OMG! Bicycling Is Sooo Dangerous!

Except that it’s not.

Bicycling is really quite safe. But our culture has accepted a mythology of danger and fear. It is this mythology that I believe convinces Americans they need special facilities to ride their bicycles safely.

I have stated many times on Carbon Trace that I admire the Dutch system. That system, as I understand it from afar however, is more than just separate asphalt. The Dutch system also includes 1) a different traffic culture and 2) a different urban environment.

It would be wrong-headed to build a Dutch system here and suppose it would work with a culture that reveres the automobile and treats other traffic as objects in the road. It would be wrong-headed to build a Dutch system here and suppose it would work in sprawling, car-dependent neighborhoods. A Dutch-like bicycle system requires, among other things, a more cooperative traffic culture and dense, multi-use neighborhoods where people can (and do) live close to important daily destinations. Or neighborhoods connected to important destinations by effective public transportation that accommodates the use of bicycles.

I mention this today because this article on the New Urban Network site: ‘Cycle Tracks in Cities Could Save Bicyclists’ Lives. This part is troubling:

One of the reasons biking is so much safer in the Netherlands and Denmark is that the principal bicycle facilities in those two countries are cycle tracks — bike paths physically separated from motor vehicle traffic. Cycle tracks run parallel to the sidewalk, and are exclusively for bike riding. The 18,000 miles of cycle tracks in the Netherlands help to explain why 27 percent of Dutch trips are made on bicycles.

Notice the qualifier: “one of the reasons.” Well, what are the other reasons? And how important are these other reasons to making the whole system work? I’ve named two of the other reasons. I’m sure there are more (e.g. engineering that understands how to mitigate conflicts). And if you’re of a mind to check them out, I highly recommend reading David Hembrow’s blog, especially his essay on the three types of safety.

I think I would enjoy a Dutch system. I think many Americans would begin bicycling with such a system. But that system is not simply a matter of infrastructure. It is also a matter of culture and urban planning. To work, it has to be the whole package.

I’m happy with the direction we’re taking in Springfield, including the coming improvements (sharrows and route numbers) to the bicycle route system, The Link, and our greenways. We enjoy the benefits of a grid street system and low traffic speeds in the urban core. We have a good, and improving, system here in Springfield. Get out there and enjoy it!

A modest proposal: Bicycling in traffic as a part of traffic is safe when bicyclists take their proper place in traffic.

The problem, however, for so many bicycle advocates has been encouraging people to bicycle in greater numbers because so many people do not believe they can, or ought, to be legitimate traffic. Too many advocates are willing to settle for second-rate facilities that all too often put the novice in danger in order to get numbers on the road. I have called this immoral.

I think proper education, which rejects the  culture of fear, can go a long way toward increasing participation.

OMG!!! I rode downtown without a helmet today!!! I controlled all my lanes, i.e. rode at or very near the center of every lane (including a stretch of Grand where it is four lanes). I didn’t wear bright colors or special bicycle clothing. My safety was increased by the choice I made to drive my bicycle. In other words, I accepted my right to use the road. I accepted my responsibility to use it lawfully.

Do I trust the traffic system? Not quite. I try, instead, to understand it and trust my ability to lead the dance.

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Comments 3

  1. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Spot on, Andy. Thanks.

    Europe is different. Good, but different.

    Posted 04 May 2011 at 9:46 pm
  2. Andy Cline wrote:

    Khal… You bet! And thanks for the link.

    Posted 05 May 2011 at 10:49 am
  3. danc wrote:

    “Proper education” will take any cyclist safely and further than any bike lane, trails or cycle tracks.

    Consider John Adams, “Risk and freedom”, page 10:

    “Judgments about whether safety can be promoted by means of vehicle and road engineering, or by altering road user behaviour, depend on the views taken about the possibilities for making roads and vehicles more “foolproof” on the one hand, and for making human beings less “foolish” on the other.”

    Posted 15 May 2011 at 11:13 am