop box was located in a place dangerous to anyone outside of a car. He adds: "Pretty depressing, huh? The good news is it’s not all bad news. Had it been, I couldn’t have continued writing this column for nine and a half years.” I’m optimistic that I’ll have plenty of good news to write about in the future, too.


US Bike Route 1 opens in Georgia

US Bike Route 1, which extends from Florida to Maine, is officially part of costal Georgia. Jill Nagel writes for GADOT’s Milepost summer 2020 issue:

USBR 1 in Georgia stretches 199 miles along the Atlantic coast with oak tree canopies, rural landscapes, marshland views and barrier islands. A large portion of the route follows US Hwy 17 (Ocean Highway). Route 1 begins just south of the Georgia and South Carolina border in Clyo, Ga. and travels south through 22 local communities in Effingham, Chatham, Bryan, Liberty, McIntosh, Glynn, Camden and Charlton counties before connecting to USBR 1 in Florida.

[...]

“When we approach roadway design, Georgia DOT’s Complete Streets Design Policy makes accommodations for bicycle, pedestrian and transit vehicles that we routinely incorporate into our transportation projects as a means for improving mobility, access and safety for the traveling public,” said Troy Pittman, Southeast Region preconstruction engineer. “Official designation of a U.S. or Georgia bicycle route further ensures that current and future projects along the route will be studied and developed for potential implementation of bicycle accommodations,” noted Pittman.

You can view the entire route, and others like it, on the Adventure Cycling Network Map.

(You can also flip to page 6 of the same Milepost issue to read about bicycling in Georgia.)

It’s wonderful to see projects like this come to fruition. Costal Georgia, with its beautiful countryside, is a great location for this route. I’m looking forward to seeing stories about people making use of it.


Designing our streets for children

Lindsay Bliek of This Mom Bikes has a new post that cuts right to the chase: “Kids Don’t Drive”.

We do not design a credible transportation network for children, but we should.

In North America, we build our cities with the car in mind: parking, ease of travel, and so-called safety. This is rarely, if ever, conducive to a safe, comfortable, and convenient experience for other road users, particularly for children; for example, wide streets built to make sure that no one waits when driving results in lanes of traffic for kids to cross. We also design public transit largely around getting working people to and from major employment hubs, eg. downtown — again, ineffective for most kids. And school buses can only cover part of a kid’s day, plus they need to be able to safely walk to their designated bus stop. So what is a kid to do?

If we agree that leaders should prioritize the dignity of the lowliest members of our society, then it also seems clear that children are among the best examples of such members. Right now, children aren’t even second-class citizens of our public spaces. These spaces are actively dangerous to children. Anything that accommodates the needs of children, especially in our transportation, is a faraway afterthought, if it even exists.

One of car culture’s most damning effects on our collective consciousness is how we’ve come to associate a person’s dignity, or even their personhood, with car ownership. Consider how getting a car is not-so-subtly associated with an adolescent’s first steps into adulthood. Car access equals the ability to fully participate in society, to finally be a real person. But should it?

Bliek’s article goes into much more detail about the specific problems and implications by this. She argues that designing for children also accommodates all other members of our society as well. She says it better than I can, so I’ll quote her words:

They say that children are an indicator species for cities. The pale/male/stale image of cycling, for example, has dominated imagery of active transportation for decades and is only recently beginning to shift. When we see children included more in that imagery and actually see them out in the wild, we know that we have created a city that is appealing and safe for those beyond the pale/male stereotype of the brave, lycra-clad warrior. Instead, we have created a city where children, women, families, seniors, disabled, and able-bodied people alike, can exist and move when they want and how they want. And all of those people deserve that respect: the right to travel safely by whatever mode they choose.

We need to prioritize the safety of children everywhere in our communities. That doesn’t just mean keeping children safe from strangers, it means keeping them safe from cars. And that doesn’t mean armoring them inside SUVs, it means stopping SUVs from threatening them when they’re on foot or on bicycles.


Bike to Work (or There) Day in Columbus, GA is Oct 9

Poster for “Bike to Work or There.”

Bike to Work (or There) Day will be held this Friday, October 9, in Columbus, Georgia. Considering that many of us aren’t commuting to work in this pandemic era, they’ve modified the holiday this year to encourage people to bike “there.” That could be the grocery store, your friends house, or just around your neighborhood.

If you bike commute on that day, you can help the organizers by recording your participation in this survey. They will also be at Iron Bank Coffee from 7am to 10am for you to drop by and say hello!


TandemTrip: a potential “Waze for cycling” app

If you ever wished your phone could give you real-time updates about cycling or walking conditions, that’s what TandemTrip wants to do.

TandemTrip is a smartphone app that integrates navigation, route condition information, and social connection for people traveling on bike or by foot into a singular platform – focused on trip safety, convenience, and reliability. Our goal is to help you get moving and maintain an active lifestyle by reducing barriers and connecting you with others in your community.TandemTrip partners with local government and organizations to provide two-way communication on trail and bike facility conditions so you’re prepared if barriers are on your route and maintenance crews can respond more quickly to these issues.

The app is currently in the “exploratory” phase. That’s the phase before funding, then development, and finally launch. Their website has links to surveys for potential users and partners, so you can go send them your thoughts if you’re interested.

I’m always glad to see more support for bike riders, so I think TandemTrip may have a lot of potential. Apps with bicycle directions aren’t new (Google Maps has offered it for years), but they’re serviceable at best and dangerous at worst. If you try to use Google Maps for bike directions, you’ll quickly learn that the app probably has a different idea of which streets are “bikeable” than you do.

I’m not sure if that’s a problems that TandemTrip can solve, but I suppose we’ll see. When biking, most of the difficulties don’t come from unexpected traffic or roadblocks. The biggest difficulty is finding new routes, and that stems from infrastructural problems.

Car-centric apps, like Google Maps, don’t understand all of the routes available to bicycles. Bicycles and pedestrians are free to cut through parking lots, alleys, and empty lots. Near my commute, a bike path runs just a few feet past a small side-street but doesn’t officially connect. Apps can’t “see” these potential connections, even though they’re obvious to humans.

On the other hand, existing map apps can pick routes that are unsafe or stressful for all but the most fearless cyclists. A human navigator will take a detour through a quiet neighborhood rather than bike straight down a high-speed artery, but computers, in their unswerving logic, prefer the shortest route.

Can an app provide accurate and safe GPS directions for people on bicycles? I don’t see why not, but the problem is economic rather than technical. Someone needs to do the work to make it happen.


Streetsblog debunks pedestrian safety myths

The United States’ first federal “National Pedestrian Safety Month” is already under criticism from pedestrian safety advocates. Kea Wilson has an article on Streetsblog USA that doesn’t mince words:

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [NHTSA] released its plans for the month-long public awareness effort yesterday, which includes a cache of social media graphics rife with some of the most toxic lies and misperceptions about how to keep walkers safe — and zero mention of real policy and infrastructure reforms that could actually saves lives.

Here are just a few of the low-lights.

It is sadly unsurprising, but this campaign seems to just spread propaganda for the car industry. Its messages blame pedestrians for their own deaths and ignore the reality that our streets and cars are deadly-by-design. Pedestrians aren’t the ones killing pedestrians. Cars are.

One of the most tiring myths is the one of distracted pedestrians. As Wilson notes, only 2 percent of all pedestrian crashes involve a walker with a phone, yet these cases get the most attention. This myth is even more absurd when juxtaposed with the NHTSA’s message about how most pedestrians who are killed are aged between 50 and 64. Are we supposed to imagine that 64-year-olds all walk with their faces glued to their phones?

(And what does the NHTSA want people in that age range to do, anyway? Grow younger?)

Agencies like NHTSA could, of course, work to ensure cars don’t kill pedestrians, regardless of their age or what color clothes they’re wearing. But doing that requires our whole culture to change course away from normalizing car violence, and instead start valuing the lives and dignity of people outside of cars.


Upcoming just-for-fun bicycle challenges: Coffeeneuring and Three Speed October

I’m always game for an old-fashioned, just-for-fun, bicycle challenge. Sure the Bike League’s big National Bike Challenge and city events like Atlanta’s Biketober are great, but there’s something special about the low-stakes, high-fun challenges that are run by ordinary people on the blogosphere and social media. Two of these are coming up for October: Coffeeneuring and Three Speed October.

Coffeeneuring Challenge

Coffeeneuring has been one of my favorite annual challenges for a while. The premise is simple: ride a bike to spots where you drink your beverage of choice (e.g. coffee). If you do this enough and take photos to prove it, you’ll earn a fabulous prize.

From the official rules:

Essentially the challenge boils down to this:

  • over the course of 7’ish weeks,
  • ride your bike to 7 different places,
  • at least 2 miles round trip each time,
  • drink 7 cups of coffee (or similar), and
  • take 7 pictures (or other documentation) as proof of your coffeeneuring.

Read more about how to participate in Coffeeneuring here.

It begins on Saturday, October 10th. It’s free to participate, although you need to cover the cost of your prize if you want one.

Three Speed October

This one is new to me. The Society of Three Speeds manages it, and its rules are simple:

From now until Sunday November 1st:

  1. Ride a three speed bicycle
  2. Three times a week
  3. At least three miles (5 km) each trip
  4. For at least three weeks during the duration of the challenge
  5. During a five-week period that centers around the month of October

Read more about how to participate in Thee Speed October here.

This challenge does have an entry fee ($17 to $22), but that cost covers your materials, including your prize and an official reporting journal. Swanky.

Three Speed October has officially started already. Sadly, I do not ride a three-speed bicycle, so I cannot participate.