Bike paths, and a Rant

Yesterday C. and I rode on a new (to us) bike path along the river into the city. A very nice path in pretty good condition, gorgeous scenery, and … a lot of people! We encountered the same thing here as I’ve seen in other places I’ve lived: what is purported to be a bicycle path is actually a shared use recreational path that is used by people walking, jogging or running, pushing strollers, in-line skating, walking dogs, or sometimes even stopping in the middle of the path to chat with a group of friends. Or some or all of the above in combination.

My favourite (not) was a woman I observed on a “bike” path between Bedford and Cambridge, Massachusetts, who was pushing a twin stroller, while wearing roller blades, with a dog on a leash, and two young children alongside her on small training wheel bicycles. Or, on the same path, the inline skater who thought that it would be such a great idea to draft me on my bicycle; despite my efforts to shake him off, out-accelerate him, or generally get him off my tail he stayed right there. I eventually grabbed my brakes and stopped as quickly as I could, causing him to crash into me. “Sorry, dude” he said, “I didn’t think that you’d mind”. I wonder if he ever thought to ask.

Another issue with paths is that, unless you’re fortunate enough to live close by, it generally requires loading the bikes in the car or truck and driving a few miles to where the path can be accessed. Quite a pain, really.

In general, I’d rather ride on the road. There’s tradeoffs, though. You have to deal with vehicular traffic, there are stop signs and lights every few blocks, and there are usually more hills (paths are quite often built on old railway beds). But at least the traffic goes all in the same direction and generally drivers follow traffic laws. They’re not always paying attention, though; drivers are texting or chatting on the cellphone, fiddling with their GPS unit or the stereo, or eating, or doing any of a number of other things that keep them distracted and from giving the attention they need to the road and who else is occupying it.

And that’s just the unintentional behaviour. There’s also a number of drivers who intentionally make life miserable for bicyclists, honking horns at close distance to startle the rider, throwing garbage at them, driving close enough to strike the rider with their rearview mirror, or even blatantly running them off the road. I’ve encountered all of the above. (This is one of the reasons, besides of course laziness, that I got a motorcycle; with a motor you can ride in traffic instead of beside it.)

This is how its supposed to work.

Don’t drivers understand that the bicycle is legally a vehicle, with the same rights to the road as the car? In most states the bicycle is entitled to take the full lane, and it’s only by common courtesy that we ride on the side of the road to allow cars to pass. (But on the other hand, I encourage other bicycle riders to do just that: exercise some courtesy in sharing the road. And obeying traffic laws too; those idiots on bicycles who ignore stop signs and lights, or ride on the wrong side of the road or on sidewalks, give the rest of us a bad name and give a reason for drivers to want us off the road.)

Lack of respect, that’s what this is! If it weren’t for the bicycle, where would we be? Dave Moulton, a retired bicycle frame builder, has the answer: no paved roads, no cars or airplanes…. A lot of the advances of our modern mechanized society can be traced back to the bicycle.

When a bicyclist is killed in a confrontation with a motorized vehicle, the attitude is generally “they shouldn’t have been on the road”. But shouldn’t it be the other way around? The driver’s defense is usually “I didn’t see him” and is let off with a slap on the wrist. The moment a person swings a leg over a bicycle his life is suddenly not worth the time and effort of the public prosecutor when it comes time to prosecute a killer. These sorts of things happen every day, adding up to large numbers, but no one seems to care.

Why is the value of a life so dependent upon the mode of their death? To expand this rant to a much broader topic, why is so little done, and so little cared about, the cumulative large numbers of deaths that happen every day (not just bicyclists but for other things as well) and so much attention given to the small numbers involved in specific incidents, for example a natural disaster or terrorist attack?

This from the Philadelphia Bike Coalition website:

Alex Doty posted a similar blog entry last month, pondering the ramifications if security decision makers cared as much about the impacts of distracted driving as they did about the feared impacts of the Icelandic volcano eruption, which cost the worldwide economy $130 million a day.  Why was it worth $130 million a day to prevent potential deaths from airlines, but it’s tolerable to live with motor vehicle crashes that cost $230 billion a year or $630 million a day (2000 figure) in the United States and claim upwards of 33,000 lives and cause 5 million injuries annually?  U.S. policy doesn’t tolerate a single airliner crashing or a terrorist succeeding ever, but it tolerates the equivalent of a terrorist killing 100 people a day in the number of people who die in daily motor vehicle crashes.   It reflects a decision that death by air flight and terror deserve a zero tolerance policy (and it largely works), but death or injury motor vehicles does not (the results speak for themselves).   It doesn’t have to be that way; Sweden set an ambitious goal to reduce fatalities and serious injuries in motor vehicle crashes to zero, called Vision Zero.

I note that, while about 3000 people died as a result of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, that same year (2001) there were over 553,000 people in the U.S. who died of cancer. Add to that the number of deaths from heart disease and other ailments, from automobile accidents, and, yes, deaths while riding bicycles. Which of these has had the biggest response from our government? This is not to belittle the deaths, individually, of those who died in the 9/11 attacks, but by our priorities aren’t we belittling the deaths of everyone else who died that same day, and on other days, from other causes? Why didn’t they get a government settlement? Why don’t they have celebrity fundraisers and telethons to benefit their survivors? Where is the all-out war, not on foreign countries, but on the causes of preventable deaths in the U.S.? When will we start having to take off our shoes, figuratively, to prevent another death from any of a number of more preventable causes?


About pininforthefjords

I'm pinin' for the fjords. That's all.
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