Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The advocacy process, bicyclists and the road safety agenda

There is a hullaballoo amongst cyclists in the DC area because the Washington Area Bicyclists Association has blogged two entries regarding "WABA's Resolution to Ride Responsibly" and here.

Frankly, it's a pretty straightforward resolution, which seems somewhat innocuous:

WABA's Resolution to Ride Responsibly

In 2011…

…I resolve to be a more responsible bicyclist.

…I resolve to better respect the rights of other road users.

…I resolve to make a good faith effort to better follow the law.

…I resolve to yield to pedestrians.

…I resolve to help make bicycling safer and easier for all of us.


Washcycle has written about the issue in "WABA asks cyclists to ride responsibly" and "WABA responds to resolution blowback" and the first entry has quite a spirited comment thread.

What has gotten cyclists worked up is that it seems one-sided and WABA admitted the resolution was produced in response to "backlash" from DC elected officials who are complaining that bicyclists are rampant scofflaws and in response to the backlash in DC and in NYC, see "Expansion of Bike Lanes in City Brings Backlash" from the New York Times) against infrastructure improvements (bike lanes and cycle tracks especially) for bicyclists, which are seen as coming at the expense of motor vehicles.

I'll admit that the one-sidedness upsets me too and I commented in the thread, which I will amplify here.
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What's happened in NYC shouldn't be a surprise. I think from my reading of the press across the country, it pretty much happens everywhere. Look at the people who fought bike improvements in San Francisco (!!!!!!!!!!) through the strategem of saying that an Environmental Impact study was necessary. Bike lanes are frequently opposed by businesses in commercial districts in places like Portland and Montreal, according to coverage in local papers there.

The real issue is that automobilists are threatened by and will fight most any change in policy with regard to their dominance of the road network and their privileged position in the hierarchy of road users.

(A standard frame of analysis in studies of race, class, gender, and generally in cultural studies, is looking at behavior in terms of standing and privilege and the process of defining institutions within a privilege-based framework.)

Automobility and automobile use as the dominant mobility paradigm is so engrained in U.S. economic, mobility, and social frameworks, that people are almost completely unable to objectively analyze their attitudes and behaviors with regard to the automobile.

I think about automobility and the movement to adopt more sustainable transportation practices in terms of long periods of time (decades) in terms of broad social movements and social change processes, having worked in my first job in DC for a consumer group that possessed Nader lineage.

That job, and working on national health policy gave me some interesting perspectives on social change, how long it takes,the role of insiders and outsiders within the process, and at different points in the process. E.g., wrt Hillary Clinton's point during the primaries in the last Presidential Election cycle that "it takes a president to get it done" she failed to recognize the multi-decade process of social movements and social change to get change to the point where it can be legally enacted. (Think civil rights, or even the almost 40 year long process of creating the movement and demand for the creation of an interstate highway system.)

WRT sustainable transportation and the take up of bicycling, I agree with the people who say that this is a one-sided position/argument that is designed to make the automobilists happy.

But they will never be happy with a paradigm of balanced mobility ("complete streets"), because anything less than complete dominance of the mobility agenda by the automobile is seen as a significant loss of privilege and status.

It's no different than my experiences working on revitalization issues in the city, pushing for change against resistant people, when they expected all the compromises to be one-sided, to come from me/the positions I espoused. I asked "how is that compromise?"

The thing I learned at the semi-Nader group (by observation, it wasn't something that they taught), is about what I call the issue continuum.

At one end is the mealy mouthed position, at the other end is the hardest core position. There are a variety of positions all across the continuum between the two points, and different organizations depending on their interests and funders, sit at different points. If you take the hardest core position, while you never get all of your desires, there is a lot more movement in the end toward the ideal, than if you hadn't staked out the position to begin with.

While it means that technically, you always lose, you get way more than if you had been hyper quick to compromise from the outset.

The reason that this initiative sucks, is that nowhere is the ideal position laid out in the most complete and thorough fashion (think of the kind of overwhelmingly long blog posts that I write).

An ideal and complete road safety agenda would include:

- recognition of the connection between higher operating speeds for motor vehicles and traffic fatalities, especially of pedestrians and bicyclists, and a re-engineering of road design and traffic enforcement to bring actual and desired operating speed of motor vehicle traffic into balance -- REMEMBER THAT IN DC, MOST OF THE STREETS HAVE A 25 MPH POSTED SPEED LIMIT.

- recognition that motor vehicles, because of of their weights and speeds bear disproportionate responsibility for a safe road network

- recognition of how the rules of the road are written to favor motor vehicles and are often unfair to other users and therefore, traffic safety laws need to be rewritten to better balance the safety needs of all users, particularly those who are most vulnerable (pedestrians and bicyclists) (ALSO RECOGNIZE THAT IN DC AND OTHER CENTER CITIES, A SIGNIFICANT NUMBER OF HOUSEHOLD TRIPS ARE TAKEN ON FOOT OR ON BICYCLE AS WELL AS PUBLIC TRANSIT, AND LAWS IN SUCH PLACES SHOULD RECOGNIZE THIS.)

- enactment of Idaho Stop for bicyclists. This allows bicyclists to treat stop signs and red lights as yield signs WHEN THERE IS NO ONCOMING TRAFFIC, which specifically means stop when there is oncoming traffic -- that means no weaving!

- driver responsibility for ped and bike crashes comparable to the Netherlands. This recognizes that motor vehicle operators, because their vehicles are significantly heavier and faster, much exercise a great deal of caution and responsibility when driving, unlike the passive system of motor vehicle safety in place in the U.S., which takes negligence and death for granted (see "Wrong Turn: How the fight to make America's highways safer went off course" from the New Yorker).

- serious penalties for motor vehicle operators for causing injury and death

- insurance and registration systems for bicyclists

- better training for police officers wrt bicycling as traffic, including traffic investigation

- posting in real time traffic accident data

- and the implementation of a Pedsafe/Bikesafe accident investigation and response system for the resolution of structural-design issues contributing to accidents

- refresher tests upon drivers license renewal on ped and bike issues

- mandatory training/complete curriculum developed in K-12 at the early and late elementary levels, in middle school/junior high, and in high school on pedestrian and cycling safety, maintenance (this is something I recommended in the Western Baltimore County bike plan) -- only by creating and delivering a complete pedestrian, bicyclist, and road safety curriculum throughout childhood and adolescence can we be assurred that we all know how to be safe, regardless of transportation mode.

- changes in the driver education curriculum to increase awareness of/safety pedestrians and bicyclists

- requirements on organizations operating heavy vehicle fleets so that their drivers are required to take and pass additional driver education with regard to operating heavy vehicles in areas with high pedestrian and/or bicycle traffic.

The problem that WABA faces is the classic one of the boundary spanner, where they have multiple stakeholder groups to satisfy, in this case at least four groups:

- elected officials who pass laws and who are lobbied by WABA
- appointed officials who enforce laws and also provide funds to WABA for technical training purposes
- members
- the general public, who the advocacy organization also seeks to influence.

Automobilists are quick to complain about loss of privilege and their seeming noticing of flagrant bicyclist road safety transgressions. They call and complain to both elected and appointed officials.

On the other hand, bicyclists rarely complain in a straightforward manner about flagrant road safety violations on the part of motor vehicle operators, especially speeding, failure to yield, failing to stop at stop signs, running red lights, reckless driving and road rage, verbal assault, etc.

WRT the above "master list" of a more complete and balanced road safety agenda, public officials aren't in the position of being able to call for most of those provisions, because it challenges the dominant paradigm concerning automobility.

I know that when I was the bicycle and pedestrian planner in Baltimore County, I only felt comfortable mentioning four of those provisions (curriculum, heavy equipment operator training, changes in driver education and licensing), and as it was three were eliminated from the draft between the time I submitted the draft and the posted version. I needed advocates to help me push the envelope.

Advocacy organizations have the luxury and responsibility for laying out full and complete agendas so that the process of building and passing and implementing new paradigms can occur.

WABA, in a follow up entry, "Resolve, to set the stage for even stronger advocacy in 2011" claims that the responsible biking pledge is a necessary foundation for stronger advocacy in the new year.

I hope that is true and that we will see advocacy for a rebalancing of responsibility on those with the most power (motor vehicles) and greater protection for the most vulnerable, in our policies, laws, and actions in 2011 and beyond.

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