Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Just give bikes some space

On Saturday, the Record published Jeff Outhit's latest column, in which he turns a reasonable statement ("bicycles need their own space") into a wedge to argue how bikes don't belong on the road at all. It is a breathtaking exercise in short-sightedness and black-and-white thinking, and it deserves a rebuttal.

First, let's start with his stated assumptions:
My sense is people ride bicycles for fun and exercise. Often they choose trails or quiet streets where they do not have to contend with traffic.
Politicians want us to use bicycles differently, to ride them to work and to run errands. 
Jeff is being very selective about his facts: People ride bicycles for fun and exercise, and also to get from place to place. Politicians want us to use bikes to get to work and to run errands (something called Utility Cycling) but are they really the only ones?

If politicians wanted us to, say, wear bicycles as hats, we could chuckle and say that people will never wear bicycles as hats because they don't want to. It's a perverse and unnatural thing to do with bicycles.

This is the implication from Outhit when he creates a false dichotomy between some of the reasons people bicycle and some of the goals of government. He sets them at odds against each other to establish a position that people bicycling to work (or perish the thought, to run errands) is some sort of unnatural thing that only weirdo bicycle-hat wearers would do, as opposed to what actually happens when you build cycling infrastructure that takes people where they need to go.

I think it would be a lot more interesting to find out how many people would like to bike to work or for errands, and ask them why they don't. That may tell us something useful. But we're not actually looking for facts here, we are busy constructing pillars for Outhit's argument.

I can think of several reasons why residents are unlikely to embrace this kind of cycling. Weather and suburban form work against it. Also, some people feel unsafe cycling on busier or faster streets that are best-suited for commuting and errands.

"Weather and suburban form" are trivially rebutted in one word: Minneapolis.

No, it's the last sentence that's the meat here. Some people feel unsafe cycling on busier or faster streets that are best suited for commuting and errands. ("By car" is implicit here. A sly reinforcement of that false dichotomy we just talked about.)

Because these streets are designed to be bike-unfriendly, people don't want to use them on bikes. Since they are also the roads that actually go where we need to (as opposed to the cul-de-sac mazes and the toy trails that connect to nothing) we have some people who are unwilling to take their bike for errands or commuting when they might have otherwise.

And because of this, we shouldn't bother improving those streets to be at least somewhat bicycle friendly. Because some people might actually start to bike on them, and be in danger, and lots of other people still wouldn't, or would bike on the sidewalks. So... bicycles need separate space.

I agree with the statement but not the argument. Also, once again, Outhit has taken a very narrow viewpoint that because bicycles need separate space and roads are dangerous, bikes don't need space on the road.

And this is where he's got it all wrong. Bikes need separate space, and bikes need shared space too. In fact, bikes just need space.

Firstly: if people are going to bike commute or run errands, bicycles need to be able to reach where people need to go. It's basically impossible to build a separate trail network that's as dense as our major road network in our lifetime. And we have to contend with some major barriers, like the expressway, where arterial roads are the only crossing points.

People have different comfort zones, but there are a lot of potential trips out there that could already be made mostly by trail, but aren't taken because it requires crossing a gap through some staggeringly unfriendly and dangerous terrain. Fill those gaps with something reasonable-- even if it's a "cheap fix" like a bike lane-- and these trips gradually come into more people's reach.

For example: I don't think of Fischer-Hallmann as "fun cycling", but the presence of bike lanes on it allow me to use it for a kilometre where nothing else will do. The other 90% of my route is a lot more relaxed and makes up for it. On the other hand, the expressway crossing is still a man-eater, and on its own is often enough to turn me off.

Secondly: the best thing for bicycle safety is more bicycles on the road, not less. Shown over and over again, and clearly visible in that Minneapolis link, is how more cyclists on the road decreases accident rates per cyclist. Once people get used to the presence of bicycles, they're less likely to have an accident with one.

As the number of bicycles increases, so too does the attractiveness of bicycling infrastructure as an investment. More bikes on the road will, ironically, make it easier for us to build a rich separate cycling network! And in the meantime, we get the traffic, health and environmental benefits from shifting these trips away from cars, blah blah blah, you've heard it all before.

The number one thing in the way of most potential cyclists and their destination is our roads as they are. Bicycles need separate space before we'll see Dutch cycling rates, but a prerequisite of building this in the future is for bicycles to have a rich and dense network of trails and roads now.

Even if parts of that network are just paint.

Now, let's reflect on this article and its timing. This column was the result of a horrific weekend for cyclists (pedestrians too!) locally, with a cyclist dead and another seriously hurt in separate collisions. In both incidents, the driver's actions played the main role.

Every day, in this region, people on bicycles (including myself, sometimes) have their safety threatened inadvertently, and occasionally with intent, by vehicles being driven by people who refuse to make allowances for bicycles. Despite the fact that bicycles have a right to the road in law, there is an opinion among many that these things are toys and "you're gettin' what's coming to ya" if you're hit by a car.

This is, essentially, Outhit's thesis. And in a public forum, he reinforces an attitude that we should instead work against. He has written an article on the back of a dead cyclist, in which he licenses the ongoing disdain and carelessness that costs lives.

I just hope he sets a better standard while out in his car.


  1. A great post!

    You didn't point out my favourite part which is his concluding sentence though: "That said, keeping bikes and cars apart improves safety more effectively than lectures about the need to share the road."

    I summarize the column this way: Jeff Outhit doesn't want to bike to work (and doesn't understand why anyone would). He also doesn't want to share the road or be lectured that he should.

    Why does the Record have a transportation columnist? If they believe it's important, I'm still looking for Jeff Outhit to accept my challenge to live without his car for 30 days.

    1. I have mixed feelings about that challenge. On one hand, it's exactly what I did 6 years ago (in February no less) as a pre-condition to downsizing to 1 car. On the other, I did it while living and working within walking distance of iXpress stops. As I understand it, Mr. Outhit lives in an area not well served by transit. A large part of switching trips away from cars to alternatives is opportunity, and I can respect that a large portion of our cities don't have that opportunity-- yet-- unless they move.

      What I can't respect, and what I take ongoing umbrage to, is refusing to see past one's own circumstances where choice is not yet possible, and criticizing and fighting virtually all of the efforts that we are undertaking to extend choice to a greater share of our city. Outhit has systematically attacked transit and active transportation and intensification, often making simplistic arguments and cherry-picking facts to bolster his position, and ignoring or dismissing evidence which undermines it. All tax money is his tax money, and his tax money shouldn't fund things he doesn't want.

      This latest article is more offensive because it was spawned by two clear instance of dangerous or careless driving (charges have been laid in the Huron St. collision, and no sensible explanation exists for the fatality that doesn't involve complete and possibly criminal inattention) and uses it as evidence not that we need safer roads and better drivers, but that bikes should just stay off the road.

      It might be wishful thinking that we can make drivers (and cyclists) magically more competent, but we can have safer streets with more bikes on them, not less, and we can build those streets to be safer for all users.