Thursday, October 29, 2020

Fundamental Change Is Needed To Reduce Driver, Biker Conflict

There is a lot of anger and hostility out there.  I am not referring to the political divisiveness of the nation - although the description applies - but to Illinois's roadways.  Drivers and bicyclists seem perpetually angry at each other, particularly when they meet on congested streets.  Bicyclists become hostile toward drivers for a perceived lack of empathy regarding the dangers faced while riding.  Drivers get steamed at the perceived arrogance and rule flouting by cyclists.  Both often feel that the other is just in the way.  Sadly, each too often view of the other not as a person, but rather as an impediment to their desire to get where they are going.  Why do we too often view our fellow travelers with such suspicion and distain?

The problem is the system, the infrastructure, that the driver and cyclist alike are trying to navigate.  They are each trying to make their way along the same space, yet by very different means and with different expectations.  The motor vehicle is heavy, mechanically powered and slow to maneuver through tight spaces.  The bicycle is light, human powered, quick and easier to maneuver through tight spaces.  In either instance, the operator hopes and expects to travel to their destination without unnecessary hindrance or obstruction.  Place the two in the same space and one or both are bound to have their hopes and expectations dashed, or, worse, see their bodies injured or their property damaged.

A dozen years ago, writer Charles Montgomery wrote an interesting and influential article in Momentum Magazine entitled, Bike Rage.  He wrote,

 “…the driving experience primes car drivers for meltdowns.

They are conditioned by popular culture to see cars as symbols of freedom, yet city driving is a slow-motion trap that subjects drivers to constant restrictions on their movement. Drivers are thwarted from enjoying the promise of motion by traffic lights, by congestion – and yes, by cyclists – and they suffer the natural but impossible desire to escape and move forward…”

He added,

 “…road rage is a symptom of the corrosive effect that modern commuting has on urban culture. Aggressive streets are not just dangerous, they change the way we feel and the way we treat each other, even when we’re not commuting.

… the problem is that city planners have mixed bikes and cars together in ways that offer little certainty about how each should operate, and lots of chances for conflict. Cyclists feel threatened in traffic, just like drivers. Many of us feel hard done by and under attack. I sure do. The average arterial road is an engine of conflict."

This second point resonates strongly with me.  My city, Chicago, has spent quite a lot of money and effort building bicycle lanes.  I use them regularly and I am glad they are there.  However, too many are poorly designed.  When city planners intentionally design streets so that public buses must enter bike lanes to pick up passengers, danger, fear and frustration for the biker and bus driver alike are the natural consequences.  When designated bike lanes on narrow streets are not protected from physical encroachment by motor vehicles with barriers, not just paint, anxiety and injury become too common.  When bicycle infrastructure suddenly ends leaving a confusing and treacherous set of options the bicyclist often feels as if their city does not care about their safety.  When municipal crews fail to survey road construction projects with an eye toward bicycle accommodation, the bicyclist and driver both end up seeing red. 

After years of incremental change to biking infrastructure in the United States there is still far too much regular conflict between drivers and bicyclists.  As a daily city biker and attorney whose practice focuses on representing bicyclists injured on the road, I am in a unique position to observe this phenomenon.  The conflicts between drivers and bicyclists are not going away.  The injuries and deaths continue.  Despite the Vision Zero campaign touted by the City of Chicago, 2020 has so far seen the death of eight bicyclists on our streets, an increase from the average yearly number of deaths between 2012 and 2016 of 5.8, according to Streetsblog.  This is entirely unnecessary.  The City of Chicago's own 2012 Bicycle Crash Analysis states, "with proper street design and behavior change amongst road users, the overwhelming majority of bicycle crashes are preventable."

It has become apparent that fundamental change regarding street design is necessary.   Bike lanes consisting simply of painted lines here and there are not acceptable.  Paint is not protection.  Paint on the street strikes me as a fingers-crossed type of approach to reducing the sometimes deadly conflicts between motor vehicles and bikes.  The era of just hoping that drivers and bicyclists work it out on the road must end, immediately.  2020 has been a year of  profound change.  In aspects of life big and little, many are awakening to the need to fix what has been broken for a long time.  Urban transportation design is one of those broken things.  What drivers and bicyclists need is space.  Specifically, we need bike lanes that are part of real networks that take us places we want or need to go.  Cities should stop designing bikes lanes that just end and instead create safe bike lanes that lead into other safe bike lanes.  We need bike lanes that offer real protection in the form of jersey barriers, planters and the like.  We need streets that belong to bikes only, that are closed to motor vehicles.  Similarly, other streets should be closed to bicycles so that drivers also have places to call there own where they can feel unobstructed by more vulnerable road users like cyclists.  Bicyclists need changes in the law too.  Illinois needs a stop as yield statute that allows people on bikes to yield at stop signs and lights rather than come unnecessarily to a full stop.  This is a year for new thinking about so much.  How we interact with each other on our streets should be on that list.

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