Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Zombie Arguments in Bike Safety

Zombie says overtaking crashes are very rare, 
so why build bike lanes? Turns out 40% of fatal 
car-bike crashes are rear-enders. 

Recently I posted a story about Tom Palermo, his death, and the subsequent construction of parking protected bike lanes on Roland Avenue in Baltimore, where Tom died.

Shortly before the new bike lanes went in, there was a contentious community meeting attended by City officials. After the meeting, the officials confirmed that they would proceed with construction of the bike lanes, and they responded to a number of issues that had been raised.

Among the FAQs from the Baltimore DOT (on page 9) was this: "Since rear end crashes are rare for bicyclists, how is the change to cycle track protected by parked cars justified? Please provide statistics and references."

This argument has been around for a while, and it refuses to die. I'm not quite sure how you kill a zombie argument. I'm pretty sure you don't drive a stake through its heart - that's for vampires.

At first, I was going to let this go. After all, the Baltimore officials did a reasonably good job of rebutting it, and it would have been easy enough to let things lie. However, one of the lessons I took away from the story of Tom Palermo's death and the subsequent bike lane controversy was that "specious arguments must be rebutted in detail."

So maybe you can kill a zombie argument by talking it to death. Or burying it in facts.

The FAQs from the Baltimore DOT referred to a data sheet from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which focused on fatal bicycle accidents and found that in 2013 "non-intersection" crashes accounted for 57 percent of fatal bicycle crashes.

It's possible to take this further. In 2014 the League of American Bicyclists put out a report on a study it had conducted, independent of the federal statistics. For a period of 12 months, it researched in detail every fatal traffic crash involving a bicyclist that it could find on the internet, documenting 628 crashes. The results were, as the report put it, "eye-opening":

"We learned, for example, that a much higher percentage of fatal crashes than expected were 'hit from behind' incidents." Of crashes with reported collision types, 40 percent were rear-end collisions.

Rarity Is a Matter of Perspective
So why do people think 40 percent of deaths is rare? Because rarity depends on perspective. In absolute terms, death on a bicycle is rare.

Currently this particular way of meeting your maker is running around 700 a year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 726 bicyclists died in car-bike crashes in 2014.

Meanwhile, total deaths from traffic accidents involving motor vehicles were 32,675. Even pedestrians died more than bicyclists - 4,884.

And then you can add in all the non-fatal crashes. Good numbers here are hard to find because the reporting criteria vary widely among reporting agencies, but here is one indication of the non-fatal mayhem on our highways: 39.2 percent of spinal cord injuries in the United States result from motor vehicle crashes.

And of course we could add crashes that don't involve cars. Bikes crash into other bikes, pedestrians, immovable objects, the ground. Such crashes are rarely fatal, but they can result in serious injury.

Small Compared to What?
So, yes, in absolute terms, not a lot of people die in bicycle accidents. But the rate at which they die is another issue entirely.

John Pucher and Lewis Dijkstra published an article in Transportation Quarterly in 2000 on this subject. They found that, per kilometer traveled, bicyclists in the United States are 11 times more likely to die than motorists. Pedestrians are 36 times more likely to die than motorists, on a per kilometer basis. On a per trip basis, pedestrians and bicyclists are about three times more likely to die than motorists. Think about this the next time you venture out to the grocery store. (See my previous post Death as an Acceptable Outcome.)

A car is the safest place to be on the street. There's a lot of vehicular mayhem, but the vast majority of miles that Americans travel, and trips that they take, are by car, so the shockingly high mortality rates for walkers and bikers get masked. As Pucher and Dijkstra put it, "the dangers of walking and cycling in America are not just perceived, they are real."

The Terror Factor
The idea of being rear-ended by a car while you're riding your bike down the street holds a very special kind of terror. Such an event is very likely to kill you, and you can't in most cases prepare or react, because you don't know it's going to happen. You're utterly powerless. You have no control or even influence in this situation. (Here's a story on a crash in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in June. Five bicyclists died, and four were injured. It was a group ride. The driver has been charged with second degree murder and operating while intoxicated causing death, among other things.)

There are bicyclists who live with this icy thought every time they get in the saddle. What's more, I think it's why many moms won't let their kids ride bikes in the street anymore. They don't care so much that Johnny may fall and skin his knee. It's death from out of the blue that keeps kids inside, playing video games and getting fat.

And if the driver isn't drunk and doesn't leave the scene, he or she is unlikely to get more than a slap on the wrist. It's basically a free kill. Homicide without consequences. At least for the perpetrator.

We need to rethink this. We need to think of protected bike lanes as anti-terror devices.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Drunken Episcopal Bishop Kills Bicyclist

Baltimore Then Moves to Build The City's 
First Parking Protected Bike Lanes
And That's When Things Got Complicated

Two days after Christmas in 2014 the weather was fine, and Tom Palermo decided to go for an afternoon bike ride. He never made it home. As he was riding in a bike lane on Roland Avenue in Baltimore, he was struck from behind by Heather Cook, an Episcopal suffragan bishop who had been drinking and was texting.

This story received coverage in the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Cook pled guilty to automobile manslaughter, leaving the scene of a fatal crash, and driving under the influence and texting while driving. In October 2015 she was sentenced to seven years in prison and immediately taken into custody. She is currently being held at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup.

And then, earlier this year, Roland Avenue got two protected bike lanes, one on each side of the street, heading in opposite directions. Essentially, the existing bike lanes were moved to the curb, and the lanes of parked cars were moved away from the curb, so they would protect bicyclists from moving cars in the traffic lanes, including people like Heather Cook.

I hope that's clear. The parking lanes were on the right, by the curb. They moved to the left. The bike lanes had been on the left. They moved to the right, by the curb.

So, a fitting memorial. Community and government working together to improve the safety of the built environment. Right? Well, not quite.

Everyone is quick to point out that the new bike lanes had been in the works before Tom Palermo died. They were part of a larger repaving project for Roland Avenue. The bike lanes had been included in the city's bicycle master plan, the local civic organization supported them, and the principal of the 1,200-student Roland Park Elementary/Middle School supported them, along with many teachers and parents.

There are quite a few schools in this area, including the Gilman School, Roland Park Country School, and the nearby Bryn Mawr School. I'm thinking protected bike lanes might increase the number of children riding their bikes to school. And that might actually put a small dent in the car traffic. Call me a dreamer.

However, this being about bicycle lanes, you will not be surprised that opposition arose. You will also not be surprised that it arose very late in the process. And so the city and the local civic organization held yet another meeting. It was standing-room-only at the Roland Park Presbyterian Church, with the Baltimore Sun reporting that the audience of 200 seemed about evenly split between the pros and the cons.

It was a contentious meeting, so much so that a few days later a local bicycle advocacy group called Bikemore issued a white paper entitled "Mythbusting: Roland Avenue Cycletrack."

A basic claim from the opposition was that there had been inadequate communication about the project. It just wasn't true in the case of the Roland Avenue bike lanes, and the white paper runs through a litany of the communications efforts, which I won't bore you with. Bottom line: "Whether or not one chooses to attend neighborhood meetings or read neighborhood communications is ultimately a choice." However, "one's choice to remain ignorant to the details of a road project shouldn't be used as the basis to call the communication inadequate."

The opposition also claimed that the new bike lanes were making the road less safe. My favorite objection comes from the lady who said she had been using the old bike lane as a buffer when she pulled her child out of the driver's side of the car, and therefore moving the bike lane removed that buffer and made her less safe. It was suggested in response that the typical street in Baltimore does not have a bike lane that motorists can use as a buffer, and that perhaps it would be a better idea to remove the child from the other side of the car. As the white paper says, "We believe it is always best to load and unload your children and elderly passengers on the side of the vehicle away from traffic."

The white paper also addressed the concept that the objecting neighbors had a right to veto the project: "But in the end, while community input should be carefully considered, transportation projects that have the direct aim of improving safety of all road users on a public roadway should not be allowed to be derailed simply by public opposition of residents."

The City of Baltimore stuck to its guns and built the bike lanes. More than that, there are other bike lanes that are in the pipeline and on track.

I take away several lessons from the story of this battle. First, Tom Palermo's death clearly had no effect on the neighbors who objected to the bike lanes. Second, bike lane proponents should always be prepared for late-arriving opposition. Third, specious arguments must be rebutted in detail. Fourth, near neighbors have no right to veto transportation projects affecting much larger areas; it's important to make that argument clearly, forcefully, and repeatedly. And finally, people in favor of a bike lane need to attend the public meetings in force.

I've been wondering about the effect of Tom Palermo's death on the various city officials who were involved in the Roland Avenue bike lanes. After all, I'm from Philadelphia, and I've watched shovel-ready bike projects languish for years. Did Tom Palermo's death stiffen the administration's spine enough to overcome bureaucratic inertia and near-neighbor tantrums?

I spoke about this with Liz Cornish. She's the executive director of Bikemore, the Baltimore bike advocacy group that produced the white paper I've been quoting from. She didn't want to speak for the city administration, but for Bikemore, she said, "It certainly stiffened our spines."