Bicyclists: always the underdogs

DOWNEY - Whatever bad rap bicyclists may get for their behavior on the road, they are still the underdogs to motorized vehicles. Why is this a problem? More specifically, why is anything about bicycles important from an environmental standpoint, the fundamental focus of this ongoing series?In the broadest terms, bicycles are important because they - along with public transit and walking (you've heard of walking, right?) - are our culture's best hope for solving the ever-pressing, ever-expanding issue of vehicular infrastructure, with its attendant problems of fossil fuel consumption and air pollution. Oh, and the incremental effect of sitting-on-your-rear-end-in-your-car on the health of a sedentary and overweight population. Here's an example: at a City of Downey Public Works Committee meeting about a month ago, representatives from the California Department of Transportation presented an overview of the I-5 overhaul, which will commence in the next few months and take about two years to complete, significantly impacting local Downey freeway access and traffic during that entire period. To a question at that meeting about how long the renovated I-5 would support traffic demands until the freeways were so crowded the process had to be repeated, one of the Caltrans engineers said: "23 years from now, back to square 1." Stated slightly differently, population growth of both people and vehicles will put us back in the same situation in a couple of decades. In short, we have a transportation model that will continue to overload unless we find ways to modify it. And the bicycle, bless its heart, is one of those ways. So it's appropriate to have a clear picture of the challenges of integrating into our transportation system a meaningful place for the bicycle, this underwhelming force for change and for good. How is the bicycle the underdog? First and foremost, if a motorized vehicle and a bicyclist collide, simple physics kicks in and the vehicle wins. And the faster the vehicle is going, the more likely the cyclist will be killed. In fact, at 45 miles per hour, the mortality rate for bicyclists and pedestrians is 90%. So bicyclists are at a distinct safety disadvantage on the streets they legally share with motor vehicles. Secondly, the entire traffic system is designed around the concept of "mobility," a fancy bureaucratic way of saying that the most important priority is to get folks to their destinations as fast as possible. The bicycle doesn't quite fit that paradigm, so consequently it has suffered from a huge lack of helpful infrastructure. On a very personal level, I can give you several examples of this. The intersection of Fifth and Paramount in Downey is a perfect case in point. As a bicyclist, not only am I unable to trigger a light change, but, since there are no sensors for my bike and no timing accommodation for my relatively slow speed, it's impossible to follow other traffic through the intersection before the light turns red. At the red light, if there are no cars at the intersection, I must get off my bike and walk to the pedestrian switch at the crosswalk. How would a driver feel if he or she had to exit the vehicle and walk to the side of the street to initiate a light change? This is true at light after light on my early morning crosstown commutes from Downey to Culver City. Unless I happen to have the company of a motor vehicle at the light, I must leave the street and push the button at the pedestrian crosswalk, then make the transition, once the light changes, from pedestrian back to bicyclist. There is a solution to this problem, which I encounter at two intersections along my usual West L.A. bike route: accompanied by an instruction sign, there are two narrow white lines at the light on which a bicyclist can place the wheels of his or her bike. A weight sensor under the asphalt then triggers a light change just like the universal implementation for cars and trucks. Keep in mind, that's a bicycle sensor at an insignificant two out of some thirty or forty intersections I traverse during my commute--surely the sign of a vehicular underdog. Stop signs are another problem for cyclists, who obviously rely on momentum for efficient progress. A rough equivalent experience for a motorist would be a requirement to turn off the ignition at every stop sign. Not a very effective way to enhance "mobility." One excellent solution would be roundabouts, which, when efficiently designed, enhance traffic flow, not only for cyclists, but also for other vehicles. But such a solution would require significant changes in infrastructure and street design, an expensive, time-consuming, and disruptive process not likely to be seen in Downey in the foreseeable future. On a broader scale, bicycles and pedestrians share underdog status when it comes to infrastructure funding, where what's called "active transportation," is projected to receive only 1% of regional funding through 2035, despite the fact that 20% of all trips in the region are by pedestrians and bicyclists. Let me repeat that: 20% of the travel gets 1% of the funding. If that doesn't describe an underdog, what does?

********** Published: June 20, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 10