Thursday, December 21, 2006

Response to Paul Dorn

(Sigh) Normally, I skip over the passive-aggressive aspects of condescension, and go directly to ridicule, mockery, and sarcasm. Why waste time? While it's certainly fun, it does nothing to shepherd an argument along. And I use the term ‘argument’ in the formal sense – a reasoned discussion. Besides, Mary gives me that over-the-top-of-the-glasses look when I indulge my low taste in sarcasm, so I suppose she's a moderating influence. I take pains to avoid the wrath of She Who Must Be Obeyed.

With that in mind, I discarded my hasty response to Mr. Dorn in favor of the following.

Apparently Mr. Dorn equates advocacy with facilities. "I support bicycle education. But it is no substitute for advocacy." Paint and pavers exist to 'give the people what they want' and what they want are bike lanes because so-called advocacy organizations have told them so for better than 30 years. They fear riding in traffic, and ‘advocates’ like Mr. Dorn reinforce their fears by telling them about our “hostile streets”. Most cyclists are totally unaware of bicycling education, and 'advocates' like Mr. Dorn - despite his LCI credentials - would prefer they remain blissfully ignorant. So it's more than a little disingenuous to suggest that vehicular cycling is an old way of thinking. Most cyclists have never been exposed to it. It’s a startling revelation when they discover that riding in traffic isn't a terribly fearful experience.

Facts, however interesting, are irrelevant.

The paint and pave types can't get through a paragraph without hyping the supposed danger of riding a bicycle. “The sad reality is that bicyclists in much of auto-centric America face hostile street conditions.” If it's so dangerous, where are all the bodies? They pick statistics very selectively to support their positions, or if the data doesn’t fit their predetermined outcome, it’s ignored. This isn’t confined to bicycling advocacy. It’s a common characteristic of advocacy groups. In the absence of hard data, there’s always a temptation to substitute anecdotes or analogies.

Studies of cycling risk have widely varying conclusions. The risk per mile traveled makes cycling look far more dangerous than riding in a car, yet the risk per hour of exposure makes it look less. We could try to compare the injuries and deaths per unit of population, but it’s hard to obtain an accurate figure on the number of cyclists in this country. I’ve seen estimates from 40 to 80 million, and in statistical terms, that qualifies as a wild-assed-guess. Frankly, I don’t know of a way to correlate the differing figures, but my seat-of-the-pants estimation – my own wild-assed-guess - is that riding a bicycle is a little more dangerous than driving a car because motorists seldom topple over, but it's far less dangerous than riding a motorcycle. Still, hyping the danger serves no one, unless you're a so-called advocacy group using fear to drive up membership and grab a bigger slice of publicly funded pie.

Mr. Dorn linked bicycling education with this: “…note the "success" of motorist education--42,000 deaths a year and counting.” It implies that education is ineffective in reducing injuries and deaths. Yet even a casual study of cyclists finds that experienced cyclists have far less chance of crashing than young cyclists or novice adults. Presumably, Mr. Dorn read this in Effective Cycling when he received his LCI certification. Perhaps he’s forgotten.

It’s not about the money…
A friend and vehicular cycling advocate was on her way into a meeting with an elected official when she was stopped by some paint and pave types who advised her to keep quiet during the meeting, so they could get the funding they wanted. Whether their pet projects were a responsible use of public funds was a question they didn't want to answer. As citizens, we demand that government use our money wisely. If a public project is intended to benefit only a small portion of road users, and its intended for the exclusive use of those users, is it a responsible use of taxpayer’s money? If we built a road for the exclusive use of Lexus drivers, the taxpayers who paid for it would be justifiably outraged. Bike lanes are no different.

Build it and they will come....

When a new bike lane is established, facilities advocates happily announce it increased cycling in the area. But did it actually increase the number of cyclists, or did it merely attract existing cyclists from nearby streets onto the new facility? As far as I’m aware, there are no studies that quantify the issue. Until such studies exist, claims that new bike lanes increase the number of cyclist are just so much supposition.

Money vs. numbers of cyclists.

There was a small increase in cycling deaths in 2005. Some shrill voices were raised decrying the increase. Is this attributable to increased numbers of cyclists (presumably due to sharply higher fuel prices)? Is it a normal variation, or is some other factor responsible? Paint and pavers hype the increase without looking for the underlying cause. It’s irresponsible, but it's another example of selectively using statistics.

In the 1990s, spending for bike/ped facilities increased tenfold yet the number of cyclists remained relatively flat – if we assume (always hazardous in statistics) that the number of cyclists in the US is reflected in the number of new bikes sold. Why didn't spending more money on facilities cause a corresponding increase in the number of cyclists? The build it and they will come argument is a fallacy.

One definition of insanity is performing the same actions over and over, expecting different results. If spending more and more money doesn't result in more cyclists on our streets, why do we continue spending the money?

San Francisco’s modal increase: a “post hoc ergo propter hoc” argument…
Mr. Dorn touts the increase in modal split in SF as evidence that bikelanes increase the number of cyclists on the street. “…San Francisco, which is the only city in the US to have seen a doubling of bicycling for transportation according to U.S. Census Bureau.” On the surface, this would appear to be true, but it ignores other contributing factors. For instance, the cost of living in SF is very high. It was once the most expensive city to live in, but may have been surpassed by Boston and DC. Still, when you have to cover housing and food, automobile transportation comes in a distant third. When you consider the availability of public transportation and the headaches of parking, a bicycle becomes a far more attractive transportation mode. So touting bike lanes while ignoring simple economics may be misleading.

If I recall correctly, the US Census indicated that 3% of all trips in Oklahoma are made by bicycle. Personal observation causes me to question that, since if it were true, I’d expect to see several hundred bicyclists arriving at the maintenance base each morning. Yet there are only a handful. How did the Census arrive at that figure?

“In reality all cyclists do both, change and cope. They cope with existing conditions as they endeavor to change them. But clearly the path to a more bicyclist-friendly U.S. is to pursue change.”

I think that Mr. Dorn and I share a common goal – to see more cyclists using our streets and roads. We differ widely on how to achieve that goal, yet we’d agree that change is necessary.

It’s easy for an advocacy group to point at a strip of concrete and tout what they’ve accomplished for cyclists. It far more difficult to point out some cyclists and tout their bicycling education as an accomplishment. Changed behavior is far less obvious than that concrete slab. The existence of the concrete is a memorial to the efforts of the paint and pave groups, not unlike a tombstone. Ten years from now, let’s hope that those crumbling tombstones are all that remain of paint and pave advocacy.

Labels: , ,


Blogger Paul Tay said...

Bicyclists winning a war of lanes in San Francisco
By Daniel B. Wood | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
SAN FRANCISCO – By day, they are sober-minded city professionals - teachers, doctors, lawyers - who forgo cars and buses to commute by bicycle.

One Friday night a month, they gather in this liberal bastion of activism for the cause of cleaner air and quieter and safer streets. One thousand to 2,000 strong on average, they pedal through traffic lights and stop signs like a diminutive band of Hobbit cyclists out to conquer the armies of Sauron (car owners of San Francisco).

"It has taken a decade of organizing and lobbying, but bike riders in San Francisco have put themselves into the forefront of city politics," says Supervisor Chris Daly, one of 11 supervisors who last year gave a unanimous thumbs up to a five-year plan to create skeins of official pathways for bicyclists all over the city.

About 40,000 residents say they commute by bike regularly, which is less than 10 percent of the city's 450,000 registered car owners. They are led by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC), which has secured backing from the public and the city to develop plans for more bike lanes, official bike routes, bike parking, and bike racks on buses.

But not all residents are embracing the city's five-year plan. Critics filed a lawsuit to put the brakes on it. And in June, a San Francisco Superior Court judge put the plan on hold, preventing it from going forward until the court rules on the case. The hearing is scheduled for Sept. 13.

"We are about to redesign the streets of San Francisco on behalf of less than 2 percent of the population - based on a fantasy prophesy that people will get out of their cars and start biking...." says Rob Anderson, an activist and blogger, citing 2000 census figures of bike commuters.

The lawsuit, filed by Mr. Anderson and others, doesn't challenge the plan's merits, but invokes a state law which requires a study to be done on the environmental impact. "When people look at what it will mean to their neighborhoods to lose parking and lanes for cars and buses, they will say, 'Hey this is over the top, I don't want it,' " says Anderson. Some shopkeepers, too, worry that replacing parking spaces in front of stores with bike lanes could hurt business.

But bicycle coalition organizers, including Leah Shahum, director of the SFBC, counter with a recent study by David Binder Research, which found that 73 percent of San Francisco residents favor creating more bike lanes in the city.

If more lanes were available, 33 percent said they would commute by bike more often, the study found. When bike lanes were added to Valencia Street - a key corridor for bikers cutting through town- bike riding there went up 144 percent in the first year, Ms. Shahum says.

"This is a case of, if you build it they will come," says Shahum, whose organization has about 6,000 members and five full-time staffers. It has a yearly budget of about $500,000 raised from membership dues, donations, foundations, and events.

The size and influence of the SFBC has made it a model for large cities such as Miami and St. Louis, which also seek ways to ease traffic, parking, noise, and air pollution.

"This movement is spreading to cities all across America," says Dave Snyder, director of program development for the Thunderhead Alliance, a national coalition of state and local bicycle and pedestrian advocacy groups. "Organizers call and want to know how San Francisco has done what it has done in creating membership, raising money, winning public support, and pushing legislation."

By most accounts, it has done much through an articulate base of members who care about personal health and reducing dependence on foreign oil.

"Ten years ago I was working too hard and started riding my bike to the office on weekends to get exercise," says Jean Fraser, a married mother of two and CEO of San Francisco Health Plan. "I found it was cheaper, faster, and more fun than driving or riding the bus."

Commuting this way saves her $250 a month in parking fees and $2,000 a year on gas, Ms. Fraser says.

She rides about 30 minutes each way from her home in the Richmond District to her office south of Market Street. She often bikes to meetings midday - carrying a briefcase in a bike bag, and wearing a pants suit, including cuff clip to keep her pants away from the oily bike chain.

Urban planner Gabriel Metcalf also rides daily to work wearing a suit, with a briefcase strapped to the back wheel as he has done for 12 years since moving here from Colorado. He relies on a chain guard, and keeps his hair cut short to avoid the imprint of his plastic Bell Helmet. "The planet is in an environmental crisis, and I think our solutions are going to have to be things like biking that actually make our lives better," he says.

The power of bike riders here stems from savvy leadership and a willingness to compromise with city leaders, observers say. In one example, Mayor Gavin Newsom appointed Shahum to the Municipal Transportation Agency's board of directors even after the SFBC supported Mr. Newsom's opponent in the 2003 election.

Trying to behave better is another tactic that many in the coalition have tried. That means not running people off the sidewalks, not scaring crosswalk pedestrians when racing down a hill, not dodging through traffic or riding in the wrong lanes against oncoming cars.

"Some bikers are still rude enough that it ticks you off," says Molly Northrup, a 20-year resident. "But for the most part, it seems like they have gone out of their way to clean up their act."

They also have established goodwill with the last-Friday-of-the-month ritual known as Critical Mass. Between 600 and 2,500 bicyclists gather at dusk and pedal shoulder-to-shoulder through city neighborhoods, while singing, playing boom boxes, and waving flags and banners - and taking up the length of at least two city blocks. Ten years ago, riders were often treated as obnoxious scofflaws intruding on civility. Now, people mostly welcome the parade as it passes.

"I'd say about 90 percent of the city believes in what they are doing," says a police officer riding behind the some 1,500 bikers during the Critical Mass bike ride last month. The loosely organized event has grown over the past 10 years that a police escort is routine, he says. What is different now is "widespread acceptance ... even affection," he adds, noting applause from nearby cafes, honks from bus drivers and cabbies, and cheers from residents.

In this supportive environment, the court case is just a speed bump, even if there is a ruling in favor of the bike plan's critics, most observers say. City officials say the required citywide impact study would probably take no longer than six months. Each project of the overall bike plan has its own environmental review during which local homeowners and business owners can voice their concerns, they say.

In the meantime, the SFBC has developed maps of routes through town, many of which zigzag to avoid the steepest hills. Shahum says many of the routes between key landmarks - Civic Center and City College - fall short of completion by just a few blocks, and that is enough to stop some riders from using the route.

"It's like having a bridge 75 percent built," she says. "You can't just dream yourself over that last part."

9:55 AM  
Blogger Fritz said...

Your talk of responsible use of public funds makes you sound like a conservative, Ed. You better be careful.

I won't be doing much blogging over the holidays -- my wife is stuck in Texas until Monday because of the Denver blizzard, and I still have to pack for the rest of my family to make it to Denver this weekend -- so have a good Christmas and New Year!

1:57 AM  
Blogger Paul Tay said...

Yep. WHEN has anyone ever made responsible use of public funds? Isn't that the whole idea? If ya wanna spend money like it's goin' outta style, use public funds.

11:49 PM  
Blogger Ed W said...

Fritz said...

"Your talk of responsible use of public funds makes you sound like a conservative, Ed. You better be careful."

The only difference between liberals and conservatives these days is HOW they want to spend public monies, Fritz, and what aspects of our lives they want to tinker with. The right wants to regulate personal behavior while the left wants to regulate public and corporate behavior. When the subject is transportation, the right generally favors motor interests over any others. The left favors public transit, and to a lesser extent, pedestrian and cycling interests. I think the lunatic fringe is composed primarily of railfans.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Paul Dorn said...

Thanks CycleDog for your response to my blogpost. It's impossible to respond to every point. However, I will offer a couple clarifications:

1) Advocates (like me) don't need to tell people about "hostile streets." Prospective bicyclists are already aware of the dangers; and admittedly those perceived fears are perhaps exaggerated from limited actual bicycling experience. Advocates (like me) are responding to fears expressed by prospective cyclists. We aren't creating fear. I don't accuse bike education proponents or LCIs of fostering unfounded fears to fill their clinics/workshops. Education and advocacy are both responses to fear of traffic by prospective bicyclists. I simply believe--and evidence shows--that advocacy is more effective at increasing bicycling participation.

2) No, I don't suggest that "vehicular cycling" is outdated. However, the idea that "bicycling education" is the only response to hazardous streets is outdated. Bike advocacy is gaining momentum, and the potential to change the streetscape is greater than ever. The "old paradigm" I mention as outdated is the pessimism about transforming streets to encourage bicycling that existed prior to ISTEA.

3) I take an expansive view toward bicycling education. Media campaigns, brochures, guidebooks, bike route maps, signage, newsletters, websites, bike lanes, traffic calming, Critical Mass, and other activities are all educational for both bicyclists and motorists. I don't limit the concept of "bicycling education" to simply street skills clinics.

Happy cycling, and happy new year!

4:38 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home