How much of the push for bicycling is about encouraging people to be braver, rather than actually fostering a safe and welcoming environment for cyclists?
An editorial in The Times (UK) by Janice Turner, which Copenhaganize brought to my attention, has me pondering this question. My observation is that there are more cyclists on the road now than before, but the cyclists are overwhelmingly of the type expected to engage in perceived risky behavior – young males.
Chicago's Bicycle "Infrastructure"
This morning a pack of cyclists accompanied me on my commute. They resembled a rag-tag peloton, shuffling for position, weaving around traffic and speeding through intersections. Of the dozen or so cyclists in my proximity, not one was a woman and not one appeared to be wearing regular work clothes. The evening commute featured a few women. (You can read more about my regular commute here.)
Mind, I am not criticizing this group. I appreciate them and their presence on the road. My criticism is for a transportation system that fails to accommodate a more diverse – and risk averse – group of people on bikes.
As individuals, Trisha and I don’t have the power to build infrastructure or enforce traffic laws. Therefore, the best we can say is that, despite the awful state of cycling infrastructure in North America, the U.K., Australia, et al, you should ride your bike and enjoy yourself. While we show that cycling is not as difficult and dangerous as it seems, mixing it up with cars every day still takes courage. For every woman who tells us that our blog inspired her to bicycle regularly, there must be several others who were inspired to try, but gave up due to fear.
Even the most conscientious and experienced cyclist is not immune to danger. For example, last week my husband Greg was taking the lane to pass a stopped bus safely, when a car driver squeezed around him, hitting his arm with the car’s side mirror and causing his body to bang against the passenger door. The woman sped away. Thankfully, he was able to regain his balance and escape injury. The responding police officer was respectful, but said there was nothing they could do without a full license plate number and witnesses. That woman cared so little for the man I care for the most, apparently knowing she could behave this way without legal consequence. Even if the police could have tracked her down, we would be lucky if she received a warning ticket.
Of course, no one is immune to danger. Life can be risky, and certainly I would not put bicycling on a list of high-risk activities. If I thought otherwise, no way would I be out there on my bike every day. I am risk-averse. However, there is so much that could be done to make bicycling safer, both objectively and subjectively.
I love bicycling. I usually feel safe riding in Chicago. I hope this blog helps counter the negative and ugly rhetoric that so often accompanies bicycling discourse in media and society at large. But every now and then, inevitably, I am frustrated and disappointed by the failure of governments to provide a safe place for all road users.
Many citizens have answered the call to be braver, and in the process have found themselves healthier and happier. There is a beautiful momentum of regular people on bicycles, and failing to acknowledge our growing numbers with a comprehensive plan to foster a safe and welcoming environment would be criminal.
I worry over Ms. Turner’s conclusion in the Times article that “a big fat flaw at the heart of democracy is that politicians will never invest in the long term if voters’ initial inconvenience and expense are not rewarded with results before an election.” If that is always the case, we will never move forward.
As of now, we are here. Whether in dresses or lycra, on Dutch bikes or fixies, we are all getting around in a way that benefits ourselves, society and the environment. Will the government embrace us or desert us?