Thoughts on the bicyclist typology (the short version)

I posted this recently on the ABPB listserv in response to what I felt were some alarming* comments about how bike facilities aren’t needed in downtowns where auto traffic is *only* 30 mph, or that people should feel comfortable mixing with buses because bus drivers are professionals (true, but buses are still HUGE from the perspective of a bike). I thought I would share my short but impassioned plea here:

We need to stop talking about the bicyclist typology like it is aspirational. The “strong and fearless” category is not (nor do I think it was ever intended as) a more enlightened place to be on the spectrum. We need to stop talking to people about bicycling like things will be great in some future state: “it will be fun/easy/convenient/safe when you are fit/confident/experienced enough.” We need to design and build facilities that meet people where they are, and quit acting like they just need a nudge along the typology. When many people see the “strong and fearless” designation, what it means to them is “fit but reckless.” And that’s a pretty rational thought, in the US context. With our current facilities, no amount of education or encouragement is going to transform a sizable amount of the US population into people who want to mix with buses going 30 mph, nor should it. Traditional traffic engineering gets criticized (and often rightly so) for prioritizing efficiency over safety, but this strong and fearless mentality prioritizes machismo over progress. It only alienates many of the people who we say we are trying to reach. And if it continues to infect our approach to design and engineering, it won’t make them safer, more comfortable, or more likely to ride, either.

*alarming in that they were coming from bike planning/engineering professionals, and I felt perpetuated the same old vehicular cyclist mentality that keeps US bicycling as an unsafe, unattractive mode for many.

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On distraction and other bad behaviors . . .

Something I tweeted yesterday is getting a bit of notice, and I thought it warranted a bit more context than 140 characters can provide. While I try (mostly) to keep my tweets to the informative and/or humorous and/or contemplative, more emotional content is sometimes unavoidable, especially since spending a lot of time in a complex, contested environment (the roadway) with high stakes (my life) in a vulnerable state (my mode, often bicycling in particular) means spending a lot of time with heightened adrenaline levels and a hyper-vigilance over my safety.

So. Here is what I tweeted:

“My bad behavior while bicycling could get me killed. Your bad behavior while driving could also kill me. I’m always the vulnerable one here.”

I originally thought the word “distraction” instead of “bad behavior,” although obviously I opted to broaden the thought to include more behaviors. A huge percentage of what people call “bikelash” (as in backlash against bicycling) centers on people’s perceptions of bicyclists as law-breaking, unpredictable, self-centered roadway users (lots more on that in future posts, and my future research). But what prompted the tweet was actually distraction.

Yesterday I was bicycling along (I typically ride between five and fifteen miles on my ebike on any given day, going to work/school, meetings, events, out with friends, shopping, etc), lost in my own thoughts, and realized as I crossed through an intersection that I had failed to scan the side streets for oncoming traffic.

Here is the thing: I did NOT have a stop sign at the intersection. The side streets did. But my faith in drivers stopping at stop signs is fairly weak, especially because the risk is so high – unless the driver’s speed is very low, if I get hit by a car, I am likely to be badly injured or killed. Having the right-of-way won’t save me on my bike, so I ride like I’m playing a game of chess, trying to see five moves ahead, watching everyone around on me on the road. And this chess game feels like life-or-death, because it is.

Someone on twitter pointed out that my bad behavior might not only get me killed, it would affect the driver who killed me. That is true. But that was not the point of my tweet, and I probably muddied the waters by choosing to say “bad behavior,” especially since daydreaming on a pleasant ride on a quiet street shouldn’t have to feel like bad behavior. My point was that, my momentary lapse in judgment or poor choices, if they result in a crash with a car in particular, are likely to get me killed. I am very unlikely to cause any bodily harm to a driver. But a driver’s lapse in judgment or poor choices are also likely to get me killed, and unlikely to cause them any bodily harm – so no matter who is at fault, the bicyclist is going to suffer the physical harm. Hence the term “vulnerable road users.”

Traffic crashes that involve physical or emotional harm are terrible things. I don’t know anyone who would argue differently. My point was about the differential in the likelihood that someone’s bad behavior would cause physical harm, and who would suffer that harm. When one person is riding atop 25 pounds of steel or aluminum, and another person is cocooned within 4,000 pounds of steel and glass, the consequences of our actions are never going to be equally distributed.

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Hello world!

This page is under construction. I guess that is obvious. But stay tuned, things are finally happening!

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