Why Are Some Drivers So Angry At Bicyclists?

BikesinTraffic

In last week’s entry I offered statistical evidence that the presence of bicyclists makes the roads safer for all users. Several readers took issue with this. But the facts don’t lie. They point to the conclusion that as drivers become more aware of bicycles on the road and the possibility of encountering them, they slow down and pay closer attention to their driving, which reduces accidents.

I’ll admit that there are irresponsible bicyclists as well as irresponsible drivers, though I’m also convinced that the latter outnumber the former. But a few bicyclists flouting the laws do not justify the anger that impatient drivers direct at the rest of us. I’ve had horrible things screamed at me from the windows of passing cars when I’m doing nothing but minding my own business, pedaling along as far to the right as I safely can. I don’t think many bicyclists ride around yelling at drivers to “get the hell off the road.”

Bicyclists make few demands on the traffic infrastructure. If we had to pay an excise tax based on the costs of road and traffic maintenance on our behalf in proportion to motorized vehicles, it would come to less than a dollar a year. I’d consent to paying a buck, and I would still be subsidizing cars.

Where does the anger come from? I don’t know, but I will venture a guess that some drivers (note that I said some, because many drivers are courteous and considerate) are conditioned by decades of car-centric policies to think of the roads as theirs alone. We’ve been sold a romantic image of rolled-down windows, blasting stereos, and wide-open highways that offer no impediments to the bliss of tromping on the gas pedal. In this picture, bicyclists and pedestrians (not to mention wildlife and slower drivers) are unwelcome distractions.

But that world is changing. As I noted last week, there is a growing awareness of how harmful our American lifestyle of suburbs and shopping malls and drive-thru businesses is – on a personal, community and planetary scale. A person riding a bicycle to work is helping to combat obesity, suburban sprawl, and environmental degradation. A driver is exacerbating all those problems.

Given this truth, it’s reasonable to think that municipalities, businesses, schools and other organizations should encourage walking, bicycling, and public transportation. And it’s reasonable to expect drivers to make modest changes in their behavior to accommodate this growing movement.

Allow me to draw an imperfect analogy. I was living in California when that state became the first to prohibit smoking in bars. At first there was an outcry, from bar owners who feared loss of business, and from smokers who claimed their freedom was being curtailed. Twenty years later, nearly every state has followed California’s lead. Bars are much more pleasant places for everyone. If anything, they’ve gained business, from people who used to stay away. Smokers discovered that it was only a minor inconvenience to step outside.

As a bicyclist, all I ask of drivers is that they respect my right to use the roads, and that they drive with the awareness that a bicycle could be anywhere, over the top of the next hill or around the next curve. If this results in people driving a little more cautiously, it’s a win for everyone on the road.

In both cases, some people (smokers, drivers) are asked to slightly modify their behavior for the good of all. Drivers can operate at the speed limit, instead of five to ten miles an hour above it. A commuter traveling twenty miles to work will add two minutes to the trip – a small price to pay for public safety.

We are living in the Late Automobile Age. The problems caused by our dependence on cars are beginning to outweigh the motor vehicle’s obvious advantages. The time will come when a majority of Americans will no longer consider car ownership a necessity. Cars will still be around, of course, but we will be smarter in the way we use them and incorporate them into our daily lives.

Change happens slowly, and seldom without resistance. But as more people seek alternatives to the automobile, angry drivers will have to dial back their ire toward bicyclists. Maybe this conflict will lead to increased infrastructure, such as dedicated bike lanes and bike trails, along with more investment in public transportation and pedestrian-friendly business districts – all of which would be welcome.

But the anger’s got to go now. An angry driver is a danger to everyone.

More Bicyclists Make Roads Safer for Everyone

Hubbikes

While researching this week’s post, I ran across a fascinating study, entitled “The Relationship Between Bicycles and Traffic Safety For All Road Users.” Its author, Jasmine A. Martin, submitted it in December 2014 as part of her master’s thesis in City Planning and Traffic Engineering at California Polytechnic State University.

The study, which runs over 60 pages, is nothing if not thorough. Some of the math is complicated, and the author is fond of engineering-ese, peppering her prose with terms like “modal splits” and “risk homeostasis.” Martin admits the difficulty of drawing ironclad conclusions in the presence of many variables, but she presents her information in an impartial, unbiased, and most importantly, scientific fashion.

Her results will come as a surprise to those people who rail against bicyclists and claim that their presence makes roads more dangerous. In fact, the opposite is true.

Martin begins by comparing the rate of traffic fatalities in the United States with other high-income countries. Traffic fatalities include drivers, passengers, bicyclists, and pedestrians. In 2010, the United States had 12.3 traffic fatalities per 100,000 residents (FHPY), according to statistics compiled by the World Health Organization. This compares with 9.2 in Canada, 5.7 in Australia, 3.9 in Japan, and 3.6 in the United Kingdom.

She then looks at American cities in comparison to Europe. The implication shown by the statistics is inescapable. Portland, Oregon, is the most bicycle-friendly large city in the United States. It’s also the safest for drivers, with 3.39 FHPY, barely above famously bike-friendly Amsterdam, which had 3.36 FHPY.

The next-safest American city is New York (3.49 FHPY), which has the lowest rate of car ownership in the United States, and where much business is done by bicycle. The cities with the least safe roads are also the most car-dominated: Los Angeles (7.64), Detroit (10.31), and Atlanta (10.97).

Note that even in the worst cities, the rate of car fatalities per 100,000 residents falls below the national average. This makes sense when you think about it, because people in rural areas drive more than their urban counterparts. They also tend to be less friendly to bicyclists, and more likely to view them as a nuisance and an inconvenience rather than as a normal part of traffic.

Bicycling is good for everyone on the road. The widespread presence of bicycles, coupled with marked lanes, traffic islands and other infrastructure designed with bikes and pedestrians in mind, has a calming effect on the behavior of drivers. This reduces accidents overall, as pointed out in the February 2011 issue of the Environmental Building News: “Cycling may improve traffic safety overall, not just for cyclists… drivers exercise more caution with more cyclists on the road.”

There are encouraging sign around Bangor that the city is beginning to take lessons from “the other Portland” to heart. The improvements along Main Street will have a moderating effect on car traffic. Bicycle racks are proliferating all over the city. A new group called Walk-n-Roll has formed to promote bicycling and walking in the greater Bangor area.

But more needs to be done. The article in the Environmental Building News goes on to report:

Portland offers 300 miles (480 km) of trails, lanes, and bicycle-friendly streets to encourage bicycle use. As this network has developed, the city’s overall crash mortality rate has dropped significantly, especially when compared with national figures. According to an analysis in New Urban News, the trends in Portland can’t all be attributed to Portland’s bicycle policies. Portland has also invested in reducing automobile use through improvements in mass transit, transit-oriented development, and limits on the availability of parking downtown.

That’s nice. Buses and bicycles work together, to make the roads safer for all of us, inside and outside of cars. It follows that Bangor and similar communities should pursue policies that encourage more of both. A good start would be to equip all the Community Connector buses with the larger bike racks that can hold three bicycles instead of two. Later evening hours would be a plus, too, as would restoring the lost Saturday Hampden and weekday Odlin Road routes, and expanding the service to other outlying communities such as Hermon and Orrington.

Every bicyclist and bus passenger is part of a growing movement. Our car-driven, shopping mall, drive-thru lifestyle is incredibly unhealthy. Bicyclists as an integral part of traffic are here to stay. Next year, and the year after that, and the year after that, there will be more of us.

A City is Only as Good as its Downtown

 

Coolsounds

I do the bulk of my writing in an office in downtown Bangor. (I also write on buses, but that’s a story for another time.) Recently I needed to replace an ink cartridge in my printer. I also needed to get my glasses adjusted, for they kept slipping down my nose. This is a problem for someone who never learned to properly type and must look at his hands on the keyboard.

The good people at Bangor Optical, on Mount Hope Avenue, will fix the glasses I bought there any time I need them to, free of charge. The closest place to get an ink cartridge is at Staples, out by the Bangor Mall. The bookstore at the University of Maine also carries them.

Neither of these items weighs more than a few ounces. Yet the infrastructure is ordered in such a way that one is encouraged (can we say “steered” or “coerced”?) to get into a 2,000-pound vehicle to procure them. And I thought, why aren’t these items and services available downtown, within walking distance of my office?

I’m happy to see the recent revival of downtown Bangor. I try to support the small businesses that have established a toehold there. I can buy books, beer and bread within a small, walkable radius. I bank downtown, and buy vegetables at the Sunday farmer’s market. But my favorite hardware store, in Penobscot Plaza on the site of the old train station, closed a couple of years ago. My optometrist left the same complex for a larger but more distant facility out on the Brewer strip. Life’s necessities still require trips to outlying commercial areas. And while I can make those trips by bus or bicycle, that’s not what most people do.

Jane Holtz Kay, author of Asphalt Nation, writes that traffic engineers refer to these sorts of errands as “trip-chaining.” This phenomenon accounts for fully one third of the miles Americans drive. When the nearest ink cartridge or tape measure is several miles out of town, people will sooner hop into their cars than onto a bus or a bicycle.

The demise of downtowns all over the country was hastened in the 1960s and 1970s by the development of shopping malls and commerce centers in outlying areas. As businesses left city centers, public transportation failed to keep pace, forcing people who lived downtown to drive out of the city for work. Those who could not afford cars were left in hollowed-out city centers without jobs or the means to get to them.

It’s easy to see why this happened. Undeveloped land was cheaper than old buildings, and provided ample space for free parking, which, as I’ve pointed out, constitutes a massive subsidy for the car culture. Gas was cheap then, too, and few city planners foresaw the social, economic and environmental problems of forcing people to drive for the basics of day-to-day life.

Now, several decades down the road, it’s clear that our quality of life has suffered. Bangor doesn’t really have traffic, but larger cities are ringed with clogged freeways that once were bypasses. More driving means more pollution and more land given over to pavement. And perhaps most importantly, we’ve lost what Kay calls “the public square,” a gathering place for the free expression and exchange of ideas. It’s hard to have a political rally at a shopping mall, whose owners can kick you out at any time for any reason.

We need – to use a word I dislike – a new paradigm. We need to encourage basic services in downtowns, by means of tax breaks and other economic incentives. We need to stop accepting as normal the practice of trip-chaining in cars, especially for small things like glasses and ink cartridges. We need to stop planning everything around the availability of free and convenient parking.

A functioning downtown improves the life of an entire city. People walk more, which improves their physical health. They encounter each other face-to-face instead of car-to-car, which encourages civil interaction and fosters a sense of community. And it connects a city with its history. A shopping mall looks and feels basically the same everywhere, but every downtown is unique.

I took the bus to Bangor Optical and picked up my ink cartridge at the University. The inconvenience was only minor. And I’m glad that the bars and restaurants downtown seem to be thriving. I only wish it were as easy to find everyday items there as it is to find a cold beer.

 

Fun Without a Car

ButterIsland

In my last post I wrote that cars cost twice as much as most people think they do, and encouraged people to think twice before buying one.

The most interesting response came from a reader named Robert West, who wrote: “Some people are way too active to adopt a no-vehicle lifestyle, no matter the cost.” He pointed out that people use cars to go camping, boating, skiing, snowmobiling, and to visit Maine’s many attractions, including state parks and museums.

It’s a valid point. But it isn’t necessarily true. You can live an active lifestyle without owning a car. In fact, sometimes owning a car can get in the way of living the active life you want.

Let’s take those two points one at a time.

As regular readers of this blog know, I own a sailboat, a Cape Dory 25 that comfortably sleeps two adults and can carry as many as four passengers plus the captain. I keep it in Hampden during the winter and Rockland during the summer. I live in Bangor, and in the summer months I frequently take the inexpensive and convenient Concord Coach bus down to Rockland to go sailing. On this boat, I’ve visited Acadia National Park on Isle Au Haut, Grand Manan Island in Canada, and numerous getaways on Maine’s fabulous coast. I’ve anchored in secluded coves and visited popular tourist towns.

Sometimes I’ll invite people to go sailing. The price is a ride to Rockland and a six-pack of beer for the skipper, which most of my friends consider eminently worth it for a day on the water. We don’t all need cars to get there.

In the winter, I like to cross-country ski. I can take my skis on the Community Connector bus and explore the trails near the University of Maine and in the Bangor City Forest.

But Mr. West is correct when he states that many Maine adventures require a vehicle. As I’ve said before. I’m not a purist. I drive. I live with a woman who owns a car. We sometimes use it to go to the beach, or to go hiking, or to visit places too far away to bicycle to and not served by public transportation.

The thesis of this blog is not that we should all give up our vehicles, but that we should reduce our mass dependence on them. What has to change is the perception of the car’s role in our lives. The household with four vehicles for four licensed drivers is wasteful and anachronistic. We don’t all need our own vehicles. When I lived alone, I found that I could rent a car to do almost anything I wanted, and that it was much, much cheaper over the course of a year than owning one.

Which brings me to my second point. “There was a time in my life,” Lisa said to me in a recent conversation, “when I couldn’t afford a bicycle, or a canoe or a kayak, because I was spending all my spare money on my car.” I could not afford my boat if I owned a car. This summer I am looking at a $3,000 repair job that has kept me off the water. The last two times we tried to go to the beach, car problems prevented us from getting there. If a boat is a hole in the water into which one pours money, a car is an even larger hole in the ground.

If anything, not owning a car has made me more active. I bicycle places where I used to drive. I have money to spend on adventures that used to go to my vehicle. I walk more. I live in a one-car household with two drivers, and share the cost of gas and the driving when we use the car to go someplace fun. And because I don’t have to work 40 hours a week in the summer to support a vehicle, there is more time to play.

The car industry has done a masterful job of selling the car-for-every-driver lifestyle to us. Commercials showcase the active life, and not the downsides of mass car ownership such as traffic, pollution, accidents, and incivility.

But boats and camps are often sold as time-shares, collectively enjoyed by several owners. Why not cars? We do not each need our own personal chariot to take us anywhere we want, any time we want. Owning a car is not the necessity its advertisers would have us believe.

The High Cost of Car Ads

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Buying a car can be a terrible financial decision, one that can set you back for years. And many American households make the same mistake over and over again.

In his landmark book, How to Live Well Without Owning a Car, Chris Balish points out that the cost of buying a car is quite different than the cost of owning one. Many people add up the car payment, insurance and gas, and arrive at a round figure for their annual car cost. The problem with this rough calculation is that it does not take into account things like depreciation, maintenance and repair, financing, parking, accessories, and the other small things that make up half the cost of owning a vehicle. When you wonder at the end of the month where all the money went, look no farther than your driveway

“The gross underestimation of how expensive cars are to own is so widespread it’s a national epidemic,” Balish writes. “This lack of understanding is fueled by an endless barrage of automobile advertising purposely designed to make cars seem more affordable than they really are. Commercials that promise ‘A brand new car for $199 a month! Just $199 a month!’ are so misleading they should be illegal.”

Turn on the TV almost any evening, to any channel, and you won’t wait long for a car commercial. They proliferate especially during sports broadcasts, alongside ads for car insurance and cheap beer. Is it any wonder that drunk driving, despite the public relations campaigns of the last 30 years, remains a national tragedy?

Car companies spend billions of dollars a year convincing us that their product is necessary. According to Business Insider, four of the twelve companies that spent the most on advertising in 2012 were car manufacturers.

General Motors spent $2.15 billion on ads. (Source: AdAge 100 Leading National Advertisers Index). Of this total, $1.3 billion went to television, $185 million to magazines, $143 million to newspapers, $176 million to internet advertising, and $1.3 billion to “other” – a category that presumably encompasses direct mail, billboards, live promotions at public events, and everything else.

Ford spent $2.56 billion on advertising in 2012; Toyota spent $2.09 billion; and Fiat Chrysler spent $1.97 billion. The categorical breakdowns were similar.

According to Kantar US Insights, one of the world’s largest information and consultancy networks, U.S. automakers aired 12.7 million television advertisements in 2012 for an estimated cost of $9.4 billion. That amounts to between $1200 and $1500 in TV advertising for every car sold. Since television accounts for roughly half of all advertising spending on cars, the price of a new car includes between $2400 and $3000 in marketing costs alone.

If we all need cars, why does the industry spend nearly three thousand dollars per unit trying to convince us to buy one?

I’m reminded of the controversy surrounding a lawsuit filed by two young women against McDonald’s for making them obese. Morgan Spurlock briefly addressed this suit, which was eventually dismissed, in his 2004 film Supersize Me. The women were widely ridiculed for blaming their own lack of control on McDonald’s. But was their suit really that farfetched? McDonald’s spends nearly $1 billion annually in advertising. One essayist challenged readers to drive along a commercial strip in any U.S. city, count the number of fast-food restaurants, and then turn around and count the number of places one could buy an apple.

It’s hard to fight obesity when its causes are so relentlessly promoted and dangled in front of us. Cars contribute to the problem. We hit the drive-thru instead of carrying our lunch to work on a bicycle. Can individuals be entirely blamed for this behavior when every advertising outlet encourages it?

Clearly, our car-driven lifestyle is bad for our health. And alternatives are readily available. But the sheer volume of car advertising tends to drown out advocates for change. Have you ever wondered why stories about public transportation seem to get buried in your local newspaper? The advertising inserts in the weekend edition constitute a powerful disincentive. Newspapers all over the country are struggling. Car ads provide a valuable source of revenue.

Owning a car costs twice as much as most people think it does, Balish writes. And car companies invest a lot of money to perpetuate this mass delusion, which adds even more to the cost of the product. The smartest decision an American household can make is to reduce its number of vehicles – down to zero, if possible. The car companies and their advertisers hope most us never figure this out.