More Likely to Die than Motorists
In 1905, at least eighteen young men died playing football in the United States. President Teddy Roosevelt, himself a football fan, invited representatives of several colleges to the White House to discuss the future of football. From this little chat flowed an important principle: Death was no longer an acceptable outcome for a football game - or by extension any other sporting contest.
Football is still a very violent sport, as the sad history of concussions regularly reminds us. But the discourse on concussions remains true to the principle established in 1905: Playing the game should not kill you, either quickly or slowly.
A few years after the White House conference - in 1908 - Henry Ford introduced his Model T, the first mass-market automobile. Soon the Model T and its imitators were everywhere, and a lot of pedestrians were getting hit, particularly in cities. People were outraged, but the cars kept coming, and gradually, over the course of the 1920s, a funny thing happened. In exchange for the convenience of cars, we as a nation came to accept a certain level of collateral damage.
More recently, we as a society seem to be coming to the conclusion that death should not be an acceptable outcome for a walk to the grocery store. Vision Zero is a movement that began in Sweden and was approved by that country's parliament in 1997. Its basic thought is that every traffic fatality is a mistake. Complete Streets is a complementary movement that also had its beginnings in the 1990s. Its basic thought is that streets are for everybody. Not just cars, but pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, you name it.
In 2009 Philadelphia's mayor, Michael Nutter, adopted Complete Streets. The city's current mayor, Jim Kenney, is a strong advocate for Vision Zero.
In the United States, bicyclists have been leaders in these movements, perhaps because they have nowhere to hide. In cities, at least, the pedestrian has a sidewalk. The bicyclist, on the other hand, often has no choice but to ride along with the cars and trucks and buses.
A Historical Anomaly
The situation of bicyclists in the United States is something of a historical anomaly. While the U.S. pursued a monomodal, car-focused transportation system from the 1920s until quite recently - and largely achieved its goals - in Europe there was a pronounced tendency to pursue a more balanced transportation system, including transit, bicycling, and walking. Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany particularly favored bicycles, and created large networks of separated bike lanes, where riders could have their own space.
The United States pursued a different path on bike lanes. There is a simple reason behind this divergence. For many years a powerful - and still vocal - movement called vehicular bicycling had great influence in this country. Its leader was - and is - a man named John Forester.
The indefatigable researchers at Wikipedia inform me that John Forester is the son of C.S. Forester, author of the series of novels about Horatio Hornblower, a British naval officer in the era of the Napoleonic Wars. The elder Forester is not to be confused with Patrick O'Brian, author of a series of novels about Lucky Jack Aubrey, a British naval officer in the era of the Napoleonic Wars.
After that remarkable digression, we will now return to the subject of vehicular bicycling.
Simply put, vehicular bicycling opposes bike lanes. The reasoning starts from the premise that legally a bicycle is a vehicle. This issue was settled in the courts during the nineteenth century. As a vehicle the bicycle has the same right to come and go on the streets as cars do. This is no longer entirely true. Bikes are banned, for instance, from Interstate highways, as are horses. Finally, vehicular bicyclists call on their cycling brethren to exercise their legal rights and ride in the traffic lane with the cars.
Riding in the lane with cars is something I do with considerable regularity. I just happen to prefer riding in a bike lane. Mr. Forester disapproves of bike lanes. And his views have had great influence.
It didn't have to be this way. Starting in the 1960s, bicycles experienced a remarkable comeback in this country, and there was considerable interest and activity in developing both on-street bike lanes and fully separated bike paths.
Forester and friends were having none of it, and they launched a remarkably effective campaign to keep bicyclists mixed in with cars, whether they wanted to be or not. As James Longhurst writes in his 2015 book Bike Battles (p. 225), "Put simply, some adult riders had become philosophically opposed to the only kinds of bicycle infrastructure on offer and discouraged traffic engineers from contemplating most bicycle-specific developments, including off-street paths and painted lanes."
Time was definitely lost. In recent years, the influence of vehicular bicycling has faded, and we've seen quite a lot of new bicycle infrastructure coming on line. Still, Forester's fingerprints linger, particularly in the design manuals that streets engineers rely on. The publication of a new Urban Bikeway Design Manual by the National Association of City Transportation Officials in 2011 may well prove to be "a major turning point for American bicycling," according to Peter G. Furth. (See his article "Bicycling Infrastructure for Mass Cycling," on pp. 105-139 in John Pucher and Ralph Buehler, eds., City Cycling, 2012. The quote is on p. 119.)
The Great Debate
The history of the shift away from vehicular bicycling is known in its broad outlines, but many blank spaces remain to be filled in. So I decided to do my bit, and earlier this year I found myself at the main branch of the Free Library, hunched over large bound volumes that had been retrieved from the Secret Place of Storage. (It only took a few days.) I'd become intrigued with the work of Professor John Pucher, who in the 1980s and 1990s had spent a fair amount of time in Europe studying transport. To say he came back armed with data would be an understatement.
In 2000 and 2001, in the pages of a journal called Transportation Quarterly, he engaged in a very interesting debate with John Forester on the relative merits of vehicular bicycling and the very different European approach.
Was I looking at the Lincoln-Douglas debates of vehicular bicycling? I thought so. I still do.
Was this actually a turning point in the history of vehicular bicycling? I don't know. But the timing is interesting.
There are three articles:
1. John Pucher and Lewis Dijkstra, "Making Walking and Cycling Safer: Lessons from Europe," Transportation Quarterly 54:3 (Summer 2000) pp. 25-50.
2. John Forester, "The Bicycle Transportation Controversy," Transportation Quarterly 55:2 (Spring 2001) pp. 7-17.
3. John Pucher, "Cycling Safety on Bikeways vs. Roads," Transportation Quarterly 55:4 (Fall 2001) pp. 7-11.
Article 1. Pucher starts off with a rather alarming statistic: per kilometer traveled in 1995, pedestrians in the United States were 36 times more likely to be killed in a crash than people in cars. Of course people in cars travel a lot more kilometers than people walking, so if you want to compare on a per-trip basis, the comparison is only three to one. Either way, these numbers give me the willies.
Even though the numbers are old, I find myself visualizing the walk from my house to the Whole Foods at 9th and South. It's about a mile, or 1.6 km. So am I still either 36 times or three times more likely to die? Maybe I should get the car out of the garage. Or maybe take an Indego bike. Then I would presumably be only 11 times more likely to die - on a per km basis - or three times more likely on a per trip basis.
I don't like these numbers, but there they are. They tell me that a car is the safest place to be on the street.
As Pucher and Dijkstra put it, "the dangers of walking and cycling in America are not just perceived; they are real."
And, once again, it didn't have to be like this. Pucher and Dijkstra turn to data from the Netherlands and Germany and show that life on the road is dramatically safer for everyone - motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians. In 1997 the overall traffic death rate in the Netherlands was half the U.S. level. In Germany it was two-thirds the U. S. level.
In 1995 the death rate for pedestrians in the United States was more than ten times what it was in Germany and the Netherlands. For American bicyclists, the death rate was four times higher than it was for the Dutch and Germans.
So why are these rates so different? Pucher and Dijkstra point to a list that has become familiar - better infrastructure for bicyclists and walkers, traffic calming in residential neighborhoods, urban design focused on people and not cars, restrictions on motor vehicle use (such as pedestrian zones), improved traffic education, and traffic regulations and enforcement that actually protect pedestrians and bicyclists.
Pucher and Dijkstra recognize significant barriers to such a reform program in the United States: "The real problem in the United States is lack of willingness to do anything that infringes on the prerogatives of motor vehicle users." They continue: "Unless they are cheap and do not inconvenience motorists, most safety measures have little chance of implementation in the current environment."
Article 2. In his rebuttal, John Forester essentially dismisses the data that Pucher and Dijkstra have assembled, arguing that there is no proof of a causal relationship between better infrastructure, for instance, and lower death rates.
Quickly narrowing the subject to bikeways, Forester sets his own standard for proof of causation: "I know of no instance in which a bikeway advocate has analyzed accidents involving cyclists to see by how much, and by what mechanism, bikeways could reduce the accident rate."
And he decides that the only type of crash a bikeway could prevent would be one in which a motorist is overtaking a bicyclist.
In his discussion of crashes at intersections, Forester does not mention Dutch intersections, which are specifically designed to improve the sight lines between cyclists and turning motorists. This despite the fact that Pucher and Dijkstra have a photograph of a Dutch intersection, with explanatory caption, on page 40 of their article.
Turning to the available empirical evidence, Forester writes, "I know of only one valid test of a sidepath system, and it involved me in my hometown of Palo Alto, California." He found the sidepath in question to be highly dangerous.
Forester is a strong advocate of bicyclist training to reduce accidents, but in his world there are some accidents "that are hard-to-avoid, even impossible for the cyclist to avoid." In Forester's defense, Vision Zero was just getting started in 2001.
Finally, Forester sees two "imagined virtues" of the Dutch bikeway system: "it makes cycling safe for the incompetent and creates many cyclists where there were few before."
There is more, but I'll spare you.
Article 3. In his rebuttal of Forester, Pucher stacks his data against Forester's single sidepath test in Palo Alto. And he asks a simple question: "if vehicular cycling is so much safer, faster, and more convenient, then why is cycling so unsafe and so unpopular in the United States?"
Pucher points out that "Forester's policies are aimed at serving fast cycling by well-trained cyclists. ... He completely ignores the willingness, desire or need of most people to cycle at lower speeds. ... Bicycling should not be reserved only for those who are trained, fit, and daring enough to navigate busy traffic on city streets."
Finally, Pucher offers an olive branch, pointing out that he is not trying to ban bicyclists from riding along with cars and eighteen-wheelers. He simply wants to add bike lanes and give cyclists the option of riding on them.
Thought 1. The olive branch is important. The last thing bicycling needs is another theological schism between the advocates of bike lanes and the advocates of vehicular cycling. Frankly, both have their place.
There's a wonderful story from the 1890s, which Evan Friss tells in his book The Cycling City (2015). Call it a tale of two cities.
In Brooklyn, the Coney Island Cycle Path formally opened with a parade in June 1895. It ran alongside Ocean Parkway from Prospect Park to the Coney Island boardwalk. Soon the path had as many as 32,000 bicycle riders on a single day (the 1890s are not called the Golden Age of bicycling for nothing). To alleviate congestion, officials proposed creating a separate "return path" along Ocean Parkway, effectively doubling capacity. However, the expansion came with a string: Bicyclists were no longer to use the main roadway. There was an uproar that would have made John Forester proud, but in the end the City got its way.
Meanwhile in San Francisco, an ordinance was proposed to limit bicyclists in Golden Gate Park to the cycle paths. It failed. The result: "almost all of the riders used the bicycle-only paths by choice." (Friss, pp. 102-103, 108-113, and p. 225, footnote 27.)
Thought 2. In 1854 there was a cholera epidemic in the Soho district of London. Dr. John Snow investigated the matter and determined that the outbreak was clustered around one particular well. Snow got the pump handle removed and thereby founded the science of epidemiology.
It's worth pointing out that nobody at the time knew what caused cholera. The germ theory of disease was still in the future. Snow could have theorized that the houses around the well were occupied by malign spirits and called in an exorcist, or possibly Ghostbusters. Instead he theorized bad water. But he had no idea of the actual mechanism of transmission.
Forester's point that correlation does not prove causation is an important one, but ignorance of the mechanism of causation does not stop a scientist. Instead it prompts further investigation.
Snow's detection of a hot spot centered on a well led him to pursue the hypothesis of bad water rather than bad air or vampires. So he tested his hypothesis and knew success, without ever knowing the mechanism of transmission.
Thought 3. In the United States most of the people who die on the road are in cars. That's because the vast majority of travel in this country is by car. But the raw numbers were masking something, and Pucher and Dijkstra found the hot spot that others had overlooked. Total deaths may be relatively small, but the death rates for pedestrians and bicyclists - whether by kilometer or by trip - are truly eye-popping. And the European rates showed that none of the American rates were inevitable.
I do not know what influence this debate had on the subsequent discourse. I hope that others will investigate this topic. But I do know that there are a lot more bike lanes than there used to be. And, despite considerable and effective opposition, I think we will see many more bike lanes in the future. Maybe a few pedestrian bump-outs, while we're at it. And some traffic islands. The occasional pedestrian street. It's not like the agenda is particularly a secret. And for this, we owe a debt of gratitude to those who had the faith to keep swimming against a strong tide.
Professor Pucher's articles are available online. To see them, click here. I have been unable to locate an online version of the Forester article.
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