Thursday, April 23, 2015

Who Accommodates Who?



Eben Weiss wrote a piece for the Washington Post on April 15 about how bicycles and automobiles share the road. His article is partly tongue in cheek but also delivers a pointed analysis of how Americans have, over just a few generations, radically adjusted their expectations and learned to accommodate the interests of a major industry without consciously reflecting on it.

See, in the early days of the motor vehicle, there used to be this quaint idea that the person operating the giant machine should look out for other people. Then came mass production and the Model T. Suddenly there were automobiles all over the place, and by the end of the 1920s, cars (or, more accurately, their drivers) had killed more than 200,000 people.

We clung to our humanity, though. Cities called for stricter traffic laws and better enforcement. The auto industry responded by mounting a propaganda war masked as a safety campaign. One of their most successful salvos was inventing the concept of the “jaywalker,” which effectively robbed us of our right of way. (You can read more about all this here.)

It’s still carnage out there now, but we’ve long since sublimated any outrage over death-by-auto into victim-blaming. Crossing the street has long been criminalized, save for the handful of seconds you get when the “walk” signal appears. Effectively, we’ve lost equal access to the public roadways unless we’re willing and able to foot the hefty bill for a car. Instead, what we have is an infrastructure optimized for private vehicles and a nation of subsidized drivers who balk at the idea of subsidizing any other form of transit, and who react to a parking ticket as though they’ve been crucified. Sure, drivers, cyclists and pedestrians are all supposed to “share the road,” but see how equal you feel riding in the gutter on broken glass as cars speed by. It’s the American idea of “equal,” an insidious form of inequality in which we pretend the powerful and the weak are exactly the same.

That perversion of the notion of "equality" is stated very well there, and reminds me of the curious way "democracy" is often used as a synonym for capitalism.

Weiss goes on to ridicule the way responsibility has been shifted onto bicyclists in order to accommodate the dominance of the automobile in daily travel. Weiss jokes that bicyclists are being required to turn themselves into cars, strapping foam bumpers onto their heads and painting themselves with bright paint, which makes bicycle use more onerous and shifts responsibility away from the driver to pay attention or society to build an infrastructure that incentivizes bicycle travel.

I hit a bicyclist once. This individual pulled a really dangerous and unexpected move in traffic; I slammed on my brakes and almost caused a car accident trying to avoid him; the bicyclist nearly made it but I kissed his back tire at a slow speed and he fell to the ground. There were bleeding cuts. The police called an ambulance. I was given a citation with no fine on it - I would have to appear in court. This seemed appropriate. I did not (and do not) believe I was entirely at fault, but I was still responsible. I figured I would have to tell a judge what happened from my point of view, he or she would assess my fault and decide my penalty. 

Not at all, as it turned out. I went to court and a clerk told me I would only speak with a judge if I wanted to contest the fine. What was the fine? Ninety bucks, in and out. I did not contest the fine - I had hit the guy, after all. So I paid. My insurance company asked me questions and took pictures of my car, but wouldn't tell me anything about the bicyclist or the extent of his injuries. I never heard about it again. It just went away. My premium didn't even go up. The way things work, the infrastructure and business arrangements and laws, cushioned me as a motorist.

Weiss doesn't argue against the existence of cars (he drives), nor does he absolve bicyclists of any responsibility for safety. He simply points out the lopsided power dynamic and how it has shaped our expectations. 


At this rate, it won’t be long before you need a license and registration to operate a bicycle, and you’ll be wearing a giant Dayglo bodysuit with illumination circuitry, one of those Australian “smart hats,” and a GPS beacon up your posterior so you don’t get hit by an Apple iCar. Poof! You’re an SUV!
 
The choice to build our infrastructure and social customs and laws around cars is a political choice that most of us never got to participate in. It was industry led. And so it now makes more sense in our culture to have bicyclists paint themselves white and wear foam hats to protect them from cars, rather than tame automobile culture. I think there's a pretty happy middle here where we can meet, but for the most part the U.S. isn't having that conversation. Why? Because it's inconvenient for business and that is reason enough.








[Image: One of several Latvian activists who rode bikes on the streets of Riga wearing bamboo skeletons the size and shape of regular automobiles, to show how much space was being used to move one person around. Click here for the story and more images.]

1 comment:

Kelly said...

It's an interesting dialog to open (and the accompanying story and photos are fascinating).

There was a time when I enjoyed cycling, but living outside the city limits presents challenges in using it as an alternative means of transportation. And even in a small town like mine, it can be very dangerous. (thinking of a specific incident a few years ago involving a very cautious and experience rider vs. a hit and run)