Sunday, March 18, 2012

Hoist with our own petard?

U.S. Senate to bicycling

In a bipartisan move lacking in any kind of proper planning or foresight, the U.S. Senate, led by the leadership of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee including Sens. Boxer and Inhofe (just to show that we can't blame one side more than the other), has just told you to get the hell off the road by inserting a mandatory sidepath provision that applies to some Federal roads. Sadly, we may have inadvertently given them the tools with which to do this.
A case of our own 
advocacy tools backfiring?

 pe·tard  (p-tärd)
1. A small bell-shaped bomb used to breach a gate or wall.
2. A loud firecracker.

Word History: The French used the word pétard, "a loud discharge of intestinal gas," to describe a kind of infernal engine, i.e., a directed charge, for blasting through the gates of a city. "To be hoist by one's own petard," a now proverbial phrase apparently originating with Shakespeare's Hamlet (around 1604) not long after the word entered English (around 1598), means "to blow oneself up with one's own bomb, be undone by one's own devices."

Andy Clarke, President of the League of American Bicyclists, has alluded that the current language in the Federal Transportation Bill that would ban cyclists from some Federal roads was  "...inspired by one or two powerful Senators (and/or their staff) here in the DC area being irritated by cyclists riding on one or two area roads that are on Federal land and happen to have popular trails alongside them...".  Such actions if true would represent a gross misuse of Congressional power. But those of us who have historically been supportive but wary of the separate facilities movement are distressed but not surprised. There is, as we all know, a tendency for motorists to ask "why are we paying for those bike facilities and still find those pesky bicyclists riding on OUR roads?"

Mind you, I don't condemn the path movement. I think paths can be good, and just as motorists enjoy fire roads, neighborhood streets, country lanes, collectors, arterials, freeways, and parkways, we bicyclists should not be told we can only use one type of facility.  I've seen Amish buggies on state highways in Upstate New York. Why not bicyclists on Federal agency roads? What I do condemn is the philosophy that cyclists NEED their own dedicated space and without it, cannot ride their bikes out of fears of being unsafe. Turned on its head, that can translate into "well, then why are you cycling on the road if it is so unsafe and there is that sidewalk over there?"

Well, we ride on the road for a few reasons:
1. Its there and we paid for it.
2. It is usually (but not always) more direct and designed for efficient movement.
3.  Parallel paths are often slow, indirect, and often unsafe by design for shared use due to being scenic rather than engineered for expected bicyclist usage (e.g., Canyon Rim Trail) and heavily used by joggers, walkers, and other non-vehicles. What happens when you sail around one of numerous blind curves on the Canyon Rim Trail at 10-15 mph into a klatch of startled folks walking their dogs and pushing their trams? They don't like it. I've seen the reaction. The design bicyclist for most paths is, no offense intended, a slowpoke. Tell that to someone trying to get to work on time. He might end up driving.
4. Fearmongering aside, there is not a lot of data suggesting that roads are all that unsafe for a cyclist who knows what he or she is doing, at least on a per hour exposure basis.
5. Paths are, often enough, not a complete and connected system.

In the case of the Federal bill, someone apparently replaced the blanket ban with a qualified ban, trying to use the bicycle level of service indicator (BLOS) to carve out exceptions in order to do some level of damage control. Unfortunately, BLOS is a level of comfort and an inferred level of safety, not a true level of service, at least as used in surface transportation-speak, and further, there is no widely accepted BLOS for sidepaths (although there is a calculator at the link below). Not to mention, I think the BLOS to some degree begs the question on what you or I consider comfortable.  Indeed, some sidepaths can be downright uncomfortable, not to mention hazardous, to ride at any reasonable speed. So there is nothing in the bill to test the quality, or level of service, of sidepaths against the BLOS of the road so an official can judiciously make a decision (assuming anyone would be so noble). If  the path is there and is paved (again,  no standards for acceptably paved), you will use it.
Descent and sand on the Province Lands path, 
Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts
Photo from John Allen's discussion and site

Further, BLOS was designed to help planners design complete streets meant to encourage your average Joe or Jane to ride a bicycle, not strictly as a safety metric for cycling and definitely not as a tool to use to prohibit bicycling.  I don't think there is published data to show that a given BLOS ranking has a specific, translatable crash per mile safety index that would justify its use as a regulatory tool (chime in if you know otherwise--is there a John Pucher in the house?). Finally, the BLOS ranking of A or B put in the bill would exclude a lot of perfectly acceptable roads. Our own Bandelier National Park road would probably rate a D.  Thankfully, there is nowhere to put a path along the Bandelier roadway short of widening the roadcut along the cliff.  The bottom line is that BLOS was meant to improve roads, not get us kicked off of them. This bill turns that original idea on its head, hence the title of this piece.

Some background on BLOS:

BLOS and BCI calculator:
Sidepath Suitability Score Form:

The bottom line is we need more clout--in this case, it seems like the LAB had little ability to push back on this with sufficient force. This disaster is a vivid reason why cyclists need to form a single powerful alliance along the lines of the National Rifle Association. I therefore support the notion of the three national bicycling organizations melding themselves into one powerful voice–with the caveat that we have one powerful message–Protect the Right To Keep and Ride Our Bikes Free of Bullshit Laws. One other caveat–when we circle the wagons, we have to have the guns pointing out, not in.

Can anyone imagine Congress passing a bill that included a provision banning hunting and gun possession on vast tracts of public land on the whim of a couple of senators who say "well, you have a gun range and a hunting reserve, why do you need public space?".  Wouldn’t happen. There would be a national outcry a national mobilization, and those responsible would be diving under their desks while backpedaling in terror. One example of how this would work:

Meanwhile, mobilizing and directing bicyclists is akin to herding cats. We would sooner bicker and divide ourselves than stand up for fundamentally important rights. We have to get our act together and stop bickering about stuff. I was on the Board of Directors of the U of Hawaii state faculty union a decade ago when we had similar deep divisions among different faculty groups. We had to bury the hatchet, and not in each other, go get anything done. There is a lesson there and it was why I supported the community college faculty even more than my own research folks–they were in more dire straits.

Another option–every cycling organization in the U.S. needs to send out a message to its members to BOYCOTT purchasing of national park and similar passes and tell the Park Service and our Congressional representatives why. I buy an Eagle pass every year, in part because Bandelier National Park is part of my regular summer training ride and in part to support the park system. Chances are, we in BombTown won’t lose that road because it is built into a cliff, so there is little chance of a sidepath being built any time soon. But should I support this travesty with my check knowing others will be screwed (see Frank Krygowski's post)? No. Neither should you.

Finally, a reminder to League leadership. This issue should not be categorized as pertaining to "vehicular cycling", as in an unfortunate comment made, perhaps in exasperation, on the League's web site. That word has, unfortunately, enough inflammatory baggage that we should probably avoid it.  This is about equal access and a cyclist's ability to travel freely on the public way. Bicyclists are granted the rights and responsibilities of vehicle operators, to be sure. But this is about equal access and fairness for all cyclists, as in the League's Equity Statement. The last thing we need is more encouragement of bike bans or punitive restrictions, which there are enough of already. At a time when rising gas prices, oil instability, carbon emissions, and public health crises all benefit from the choice to ride a bicycle, we need to make sure cyclists are welcomed on our public roads.  Road use bans in state laws


Steve A said...

There are no Federal lands that would be affected by this anywhere within a two day ride of me. However, compromise with loss of rights is a loss for us all.

Unlike Andy, I do not accept the notion that we lose the ability to petition for a redress of grievances if we stick to our principles instead of living with whatever the pols offer. A ridiculous restriction, faced with a civil disobedience campaign, will face less support from the general public than some "compromise" that is supported by "advocates." Instead, I suggest that we look to the example set by King and Ghandi. Neither compromised. Neither should we...

Jimbo said...

A giant organization of cyclists would help as a lobbying force. I have found, unfortunately, that most cyclists can't seem to agree on much of anything and largely prefer not be "joiners" for the most part.

The other factor we cyclists really need to consider is our own public image. The sad truth is that most non-cyclists don't like us outright, or certainly don't understand us, whatever that means. We have so many discordant voices among our group, that cyclists don't really have a coherent message of any type.

Unfortunately, our message has been interpreted by non-cyclists (who represent "the majority") as "We want to do whatever we want, wherever we want, and however we want—and we are irresponsible and dangerous hooligans to boot!"

It is going to take a prolonged, coherent and cohesive PR campaign to erase that label from the public consciousness.

Maybe at a local level, we can do something among ourselves to change perception. But in order to do so, I strongly believe the effort must be unified. I have little confidence in the maturity of all of our members to pull it off, however. People tend to remember the contretemps of the outliers rather than the conduct of the majority as a whole when forming an opinion about a foreign group.

I've got a few ideas on a local campaign to change perceptions. Maybe interested people can help me out or we can continue to wring our hands as cycling gets pushed farther and farther into the realm of "novelty." If we can be successful on a local level for a focus group of 18,000 people, then there is certainly hope for a nationwide campaign to render cycling as "relevant."