Sharing the road means much more than just checking your blind spot.
By Rachel Z. Arndt, Popular Mechanics, January 25, 2017
"That light is for you, too!"
This familiar refrain, or some slight variation, greeted me every other time I pedaled through a red light in Iowa City, Iowa. In those drivers' minds, I was breaking the rules. Red means stop, and red means stop for everybody, not just cars.
Angry drivers often argue that if cyclists want to ride on the road, then they should obey all the rules of the road. The fact is, not all vehicles are created equal. Those rules were designed for heavy, powerful metal machines full of fire and people—not their more vulnerable, human-powered counterparts. That's why a few places have legalized my tactic of rolling through the red, also called the Idaho stop—because it actually makes cycling safer. That's why we should start thinking differently about the road and how we police it, rather than allowing cyclist-vs-driver animosity rise unchecked.
This is especially true as cycling continues to grow in popularity in the U.S. Commuting by bike grew 60 percent, to almost 1 million, in the first decade of the 21st century. Cycling accidents have grown, too. In 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 818 people were killed while cycling and 45,000 were injured. That same year, more than 35,000 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes and 2.4 million were injured.
Lowering this number demands smarter infrastructure and laws. Understanding our past can help create the right roads for tomorrow. With American streets and bridges reaching near crisis levels of decay, it's time not only to rebuild our infrastructure but also to think about how our roads work.
The origin of all this car-versus-bike animosity dates back to the days before cars were even on American roads, to the time when the notion of roadways as a public good was first established. In the late 19th century, herd animals, carts, wagons, horses, and road locomotives all shared the road, and it could be a pretty chaotic place.
"The basic concept of [streets and roads]," says historian James Longhurst, author of Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road, "is that they're a shared resource between travelers. The street is a public good that exists only when it allows the free passage of people upon it."
When things started getting out of hand—with super-loud cars spooking horses and plowing into each other—federal and state governments passed laws, such as speed limits and one-way streets, that applied to all vehicles.
Then cars completely took over.
"Because of that popularity and dominance, we increasingly design the roads for just the automobile," Longhurst says. "It's much easier to make rules and designs for one kind of user." As early as the 1930s, urban planners like Robert Moses warmly embraced the automobile, stringing together cities and suburbs with large, meandering cars-only highways. In cities like Atlanta and Los Angeles and in tons of suburbs, these roads became major thoroughfares through neighborhoods. Slowly the "free passage of people" soon applied almost exclusively to the automobile.
A BICYCLE REBIRTH
In the 1970s, bikes saw an unexpected boom in popularity brought on by pollution concerns (and, later, high gas prices) and more readily available 10-speed bikes. Since U.S. bike lanes were still a novelty, a movement emerged that advocated for treating bikes just like cars—including having bikes occupy the same part of a lane (the center) as their automotive counterparts.
This "vehicular cycling" movement was based on the idea, Longhurst says, "that the safest way to be a bicyclist is to pretend that you're an automobile." With this arrangement, bikes and cars remained regulated by the same laws. Safety concerns aside, it certainly was the cheapest way of addressing the problem since it required no new infrastructure. Nearly the only bicycle infrastructure of that era, says Longhurst, were "Bike Route" signs, which designated regular streets as bike lanes.
A minor but important change to that practice happened in Idaho in 1982. After this period of newfound cycling enthusiasm, state legislators introduced what would become the Idaho stop. The first iteration of the law allowed cyclists to treat red lights as yield signs, but only when they were turning right or turning left onto a one-way highway. In 2005, Idaho updated the law, allowing cyclists to treat traffic lights as stop signs when going straight as well.
Today, this practice is allowed only in Idaho and parts of Colorado, despite evidence that it makes roads safer for cyclists. The year after the original law went into effect in Idaho, cyclist injuries in the state decreased by 14.5 percent. More recently, a 2016 DePaul University study advocated for the stop, pointing to research that says it helps cyclists get out in front of cars and into drivers' sight lines. But lawmakers are still wary of adopting the law—claiming it makes roads more dangerous for pedestrians.
Other traffic laws vary state to state, too. Most states, for example, say cyclists must ride as far to the right as "practicable." Others use the difference between bikes and cars to bikes' detriment. In Texas, the state has the right to "restrain or prohibit" bike riding because it can be a "practice tending to annoy persons passing on a street or sidewalk."
Some states are more understanding of the fundamental differences between bikes and cars, but by in large, U.S. transportation laws are stuck in the past.
AN AMERICAN CONUNDRUM
Unfortunately, our infrastructure isn't in much better shape than our laws. While major cities now have hundreds of miles of bike lanes (New York City now tops 1,000 miles), the U.S. lags severely behind Western Europe. For a host of reasons—delayed mass adoption of cars, a much higher gas tax, and greater cultural acceptance of commuting by bike to name a few—European cities are typically much more bike-friendly. Minneapolis is the only U.S. city in the Copenhagen Index's top 20 cities for cycling. Almost every other one is in Europe, with Copenhagen and Amsterdam sitting at the top.
The differences between there and here start before riders even get on their bikes. There are tons of parking spots for bikes in Dutch cities like Groningen, which has underground parking facilities at its main train station. Soon Utrecht will have the biggest bike parking facility in the world with 12,500 parking spots.
Because there are so many people on bikes, local governments can justify separate traffic signals for cyclists, like those in the Netherlands, and traffic lights timed for cyclists rather than cars, as is the goal in Copenhagen. Bike lanes are even sometimes wide enough for people to ride side by side, and they're clearly marked off from motorized vehicle lanes. It's a transportation arrangement that promotes safety and usability no matter what you're driving.
But things are much different in the U.S. Between 2000 and 2013, there was a 62 percent increase in bike commuting, according to the League of American Bicyclists, and when cities do spend the money, it shows. In 2012, Chicago installed a protected bike lane on Kinzie Street, boosting cycling on the protected portion of the street by 55 percent, and a 2014 Portland State University study showed that protected lanes can increase ridership by up to 171 percent.
Bike-friendly measures don't need to be huge investments. Small additions like Seattle's "leaning rails," for instance, keep cyclists sitting in their saddle when waiting for a light to change.
Of course, the U.S. and Europe aren't exactly same, and in some rural, riding on the highway shoulder is perfectly acceptable and mostly safe. But in denser cities, where limited space makes cars and bikes compete more intensely for the road, cycling infrastructure isn't just a desire—it's a need.
And that need could soon spill into suburbs. Depending on who you ask, millennials, the largest generation in American history, are filling up cities and also a creating new kind of living arrangement called "urban burbs," which resembles a suburb but one that retains traces of city life like walkability and public transit. As this trend continues, the need for smart biking infrastructure will only grow.
However, adding bike lanes won't solve the issue alone. Cycling in the U.S. will never take off like it has in Europe if there is no infrastructure to support it. But governments won't support bike-friendly development when there's no justifying demand. We have to rethink our transportation laws and roads, and there's no better time to do it than when the America's aging roadways—responsible for ushering in the age of the automobile—desperately need replacing. We can build roads that once again adhere to their original vision—to allow for the safe passage of all travelers.