Monday, February 17, 2014

"...No One Who Lives In Our Hamlet....Should Ever Ride A Bicycle..." Or, Why Elections Matter

"...Suffolk County is a suburban automobile community...—drivers expect to see other drivers on the road not bicyclists and motorcyclists..."--Suffolk Co. Legislator Thomas F. Barraga, to a constituent whose mom was hit by a car.

 If you wonder why cyclists should occasionally pay attention to politics, the comments that Suffolk County, N.Y., 11th District Representative Thomas Barraga sent to a youngster whose mom and four friends were all hit by cars are telling. Barraga has also, in co-sponsoring adult mandatory helmet legislation, asserted in the bill that cycling is "inherently dangerous". I don't see how anyone could expect support on reasonable cycling policies or diversified transportation planning from Legislator Barraga. Rather than repeat all the good legislator's comments, I'll attach the letter, which has gone viral.

Suffolk County makes up the eastern half of auto-choked, air polluted Long Island; LI serves to some degree as a bedroom community to New York City and is also home of the prototype post-WW II suburb, Levittown.
Click for full size
I spoke, via email, to my Ph.D. advisor, Stony Brook Distinguished Service Professor of Geosciences Gil Hanson, about this the other day. Gil lives in Port Jefferson, a little east of West Islip. For decades, he rode his bike to work. Gil agrees that the traffic on Long Island is worse than ever and tends, even for a seasoned cyclist like Gil, to be rough to deal with.  He wishes there were separate bicycle facilities where he could ride away from traffic, as he has done when on sabbatical in Germany.

Gil is about twenty or more years older than me; as a lifelong cyclist wishes to keep riding, but doesn't want to mix it up with frantic traffic.  Gil's idea for German/Euro style facilities is a good one in a college town, should the closely knit Three Village area (Stony Brook, East Setauket, Port Jefferson) try to pull it off. My own thoughts are that its possible to do it right, but only with a lot of careful design.  Such thoughts don't take away from our rights to the road and to an expectation that society will support our roadway rights.

Indeed, if one looks at the age distribution of Los Alamos and the number of retirement homes in the town, we could definitely stand to expand our off road "urban" cycling facilities here, too, so as to encourage folks in their golden years to stay active. Like Gil, others as they advance in age don't necessarily want to take the chance of an unplanned meeting with Mr. Pavement while in heavy traffic where driver aggression and inattention are endemic. A retired Chemistry Division colleague of mine recently told me that he hung up his bike. In his nineties, he no longer feels confident riding on our roads.

As far as Long Island, it was a nearly ideal place to ride back in the days I lived there with a good mix of quiet roads and year round mild climate. Thus,  I resumed cycling as an adult, after the usual late teen devotion to being infernally combusted, while a graduate student at Stony Brook. Getting off my hind end, which had been getting more and more portly, significant improved my health and my mood.  Heck, I even met girls that way, in one instance while filling my Motobecane Mirage panniers with vegetables, pasta, and tofu purchased at a Stony Brook natural food store.

The bottom line is that Long Island has become a traffic and air pollution nightmare precisely because it is far too auto-dependent and because its developers see nothing wrong with more sprawl and auto-dependence, as long as there is more land into which to sprawl and as long as someone else writes the check. That philosophy has created a monster that affects people's health and safety in multiple ways.  I'd wager, based on other studies, that as many, perhaps more Suffolk County residents are sickened by cardiorespiratory disease brought on by Suffolk County's dirty, ozone-thick air than are injured by crashes. Long Island's traffic woes also contribute to a carbon-spewing lifestyle that will eventually consume its beautiful shoreline in a rising ocean as anthropogenic climate warming slowly creeps up on us. Telling people to not use alternatives, and indeed dismissing good alternatives such as cycling, is a little like treating lung cancer with cigarettes. Mr. Barraga's views need to change, either by a change in heart and mind or via the vote.

Here in Los Alamos, we have been very lucky to not have such extreme opinions in our officeholders. Let's keep it that way, but not get complacent. With county and statewide elections around the corner and primaries weeks away, we need to pay attention and support good people. Thoughtful people and good government policy go hand in hand.

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