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.