Friday, November 20, 2009

Next Up: Unintended Consequences

Please don't take this away!
"A bike is a legal vehicle with the same rights and duties as a motor vehicle."
"A Guide to Biking in Philly"
That quote defines a broken and inadequate philosophy toward biking which is harmless when tacitly ignored but harmful to society at large when actually enforced. Unfortunately, it looks like there is a new push to enforce this misguided idea, with tickets for $119.50 likely being written to cyclists in Center City as I write these words.

I see only one reason why a bicycle should be governed by the same rules as a car, and it is not a good one: thinking through proper regulations for bikes would require work, maybe even hard work. Applying rules designed for cars is simple, and might make sense to someone unacquainted with actual cycling experience on the city streets. But if carried to its extreme, streets would become unsafe and inefficient for all users of the road while severely hampering cycling in particular.

Cars have four wheels. Pedestrians have zero wheels. Bicycles have two wheels. As a first approximation, it might make sense to treat a bike as something between a car and a pedestrian. I think this idea is a much better starting point than the quote above.

For example, bikes go faster than pedestrians, but not as fast as cars. That means they should ride on the road, but accommodations should be made for the fact that they are slower. A great solution is the bike lane, which unfortunately does not exist in most places and is often obstructed when it does. However, bikes are flexible! They can bend themselves to be more like pedestrians or more like cars in any given circumstance, and this great advantage allows them to cope with most perils the road throws their way.

In my estimation, the crux of the issue lies in the assertion that bikes, like cars, should never be allowed to proceed through red lights or stop signs. To say otherwise would seem a dangerous idea if bikes were just like cars, but looking through the lens of a pedestrian provides a different perspective.

In Philadelphia, pedestrians frequently move through a red light when there is no car traffic coming. This behavior has the dual benefit of first, saving pedestrians time, and second, getting them out of the way so that when the light turns, parallel traffic need not wait for them to cross before turning. At times, pedestrians cross when it is unsafe to do so, but that does not invalidate the fact that jaywalking in general increases efficiency and productivity for everyone.

In this respect, bicycles are a lot more like pedestrians than they are like cars. A cyclist is equally as capable as a pedestrian of riding to the front of an intersection, determining whether it is safe to go through, and proceeding when it is so. In fact, doing so makes things easier for automobiles, since the slower bike is now out of its way and the car is free to go its normal speed.

I do not deny that reckless "jayriding" is hazardous, inefficient, and stupid, but that fact should not be used to condemn safe use of the practice. If bikes are prohibited from jayriding, the result in a city with ever increasing bike traffic will be a pileup of bikes at the light. This result would be inefficient, since not only would the cyclists' commute time be greatly slowed, but cars would also be inconvenienced by the obstacle which multiple cycles present. Given sufficient volume, this situation would also be unsafe, since there is not much space for bicycles to begin with.

How does a city prohibit behaviors like unsafe jayriding while allowing safe and productive use of the practice? This is the kind of challenge which city legislators should take up if they truly wish to make city streets safer and more efficient. Actually condoning moving through a red light for anyone may be hard to swallow at first, but that is only so if one has only experienced the perspective of an automobile.

It is easy to shackle cyclists to all of the limitations of motorists while denying them any of the benefits of the pedestrian side of their nature, but actually doing so almost keeps cycling from being worthwhile. Depending who you are, that may not be a problem. In a society as auto-dominated as ours, most people probably would not care, and many would probably be happy to have streets sanitized of the two-wheeled nuisances.

But any Center City rush hour prominently displays how broken our auto society has become, and any look at obesity statistics shows how sorely many Americans are lacking exercise. Within the city, biking is faster and more efficient than driving, with virtually none of the parking hassle. It is also a great way for people like myself who struggle to get enough exercise to burn calories.

In short, biking is a godsend, working against several social problems at once, and we ought to seek to make even more provision for its use rather than bullying cyclists off the road. There is no question that as use has increased, more regulation has become necessary. Let us hope that we as a city can rise to the challenge of doing so in an intelligent, useful fashion.


l e i g h c i a said...

I was about to post something along similar lines on my blog, but you beat me to it!

One other thing that has frustrated me in all of this-- is very little information about how exactly the two pedestrian accidents happened. Atleast, I haven't seen any accounts on as to WHO actually caused the accident. It might not have even been the biker's fault. If it was the biker's fault, I'd like to know under what conditions so that police and legislation can target the most dangerous type of biking behavior. I doubt (but please correct me if I'm wrong) it resulted from a biker slowly rolling through a red light or riding on the sidewalk).

And if it was the pedestrian's fault... then..... that information should be made known, not covered up in the lines of "a biker hit a pedestrian". I have come very close to hitting pedestrians who were jaywalking and failed to notice me.

Sigh.. so frustrating! There was a good article on Slate a while ago about designing laws for bikes that make sense for bikes, which includes alot of what you mentioned.

LH said...

Nick, thanks for passing this along to me. I have been convicted over the last month to actually abide by the law when it comes to my biking - don't run reds, don't ride on the sidewalk, definitely don't ride against traffic - primarily because I am often with child and so I have to really think about safety. It would seem that giving cops a little more nudge to at least yell at cyclists who flout laws would help corral people into proper riding, which would increase safety, make drivers and pedestrians less pissed at bikers, and ultimately increase the number of people willing to bike.

I don't know what all this means as far as whether bikers are more like drivers or walkers. I think you're right if what you're saying is that they're neither and deserve to be treated as their own category. By the way, in case you were wondering, I disagree with the council bill that requires that requires bikers to have a license plate, but I do think there should be more outreach by bicycle advocates to get bikes registered at police stations so as to aid recovery efforts in the event of theft.

Nicholas said...

leighcia - That's a very good point. It's too bad there isn't better information available. To my knowledge, one of the accidents was a hit and run, though again I don't know about the pedestrian's behavior before the accident.

LH - Thanks for the comment. I certainly understand greater caution when biking with a child, and I agree about riding on the sidewalk and about riding against traffic. And most of what I am saying is indeed that bikes should be their own category as far as the law is concerned.

After writing this post, I heard of
laws in Idaho written specifically for bikers. Most strikingly, they allow bikers to treat stop signs similarly to yield signs, and red lights similarly to stop signs. I think these laws would make a great starting point for discussion of bike-specific legislation in Pennsylvania.