Friday, September 25, 2015

"Share the Road"...and Die.

On Saturday, September 19th, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy adviser Jacob Thomas "Jake" Brewer was killed in Howard County, Maryland when he lost control of his bicycle, crossed a double yellow line into oncoming traffic, and collided with a car during the 160-mile "Ride to Conquer Cancer"  benefitting Johns Hopkins, Sibley and Suburban Hospitals. 

Brewer's death might have been less noted, had the late 34-year old Obama aide not been husband to Fox News celebrity Mary Katharine Ham. Noticed it certainly was, by a host of Washington insiders including President Obama, who issued an official statement saying he was "heartbroken at the tragic loss of one of my advisors."

The death of any young person is indeed tragic, but the White House statement and most news coverage failed to emphasize that Brewer had died in a charity cycling event in which bicycles had irresponsibly been routed onto highways filled with cars. 

Thus, Brewer had become yet another victim of a "Share the Road" transportation ideology apparently based upon the premises of the civil rights movement, which in an absurd attempt at vehicular integration inevitably puts cyclists and vehicles on a collision course, only making such tragedies ever more likely to recur.

Brewer's death was avoidable. In the 20th Century, transportation engineers figured out the principles used to separate bicycles from automobile traffic, based upon the reasonable premise that the two different types of vehicles had incompatible characteristics. 

Cars and trucks are heavy, drive fast, and take up a lot of space. Bicycles are slower, lighter, and take up less room. The optimal solution, obviously, is to segregate bicyclists from drivers. Separate bikes lanes are a first step, completely isolated bicycle paths even more desirable. Under no circumstances should bicycles "share the road" with cars, trucks, and buses.

The most advanced bicycle networks have been built in Holland, a country that has established the world's most successful form of cycling apartheid...after realizing in the 1950s that unless cars were separated from bicycles, as the chief inspector of Dutch traffic police declared in 1967, "Cycling is tantamount to attempting suicide." 

By 1973, according to the Boston Globe, over 3,000 pedestrians and cyclists were being killed annually in Dutch traffic accidents. 

"STOP THE CHILD MURDER," read signs held up by protesters who poured into the streets. On one of Amsterdam's most congested thoroughfares, hundreds laid down in the street next to their bicycles.

And so bicycle apartheid was established. Streets were closed to cars, and new "cycle tracks" established across the country. Holland even installed traffic lights at intersections, just for bicycles, and required cyclists to come to a complete stop.

As the Boston Globe reported: Rule number one of Dutch cycling: If you want regular people to ride bikes, you've got to separate them from the cars.

Despite the success of the Dutch experience, however, a countervailing "Share the Road" policy, which perversely places bicyclists in harm's way, now appears to be firmly in place in the United States. 

The most visible evidence of this ideological shift may be found is the appearance of so-called "sharrows" painted on city streets across the country. The nickname is short for "Shared Lane Markings," which according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials

Shared Lane Markings (SLMs), or “sharrows,” are road markings used to indicate a shared lane environment for bicycles and automobiles. Among other benefits shared lane markings reinforce the legitimacy of bicycle traffic on the street,  recommend proper bicyclist positioning, and may be configured to offer directional and wayfinding guidance. The shared lane marking is not a facility type, it is a pavement marking with a variety of uses to support a complete bikeway network. 

Transportation officials sing the praises of "sharrows," to integrate bicycles with vehicular traffic, on their website
However, these officials irresponsibly champion a policy of shared lanes, without sufficient attention to reports of increased pedestrian and bicycle fatalities and injuries, as cyclists are forced into closer proximity to speeding traffic.

For example, a recently published medical research letter, Bicycle Trauma Injuries and Hospital Admissions in the United States, 1998-2013, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on September 1, 2015, described a 28% increase in injuries and 120% increase in hospitalizations among bicyclists from 1998 to 2013, including a 60% in head injuries and 20% increase in body injuries, including genito-urinary injuries. The impact was most severe among those over 45.

Likewise, Dr. John Pucher and Lewis Dijkstra concluded that American cyclists are three times as likely to be killed per mile as Dutch riders, and twice as likely to be killed as German bicyclists, in research published in The American Journal of Public Health in 2003.

According to the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, 743 bicyclists were killed in 2013, and 48,000 were injured. Meanwhile, a  review of pedestrian-cyclist accidents in New York State from 2007-2010 by Hunter College professors Peter Tuckel and William Milczarski revealed that bicycles were hitting more pedestrians than previously reported:

Earlier research, based on a sample of hospitals nationwide, estimated that there were approximately 1,000 pedestrians hit by a cyclist each year in the United States who needed to obtain medical treatment at a hospital. This present study, based on every hospital in New York State, has found that in New York State alone, there were approximately 1000 pedestrians struck by cyclists each year necessitating medical treatment at a hospital. 

So, not only is bicycling in traffic clearly unsafe for riders, it is also demonstrably unsafe for pedestrians. Although Ralph Nader has not issued an Unsafe At Any Speed: Bicycle Edition, you don't need to be a traffic engineer to realize that any bicycle at all is far less safe than a 1964 Chevrolet Corsair.

Given the terrible toll of suffering and death "sharing the road" policies inflict upon cyclists and pedestrians alike (not to mention the trauma suffered by drivers who hit cyclists), why have counterproductive strategies like "sharrows" spread across the United States?

The answer may have been provided at a recent seminar I attended, where a cycling activist with a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics described his world-view.

He was, he told us, educated at a school for the "transnational global elite" and as a cyclist felt himself to be a member of an "imagined community" which distinguished itself from the "other" community--those who drive cars. His community of cyclists was "green," but automobiles were destroying the planet. His cycles were so much better than cars, that he felt good about organizing groups of bicycle riders to travel in groups, blocking entire lanes on heavily traveled roads in order to slow down traffic, using laws that treat bicycles equally to cars. 

In fact, he came to realize that mere equality for bicycles was not enough, rather he sought to transform existing motor vehicle law to secure additional privileges for bicycles--such as not stopping at red lights. 

In effect, his goal was to reinforce "bicycle privilege."

This kind of logic is premised upon a religious conception of the "Elect" and the "Damned" going back to John Winthrop and the Puritans in Boston. Bicycling is "green" and a sign of Grace. Driving is not "green" and a sign of Damnation.

Additionally, the cycling advocate pointed out that fewer than 1% of commutes are done by bicycle--which means that the "elite" cyclists are by definition more "elite" than the 1% who have $1 million. Indeed, it is highly unlikely that committed bicyclists are overweight, disabled, or aged--you must be very fit to ride a bike to work every day.

Therefore, a community of cyclists is by definition exclusionary as well as elitist: able-ist, ageist, and size-ist, among other things. Transnational globalism is the least of the problems that bicyclists have. 

The 2013 music video by Sons Science in the YouTube box below gives a hint of the sense of entitlement contemporary cycling advocates hold:

Unfortunately, the world-view of cycling advocates is seriously flawed, because people don't divide neatly into "communities" of cyclists v. drivers. We are all both.

People are able to both ride bicycles and drive cars--you can't haul a lot of stuff on a bicycle, and you might not enjoy the fresh air as much in an air-conditioned SUV. When it pours, it's nice to have a car or bus to take. When it snows, All-Wheel-Drive comes in handy. Which is why there are bike racks on cars, trucks, and buses.

Needless to say, the streets of Mao's China, once filled with bicycles, now host traffic jams of BMWs, Mercedes, Audis and Volkswagens (Chinese like German engineering as much as everyone else). The future cycling advocates claim to envision is actually the past the Third World wishes to escape.

Unless American cycling advocates are determined to make  "Share the Road" a "right-to-die" issue, it is time to abandon a dangerous ideology that puts the lives of cyclists and pedestrians at risk. Instead of "Share the Road," American transportation engineers and legislators need to enact stricter "Where to Ride" laws governing the conduct of bicyclists, separating them from vehicular traffic to the maximum extent possible until America is able implement the Dutch model of vehicular apartheid. 

Otherwise, the streets of America are doomed to become killing fields in a new kind holy war between cyclists and automobiles--a war no one could possibly win. And that would mean, tragically: One, Two, Three--many more Jake Brewers.