Saturday, April 30, 2016

In Which UK Arguments Resonate in U.S.A.

London lorry driver on his phone.
Here are some thoughts inspired by another biker's blog post.

When I was young, riding a bicycle was pretty much a child’s playtime activity.

As I’ve aged, more adults have begun riding. When we moved to Cedar Rapids in 2001, it became practical for me to start commuting by bicycle, although it took a few years before I began to do that more often than I drive.

As more adults begin riding bicycles, and more infrastructure for bicycling has been created in American cities, there has been something of an anti-bike backlash. And sometimes it seems as if there are three competing and battling groups wanting to use street and walkway infrastructure—walkers, bicycle riders and car/truck drivers.

Some car and truck drivers want exclusive use of the street. In Cedar Rapids, in recent years, when streets have been reconstructed, the city has started adding sidewalks to neighborhoods where none existed before, sometimes to the vocal objection of residents who don’t want to shovel snow or who think losing trees is not worth the gained pedestrian safety.

And we sometimes get letters in our local paper that say things like “I’ve never seen a walker on 35th Street, but the city is destroying our neighborhood and making life terrible for us by installing sidewalks.”

Well, I have several reactions. One is to remind everyone that the walkers came first—humans have been bipeds for millions of years—then the bikers, then the cars. Historically, it was a rather poor mid-20th century car-centric idea in the U.S.A. to start designing and installing streets that served only the latest of those three transit modes. City of Cedar Rapids—for what it’s worth, I applaud your efforts to make up for past mistakes by putting in sidewalks.

As a society, we all benefit by promoting walking and biking, for many reasons. For example, far from slowing traffic, most of the time bikers are aiding traffic by reducing the number of cars on the road. And both walkers and bikers are serving their own personal health—the human body is meant to be used, not to be sedentary. Granted, the most direct benefit of that is for the walker or biker, but still, healthier people mean lower healthcare costs for society as a whole. Also bikers and walkers are reducing air pollution for everyone. (Yes, yes, I know, humans do produce carbon emissions, but cars produce not only far more carbon emissions, but a host of other noxious vapors that CR Biker does not).

Granted, the health savings are offset when a car hits a walker or biker. Which gets me to the big gripe some drivers have—infrastructure. It is the tax argument. Don’t car drivers pay taxes and license fees to maintain roads while walkers and bikers are freeloaders?

Well, no. For one thing, general taxes aid infrastructure, too. And CR street projects are partly funded by a sales tax that a biker quaffing a Fat Tire at the Sag Wagon helps to pay. And the tax argument ignores the relative damage and expense of infrastructure on a per-vehicle basis. It’s not totally free to create or maintain bike trails or sidewalks, but the big expense in street maintenance is to fix damage done by two things: weather and heavy vehicles.

Sure, you pay more gas tax to drive your SUV on my street. But I cause the street practically no damage whatsoever by rolling my bicycle across it, and that’s not true of your SUV. (British readers, I have no idea what an SUV would be called in Britain. A half Lorry, half car? Maybe it’s just an SUV.)

Anyway, I worry that the discussion of transportation infrastructure, such as it is, is too often put as interest groups battling with each other. As a bicycle rider, I don’t begrudge car drivers the improved lanes and smoother roads that city street projects result in—even if they sometimes repave the interstate, where my bicycle is not allowed (and no, I don’t think it ought to be allowed there, either).

I was thinking about this when I read the blog post I linked at the start of this post. It was written by a English bike rider complaining about a BBC news report that described HGV drivers and bicycle riders as warring over the streets of London. HGV is a “heavy goods vehicle” by the way—British speak for a big truck, what we would call a semi.

The blogger is a bit frustrated by the lazy portrayal of interest groups battling, rather than a more rational discussion of possible solutions. As he notes, accidents in London may have more to do with a poorly designed transportation system that requires bicycles and HGVs to share space rather than the inevitable misbehavior among bike riders and truck drivers.

Amen, brother, or whatever they would say in London to indicate strong agreement. The same attitudes hold true here. Solutions are found not when drivers and walkers and bikers battle, but when a system is designed that accommodates all three groups.

And my American people—some drivers just think people on foot or bike ought not exist. Some have so ingrained in their minds that the American Way is to drive a car like God intended, that any use of public funds to benefit anything not built in Detroit is a conspiracy.

Well, these days Detroit isn’t building that many of our cars anyway. And our car-central culture is slowly evolving and needs to change. If that makes you feel uncomfortable, welcome to the 21st century. Please don’t take your frustration out on a biker.

Last, on a totally unrelated note: Geese! See photo below I shot Friday. Watch out on the local bike trail. Goslings are fun to see, but mama and papa goose will be nervous and aggressive at this time of year!

Baby geese and mom or dad Friday near Cedar Lake. I'm on the street on the east side rather than the west side trail. No doubt hindering som poor car driver.

No comments:

Post a Comment