Thankfully the news media is keeping quiet about this or I could be in big trouble: I flooded the Mississippi earlier this month. I’m also responsible in some small part for the Arkansas killer tornados last month. I may even be implicated in the Japanese earthquakes earlier this year, though the evidence for that is not so clear. But certainly without a doubt (as I confessed in a previous post) I share with BP responsibility for the gulf oil spill last year. How did I manage to cause such massive death and destruction? Simply by living my life as usual, getting around by car. I feel a little bit guilty about it actually. But what can I do?
Last week once again a left-turning motorist almost ran me down in the crosswalk at the intersection of State and Aurora near my house. And once again rather than apologize this person yelled something inaudible but probably not nice at me, shook their fist at me, and sped off after passing inches from where I was standing. Why was this person so incredibly angry with me? What had I done? And then it hit me: motorists are not concerned with safety, they are concerned with fairness. This person was upset because I had stepped into an area he felt was his. His light was green, so from his perspective it was unfair of me to enter the crosswalk. (He neglected to account for the fact that left-turning vehicles don’t have the right-of-way.) He was willing to risk my life to show me that I was being unfair. What can we make of an otherwise rational person giving more importance to the temporary ownership of a patch of asphalt than to the safety of a fellow citizen? How did we come to this motorist mentality infecting our population, and what can we do to reverse it?
The typical motorist wants to go as fast as they can at all times and they don’t like it when someone or something prevents them from doing that. Do you have the motorist mentality? Ask yourself how many of the following statements apply to you:
- I am usually in a hurry when I drive.
- When I drive in the city I have a constant feeling that I’m not going fast enough.
- I don’t like having to wait for pedestrians and bicyclists.
- If the vehicle in front of me is going slower than I am I tailgate them, flash my lights at them, and honk my horn at them.
- I regularly pass other cars in no-passing zones.
- I regularly travel faster than the speed limit.
- I often get upset by other vehicles when I drive in the city.
- I feel safe in my car so I rarely think about safety.
Or do you have the bicyclist mentality:
- I am not in a hurry most of the time.
- I feel vulnerable so I think about safety a lot.
- If a vehicle is in my way I go around them.
- I don’t mind going slowly because other vehicles can pass me.
- I like to say “hi” to other bicyclists.
The motorist mentality is one result of the space constraints caused by the introduction of massive numbers of wide fast vehicles onto our streets. Here’s an analogy. Picture a train station of the future with thousands of people getting their tickets and boarding their trains. Imagine now that all of those people are given rocket-powered roller skates. As a consequence, everyone must wear big hoop skirts for protection, and the hoop skirts cause each person to take up nine times as much area as before. Furthermore, suppose everyone must also wear ear protection which makes it impossible for them to hear each other. (Hollywood take note: this would make a great scene in your next science fiction movie.)
Everyone finds it difficult to get through the doors. They can no longer negotiate with each other who goes first. Lines form. Everyone must wait in line. Everyone must follow the rules. Everyone wants to go as fast as they can (“We’re wearing rocket skates for crying out loud!”). Some people get impatient and don’t follow the rules. Tempers flare. And the motorist mentality sets in. This is what happened to our streets 100 years ago when people started driving cars instead of walking. Now imagine the rocket skates becoming smaller and less powerful. The hoops skirts shrink and people slow down. The rocket skates are quieter now too, so that people can once again talk with each other. There is more room for everyone. People greet each other. Everyone is happy. No one has the motorist mentality any more.
This is certainly a pretty picture: all we need to do to return to our blissful origins is to make our vehicles slower and smaller. And I believe it could happen if enough of us want to make it happen. However, in the meantime, we must deal with what we’ve got. What does this motorist mentality, this “get out of my way” thinking, mean to bicyclists and motorists? How does knowing about it affect our behavior? First some tips for bicyclists:
- Don’t follow the rules (you can read more about this idea in a previous post). The motorist mentality means traffic laws were not designed with your welfare in mind. They were designed to make traffic fair for motorists. Following all of the laws is likely to get you killed. (There are certain laws you should follow in order to ensure that motorists are fair to you, as described below.) For example the typical traffic light can be considered a device mainly intended to make intersections fair for motorists. Motorists are willing to wait at traffic lights because they know that they will get their turn. But traffic lights also make intersections dangerous for bicyclists. This is because a traffic light causes a large number of cars to congregate around the bicyclist. When the light changes those cars will explode from the starting line and jockey for position as they speed to the next light, without regard for your safety. (Right-turning cars are particularly dangerous.) You as a bicyclist will be safer if you run the red light. First check for cross traffic, and then cross if it’s clear. And it’s fine for you as a bicyclist to turn right on red, in spite of what the signs may say, because your vehicle is narrow. Nearby motorists sometimes howl with rage when they see me make these “illegal” maneuvers. They think I am doing something unfair, because they are not allowed to run the red light or turn right on red. I wish there were some way to tell them that I am merely giving my own safety a higher priority than being fair within a system meant for them.
- Be courteous. Motorists are a generally crabby lot, and your good cheer will help them. This tip may appear to contradict the previous paragraph; the difference is that “don’t follow the rules” is about your relationship with an oblivious transportation system while “be courteous” is about your relationship with people. Since motorists can’t hear you, you must communicate with them by hand gestures. As a bicyclist there are certain hand gestures you will be tempted to use after a motorist has unthinkingly threatened your life, but you must refrain. Instead, wave hello to people. Politely signal for them to go around you if you are taking the lane. Say thank you with a smile when they give you your right of way.
- Assert yourself. The motorist mentality makes motorists very careful to be fair to their fellow motorists. But ironically motorists think nothing of being unfair to bicyclists, so much so that many bicyclists are intimidated into riding long distances on the sidewalk and riding the wrong way down the street. Both of these behaviors are extremely dangerous. Ride in the street. It belongs to you and don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t. Take up the full lane if necessary. Get in the left lane to turn left. These are all rules you do need to follow if you want to gain the respect of motorists and ensure that they treat you fairly.
How can you motorists overcome the motorist mentality? Here are my tips:
- Relax. You made a transportation choice that has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that you have a nice big cozy box to sit in. The disadvantage is that so many other people have also chosen to ride in big cozy boxes that you all must wait in line to get across town. If someone cuts in front of you don’t blame that person, blame your collective choice of vehicle. Accept the trade-off you made. Better than that, enjoy the trade-off you made. Bring a book or some knitting to work on while you wait in line in your big cozy box.
- Make the journey as important as the destination. Budget enough time to go slowly on purpose. Listen to the radio. Look out the window. (But put down the cell phone.) Enjoy.
- Get your priorities straight. Your car easily weighs enough to crush a person to death. It goes fast enough to kill a person on impact. It is wide enough that it leaves little room for error on city streets. That is a big responsibility. Consider how unimportant it is to be concerned about “that person is in my way” when there is the larger concern of “am I being safe with this large machine entrusted to me?”
I hold out hope that the motorist mentality can be eradicated in my children’s lifetime. Today I read about an electric vehicle for sale in my town that has a top speed of 25mph. I think most people’s reaction will be that that speed is too big a sacrifice, that we need to make a better electric car. I think the car is fine, and that we need to change our assumptions about speed. For me driving a low-speed car would be a step up from my electric cargo bike (especially in winter!). And driving it around at a paltry 25mph would be an opportunity to cure myself of my motorist mentality.
I found paradise. I am on my way to Washington DC by bike, and I chose a route that passes through the Pine Creek Rail Trail in Pennsylvania. This trail is awesome. Sure the scenery is nice and the weather is nice, but what really struck me is that this trail is The Way Highways Should Be. My fellow travelers were pedestrians, bicyclists, and horseback riders. We greeted each other as we passed. The pace was slow. The mood was happy. Old folks tottered along on their bikes and and in their electric wheel chairs. Lycra-clad young guys zipped by on their road bikes. Little kids played in the dirt in the middle of the path. Residents waved from their porches. It was humanity at its finest. It was idyllic. And it was my highway.
Anyone who is willing to give up a vehicle that is wide, fast, and heavy can have this too. What does a vehicle’s width have to do with it? There are many hidden consequences when a cultures embraces wide vehicles. Traffic jams, parking structures, massive concrete structures dotting the landscape. Heavy vehicles also lead to an imposing and expensive infrastructure that could easily be replaced by lighter vehicles on crushed gravel paths. Fast vehicles make it necessary to have a bewildering amount of traffic control–stoplights and signage. And high speeds make it difficult to greet the people you pass.
The Pine Creek Trail epitomizes the humanity in transportation that we as a culture have given up. Can we get it back again? I am hopeful. Over half of my 470-mile route to Washington D.C. will be on bike trails: 65 miles on the Pine Creek Trail, 16 miles on Pennsylvania’s Lower Trail, 180 miles on the C&O Canal Towpath, and lastly a few miles on the Crescent Trail that circumnavigates Washington DC. That’s 265 miles of trail! I look forward to the day I can do the entire trip on humane highways of crushed gravel.
I recently visited my parents in Washington D.C. and as is my wont I paid particular attention to bicycling-type activity that I saw. As we rode through Adams Morgan on the bus, for example, I was pleased to see freshly painted bike lanes, but my adulation turned to horror when I saw that the lanes abruptly disappeared and reappeared as we rode alongside. And sure enough the bicyclists I saw cast their votes by their behavior: I saw lots of bicyclists driving on the sidewalk rather than risk driving on such deceitful bike lanes. (By the way I am purposefully using the word “driving” instead of “riding” for what a bicyclist does. Now that more and more bicycles have passengers, I reserve the word “rider” for what the bicycle passenger does.)
But for the most part I was pleased by what I saw in D.C. I saw an active bike community. I saw groups of tourists touring the city by bicycle. I saw lots of bikes and scooters parked around the buildings downtown. And for me the crowning jewel of our nation’s capital is not the Capital building, but the Crescent Trail. This wide tree-shaded bike trail circles more than 10-miles around the western side of the city. It is well-used by bicyclists, runners, and strolling families. It is built from an old railroad bed that passes over and under most cross streets. It is I think what all cities should aspire to create, ultimately for all short-distance non-commercial transportation. Imagine if all the beltways in our country were replaced with tree-lined boulevards on which ultralight vehicles (bicycles and cars weighing less than 100 pounds) rolled along at 15 mph amongst runners going 6 mph and pedestrians strolling at 3 mph. You might say “yes Larry it sounds very idyllic but it’s not practical; people wouldn’t be able to get to work on time on a bicycle.” I would reply that Washington D.C. is only 10 miles wide; at 15 mph a bicyclist could get from any one point to another in less than an hour. That’s certainly not the case now for people traveling by car. The Crescent Trail is the best example I’ve seen of How Wonderful Transportation Could Be If Only We Decided That’s How We Want It to Be. It doesn’t require any new technology. It doesn’t require drastic sacrifices. It just requires using what we already have in a new better way.
One thing I love about biking is that you don’t have to go where the road goes: you can take off in directions that are closed to cars. Down the alley, through the woods, across the fields, around the back. If there is a chain across the road, no problem. If the road is washed out, no problem. You are good to go if you’re on a bike. In fact, often these back ways provide a safer way to get from one place to another than the front way.
I had to bike a couple of errands today and I discovered a couple of neat spots. One was behind a shopping plaza when I was cutting a corner to get home. I found I was able to get from one shopping plaza to another by going across a muddy wooded stretch. It was another world back there, an exquisitely depressing world full of trash and decay and cigarette butts and weird discarded machinery. And yet it was a world more real in a way than the clean commercialized world created by the stores at the front of the shopping center.
I found another cool spot in Cayuga Heights, the fancy neighborhood in Ithaca. I’ve been meeting some friends there on Saturdays to go running, and I noticed on the map that there were two streets that almost connected but did not. Almost-connected streets on a map almost always indicates a cool place accessible only to pedestrians and bicyclists. I went to investigate. I tentatively headed down a parking lot. Sure enough the pavement stopped but an alluring path continued. I started down the path and I suddenly looked up: all the trees along the path were lined up for a hundred yards! It was magical! I have come across several other tree-lined spots like this in Ithaca, relics from a time when people grew tree-lined drives to their mansions. To accommodate the age of the automobile people had to widen their driveways. They were forced to either cut down their trees or make an alternate driveway. The few driveways I’ve seen must have survived because an alternate was possible.
This little tree-lined discovery did not disappoint. I am definitely adding this place to my route when I go to meet my friends on subsequent Saturdays. This is a good example of how I gradually develop a commute over time: I try different ways, see which ones connect, see which ones are pleasant, and over time I can get to most places by bike paths, back roads, back alleys and scenic drives. So can you. Happy trails!
I’m reading the book Rowed Trip by a couple that rowed and biked from Scotland to Syria in 2008. When they were biking they towed their custom rowboats behind their bikes, and when they rowed they stowed their folding bikes in the hold of their boats. Cool.
I was particularly interested in how the biking situation is in Europe. I have this idea that the Europeans are way advanced in that department. Certainly their biking experiences in remote areas sounded nice. They described single-lane roads which they had pretty much to themselves, seeing only a few cars per day. But other areas sounded nasty. They described narrow roads which pimply teenagers used as race tracks. However, when they reached Germany they wax poetic:
…my spirits were buoyed by…the fabulous condition of the bike path. Even though it was wide enough for a car and paved, it was strictly for non-motorized travel. Regular signs marked distances to upcoming communities, while fruit trees and park benches appeared with regularity. I was happy to see the path was amply used by dog walkers, stroller-pushing mothers and touring cyclists, almost all of whom seemed intrigued by our road boats.
Cycling is big business in Germany. Every year millions of touring cyclists pedal along the nation’s 50,000 kilometres of bike paths. Not only is cycling an excellent way to discover a country, encouraging you to experience hidden gems away from typical tourist itineraries and to eat hearty meals with complete justification, it fosters a host of mom-and-pop businesses catering to the visiting pedaller. Small villages that would be overlooked by tour buses have bustling cafés, bicycle shops and accommodation geared to passing cyclists. The bed and breakfasts are wholesome and inviting, the kind of place where the hosts would yell at you in contented bliss and topple oversized swaths of fresh bread and farm cheese onto your breakfast plate. The pleasure of lengthy cycling trips on roads exclusively for human-power traffic is a foreign concept for Canadians. While we have the gorgeous scenery, long-distance cycle-touring in Canada involves sharing the roads with cars and trucks. The noise, fumes, and danger detract from the trip, and our experience in Germany made me realize what we’re missing. On bike trails, you can let your imagination wander without worrying about straying into the path of a semi, the birdsong comes through undiluted, and it is easy to chat idly as you pedal side by side.
When I praised the quality of the German cycling paths, our host related the origins of their cycling movement. In the 1970s, a group of students spearheaded a drive that ultimately led to a pace of bike-path construction exceeding that of roads. Since 1976, the total length of cycle routes in Germany had quadrupled from 12,911 kilometres to by some estimates about 50,000.
Canada has a few quality bicycle paths, but they are not interconnected, and for most randomly chosen A-to-B trips, a cyclist is forced to follow busy roads. Whereas in Germany, a pleasant bicycle path can be found connecting most towns. In 2007 Colin and I cycled in the Pacific Rim National Park on the west coast of Vancouver Island, a world-class tourist destination, and we encountered some or our most dangerous cycling conditions ever. We’ve cycled through Third World countries with a better shoulder for cyclists than those found around Long Beach. When we queried the park officials, they insisted the environment couldn’t take the extra burden of a track catering to fossil-fuel-free vehicles. The highway and numerous vehicular parking lots are the limit of what the park can handle. The Canadian government could learn a lot from the Germans.
Germany’s abundance of cycling paths is a case of “if you build it they will come”. In Münster, Germany’s most cycling-friendly city, bicycles are used for one in four trips. By comparison in Canada’s most pedalled city, Victoria, B.C., only one in twenty trips are made by bicycle. On average, 10 percent of trips in Germany are pedal-powered, which is five times higher in Canada and ten times higher than the United States or the United Kingdom.
I wasn’t surprised to find that more people cycle here as to discover it hadn’t always been that way. The advent of the automobile led to a precipitous decline in cycling in Europe, which would have undoubtedly continued if it hadn’t been for concerted efforts. In the 1950s, cycling in England was more popular than it was in Germany, as the Germans fully embraced the automobile industry, building world-class autobahns and mass-producing cars. Interestingly, grassroots efforts in Germany began breathing life back into cycling as an alternative, while Britain continued catering almost exclusively to the car. It’s hard to say what cultural forces spawned such differences, but these two European nations, both with strong economies, now have distinctly different cycling habits. The Brits are tied with Americans in their rejection of the bicycle, while Germany is a world leader.
The thing is, people don’t want to ride their bikes if it elevates their chances of dying or being maimed, and that is a real likelihood in the U.K., U.S., and Canada. If you ride your bike in the States, you are seven times more likely to be injured and 2.5 times more likely to die than if you ride in Germany—a factoid that may help explain why in America 75 percent of cyclists are male, while in Germany and the Netherlands, the number of women on bikes is equal to our surpasses that of their mail counterparts.
We were usually the only foreigners on the bike paths and felt as though we had discovered a national secret.
In my estimation Colin and Julie Angus, the authors, are nothing less than heroic. We saw them speak at the National Geographic Society in Washington D.C. last November. The Society had awarded them Adventurers of the Year for 2006. They are professional adventurers who don’t hesitate to row across the Atlantic or do other such impossible-sounding feats. Colin and Julie are leading the way for the rest of us who embrace human-powered transportation. I hope that some day people will react to seeing a bike towing a rowboat not with an incredulous snort but with a yawn while they mutter “there goes another couple biking and rowing across Europe”.
Let’s assume that over the next hundred years everybody does the sensible thing and lets their cars (including electric cars) fall into ruin. Bye bye Passat and Accord. Bye bye Hummer and Prius. In their place people will only use pedal power and electric bikes. Furthermore assume that these vehicles weigh between 15 and 100 pounds, they are no more than four feet wide, their top speed is 20mph, and their range is about 50 miles. This is a pretty short range, so in order to go cross-country people will ride trains. In this future, train stations will be 1 to 25 miles apart all over the country. How will these changes affect our landscape? What will this future look like?
Roads, overpasses, bridges, etc. will only have to bear loads two orders of magnitude less than they did during the loathsome auto era. That is, they need only support 30 pound vehicles rather than 3000 pound vehicles. All this infrastructure will be correspondingly less thick, less expensive and even unnecessary. Goodbye clover leaf and other concrete monstrosities. Hello covered bridges.
In this future, snow will be white. No more snow gray from auto exhaust. And no more snow plowing. We may want a big machine to compact the snow, but our vehicles will be light enough that they can ride on top of the snow instead of having to rely on snow plows to laboriously push the snow aside.
Under this scenario, pavement for suburban and country roads pretty much becomes unnecessary. Heck, you may even be able to grow grass on your “road” if there isn’t too much bike traffic. Roads closer to the cities may require crushed stone. Only the very center of cities will require pavement. Our highways will be scenic paths through the fields and woods.
Roads can be much narrower. One-way streets will be unnecessary. Multi-lane highways will be unnecessary. We will have to come up with some use for the exorbitant number of lanes previously deemed necessary. Hotels? Roadside taverns?
A vehicle going less than 20mph and weighing less than 100 pounds can stop very quickly, can swerve around obstacles, and won’t necessarily harm something or someone it does run into. Flattened possums, raccoons, and squirrels on the roadside will become unknown. And in this future you will be able to let your kids and pets wander freely throughout the neighborhood (like people used to do a century ago). And kids will be empowered in other ways: since these vehicles of the future are not so dangerous as cars, kids will be able to drive them at an early age. Teenagers won’t have to wait until they are 16 to get their wheels. Kids can drive themselves to the soccer game—soccer moms are no longer necessary.
Parking lots will be minimal. The malls of our present era will look ridiculous. Think of all the former parking lots that will be opened up for parks and playgrounds. Get out your jackhammer, we can start now.
City centers of the future will be walkable. Traffic jams will be a thing of the past. People of the future looking at photographs of our traffic jams will either laugh or scowl. Why don’t pedestrians and bikes form traffic jams? A mass of slow moving thin vehicles can perform a very human dance to get through a bottleneck. Think about all the people moving past each other in Grand Central Station, sub-consciously negotiating with each other to get where they are going without stopping. Now think about the same amount of people sitting in their cars staying in their lane on a highway stretched out for miles and miles waiting to go forward. The future will be more like Grand Central Station: happy chaos rather than ordered misery. People will discover what bike couriers in big cities have known for a long time: it is faster to get across town going 10 mph continuously on a bike than going stop and go at 30 mph in a car.
In the future, traffic signage can be minimal. First of all, it can be much smaller. Have you ever looked at a billboard close up? They are enormous! But that’s what it takes to get someone’s attention who is whizzing by at 65 mph. What size does the same sign need to be to be seen by a bicyclist going by at 20mph? Smaller. Secondly, the navigation technology of the future will make it very difficult to get lost. If you can see on an electronic map where you are and where you want to be, why do you even need signs, except maybe street signs? Thirdly, slow-moving thin bikes make many signs unnecessary. We won’t need one-way signs since bicycles are thin enough to go both ways on almost all streets. If we’re all going less than 20mph we can yield instead of stop, so we won’t need stop signs or stop lights on almost all streets. And we won’t need speed limits since they are built into our electric bikes’ electronics. Think about what that will look like—a city without signs.
You might say “What about delivery trucks? What about garbage trucks? What about fire engines, police cars, and ambulances? What about tractors, fork lifts, backhoes and dump trucks? Surely you are not so naive as to think we can do without these things?” We’ve grown so used to internal combustion engines that doing without them has become inconceivable. Consider the alternatives. Do we need delivery trucks? One possibility is that we’ll just need less things in our future slower-paced lifestyle. We certainly won’t need mail. And we can certainly bike to the post office (which will be near the train station) to get medium-sized and even large packages. You would be surprised what it is possible to carry on a bike. I have seen photos of people carrying refrigerators on their cargo bikes. Do we need garbage trucks? If you know there is no garbage truck coming, you quickly learn to compost, repair, reduce, reuse and recycle. And you may suddenly feel like petitioning manufacturers to quit with the over-packaging. In the past what often happened is that if you didn’t want to repair something yourself the local tinker would take it off your hands. If there is any trash left you can take it to the transfer station near the train station. Do we need fire engines, police cars, and ambulances? Here is the only instance where I say yes we do. They can even be gasoline powered. All the bicyclists will get out of their way when necessary. Do we need heavy machinery? In the future agriculture and architecture will be much smarter and much smaller in scale. Today we harvest crops with big machines, transport them to a factory, package them and then transport them to a grocery. In the future people will simply bike out to the fields and pick the crops. Duh. Today we bring bulldozers, cranes, trucks, etc. to prepare a home for occupation. In the future we will simply carry enough steel tubing on our bikes out to the site to erect a modest geodesic home. A few more trips and we can trick it out with insulation, furniture, and solar power. How much space do we really need for living? How much stuff do we really need? If you don’t have a car to carry all that crap do you still want it? The future will be a time of reckoning. Like “I reckon I don’t need all these back issues of National Geographic. I reckon I don’t need my CD collection.”
It goes without saying that energy use for transportation in the future will be extremely low, maybe even entirely human power and renewable resources. Batteries for electric bikes will be charged using one blanket-sized solar panel per person. A day’s worth of sun would be enough to power several 10-mile trips. And a person can use the same batteries to power all the lighting, personal heating units, and electronics they need. People will be completely off the grid and out from under the thumb of OPEC. We’re already losing the telephone poles. There go those unsightly utility poles too, except maybe for the trains. The trains of the future will require centralized power. However, the power can likely be generated from solar, wind, and hydroelectric sources.
Sound impossible? Believe it or not, the technology for this futuristic scenario already exists. It simply requires the will of the people to make it a reality. I gave up driving this summer. Instead I bought a “cargo” bike that I use for errands less than 10 miles away. My bike can carry 400 pounds up steep hills, which equates to two adults or my 9-year-old daughter and four bags of groceries. My bike has a top speed of 20mph (as required by law to be considered a bike) and a range of 20 to 40 miles depending on load and hills. My bike battery can be charged entirely from a solar panel in about a day. My bike was rather expensive (several thousand dollars) but if it were mass-produced it could easily cost less than a thousand dollars. But it won’t be mass-produced unless there is a demand for it—I encourage everyone to go out and buy an electric cargo bike.
When we became an auto-centric culture a hundred years ago we gave up more than we realized. We gave up the outdoors. We gave up clean air. We gave up quiet streets. We gave up safety. We gave up simplicity. What did we get in return? We got convenience. We got speed. We got unprecedented comfort. Do we really need these things? I for one want to get back what was lost.