Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Right to Ride a Bike

Recently Chuck Ayers, Executive Director of the Cascade Bicycle Club, gave a great speech as part of an alternative transportation panel at Seattle City Hall. He talked about society’s unquestioned presumption that everyone has the right to drive a car. Most people have likely never thought about this before because this right is as much a given part of our world as the CO2 emissions that choke the air we breathe. Our rite of passage into adulthood occurred at age 16 when we were handed the keys to the family car. That was when we started to make our own decisions, go where we wanted to go. The world was our oyster.

This assumption of the right of everyone to drive a car has shaped the building of our world. Roads go everywhere, through everything, over everything. If there isn’t ample parking everywhere, we have the right to complain bitterly. Conservatives shudder at the thought of socialized medicine, but never blanch at the notion of socialized highways, many of which are built with no room for pedestrian or other forms of transportation.

People look at me in wonder when I show up someplace on my bike. Many claim it would be impossible to ride a bike anyplace from where they live. They say it’s too dangerous. Car traffic is fast and heavy. The roads have no shoulders.

But what if the tables were turned? What would the world be like if we didn’t have the right to drive a car? What if driving a car were a unique privilege but instead everyone had the right to ride a bike? It’s hard to imagine because that world would look so different from ours. Certainly there would be fewer cars and many more bikes. Probably there would be many toll booths where cars would have to stop and pay for the privilege of using the roads. All major arterial would have bike lanes, or maybe we wouldn’t even need lanes because cars would drive slower and look out for cyclists. Everyone would move slower, and life would be more leisurely.

We could dream on, but I doubt the world will look like that anytime soon. However, Seattle has taken a small step in the direction of becoming a city that provides more rights for cyclists. Seattle hired Toole Design Group of Maryland to help draft the Seattle Comprehensive Bicycle Master Plan which, over the coming decade may assure everyone a reasonable right to ride a bike where ever they want to go. Chances are you may even be able to send your child to the grocery store on her bike to buy a loaf of bread. Likewise, I recently saw a man with a lower mobility disability riding his hand operated bike around the three mile Seward Park loop and then on up the long steep hill of Seward Park Blvd. Within a decade, this gentleman and many others should be seen riding peacefully anywhere in the City.

The Seattle Comprehensive Bicycle Master Plan will be implemented gradually, but over the course of a decade many visible changes will make their marks upon the City. Lots of streets will be repainted to accommodate bike lanes, sharrows, and wide curb lanes. When all the planned changes are finished, there will be a well connected bicycle network to link existing bike routes, schools, parks, neighborhood business districts, etc. At important intersections there will be more bicycle parking and other improvements. Employment centers like downtown will have showers, changing facilities, repair shops, and bicycle storage lockers. There will be signage to help cyclists find their way through the City. Seattle Department of Transportation will be in charge of maintaining all this just as it now does with all the automobile amenities that assure you the right to drive a car.

Imagine your grandchildren growing up in a world where everyone presumes the inalienable right to ride a bike!


Marion K. said...

Redmond has made many of these improvements already, and continues to push forward on making as much of the city infrastructure as possible bike-friendly. I appreciate that it also emphasizes pedestrian improvements, although it's taking a while for some of those to reach the neighborhood where I live.

Meanwhile, as a pedestrian (it's not safe for me to ride a bike regularly, at least not unless I'm having a really good day physically and my gross motor reflexes are as fast as a normal person's), the increasing bike traffic is making things more hazardous for me. It turns out that relatively-inexperienced cyclists need as much educating as car drivers or pedestrians do, about safe co-existence.

Many adults commute on their bikes as if the mixed-use paths belonged to them alone. The same tension that's so apparent among drivers headed to work or headed home also pushes bicycle commuters, and the personal quality that Microsoft (for instance) appears to value so highly--which my husband politely refers to as "competitiveness"--is often on full display.

I'm not reassured by the "wilding" pack behavior that passes for activism among some cyclists in Seattle, either. If that caught on over here, the car-bike competitive game would simply make it that much harder to be a pedestrian.

Fortunately, every year we see progress in Redmond; now, if only people (mostly, drivers!) would educate themselves before they get a job here, we'd really be in great shape! I was listening to a lady in Victor's coffee shop last week as she described the 14 months of physical therapy (following two surgeries) that resulted from a moment's lapse of attention on her part as she rode her bike in a marked bike lane along West Lake Sammamish Parkway. Frankly, with my klutz factor, you simply can't pay me enough to try that myself. She's back on her bike now and I sure hope she doesn't encounter another driver making a blind left turn.

I'm not knocking bikes at all. It's all in how you use them. People take their attitudes with them, no matter what kind of transportation option they're exercising at the moment. It's the attitudes themselves that, as you rightly imply, have the power to change everything else.

Education is key to changing attitudes, IMO.

sleepypasture said...

I randomly found your blog after a Google search for "bike saddles after hip surgery." ;) But I stayed a while and read some entries and just wanted to say that I really like it. A growing number of people in my area are pushing for bike friendly streets (Dallas was top on Bicycle Magazine's "worst cities for cycling" list). I enjoy your insights! If you're interested you can find us at Cheers!