Let’s return, once again, to the seemingly endless debate over whether riding a bike is a safe form of urban transportation. And let’s begin with two reports from scenes so far at odds they’re almost like news reports from two parallel dimensions.
The first is from Elizabethton, Tenn., where – as Streetsblog Capitol Hill reports – a local mom named Teresa Tyron was recently threatened with arrest if she continued to allow her 10-year-old girl to bike to school. By the sound of it, the traffic near the girl’s school is a bit hairy, and there’s a bit of he-said-she-said in the linked reports as to how safely Tyron’s daughter was cycling.
Still, the real story in Elizabethton is what isn’t said, which is that it’s widely agreed upon by the authorities in Elizabethton that it's acceptable that streets near a school are unsafe for cycling. There’s a kind of shrugging quality to the officials’ comments in this story, as if it would be foolish to even question whether the fault lay not in Tyron’s daughter’s bike skills but in the total conquest of the town’s streets by the automobile. The local police chief notes there are stretches of road near the girl’s school with no sidewalk. But hey, what are you gonna do? Same as it ever was, like the song says. Right?
Well, as the Streetsblog post notes, the status quo just a generation ago in most American communities was nearly the exact inverse. Here’s the key passage:
Columnist Lenore Skenazy regularly writes about giving children the independence to make their way around their neighborhoods freely and unsupervised. In a recent post, she points to a child development book from 1979, when six-year-olds could be expected to be able to “travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home.”
So then. In 1979, your kid was falling dangerously behind if she couldn’t get to school by herself by the age of 6. And now? If you send her to school by herself on a bicycle at 10, you are so reckless as a parent that police and child services need to intervene. To be clear, it’s not that parents have changed, and kids certainly haven’t. Roads have changed. What was once a shared public space is now understood to be the sole domain of fast-moving motor vehicles.
Our second bike-safety bulletin comes to us from the parallel universe of Copenhagen, Denmark, where the Guardian reports that there are so many cyclists on the streets that, so it’s claimed, it’s getting too crowded for safety:
According to the Danish Cyclists' Federation and Wonderful Copenhagen, the official tourism organisation for Denmark, the sheer success of the drive to get more locals and tourists on bikes is creating a dangerous, intimidating and unpleasant climate for cyclists in the city.
Now, the man-bites-dogness of this story has led the Guardian to indulge in a little mild scare mongering here. They’ve opened with the fear-and-danger stuff, and you have to read more than halfway through to get to the facts of the case: "Frits Bredal of the Danish Cyclists' Federation acknowledges that the number of serious traffic accidents involving cyclists in Copenhagen has reduced dramatically in the last few years and that the numbers of cyclists killed is at a historic low."
After this admission, the Guardian gives over a little space to the ever-quotable Mikael Colville-Anderson of Copenhagenize and Cycle Chic fame, who gives a good quote and then points the Guardian to this excellent kicker from the European Cyclists’ Federation:
There are a number of examples of cities where a substantial increase in bicycle use has been associated with a decrease in the number of cycling accidents. If the positive health impact from the physical exercise is taken into account, cycling will in any case be beneficial for the user.
The thing about urban cycling in this transitional moment is that it’s never just right. It’s too crowded or not crowded enough. There’s no infrastructure at all — not even a sidewalk for poor Teresa Tyron’s daughter — or the infrastructure’s so good that it can’t provide for all the cycling it inspires. Again, the subtext is the real story — that bikes are still stigmatized. They’re not real urban transport. Cars are.
Such is our unsustainable transportation status quo: It’s so omnipresent as to be invisible. We can’t see the real problem — that there are too many cars, that we’ve built our spaces to perform well almost exclusively for motor vehicles — because it is everywhere. In both of these cases, after all, there is a common, unthinkable solution: that cars give up more space for people and bicycles.
Think of it this way: Can you imagine if the Guardian ran a story every time a city encountered unacceptable levels of danger due to motor vehicle congestion? They could just recycle the same headline every day: Overcrowding and reckless driving kills thousands on city streets worldwide. Day after day, year in and year out: Overcrowding and reckless driving kills thousands. Hard to imagine, though, that they would they premise the story on the idea that there are simply too many cars. That cars must go. Of course not. What else are roads for?
To get two-wheeled travel just right 140 characters at a time, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.
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