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Bored to “Death”

September 19, 2014

By this point in my bike blogging career, I’m probably programmed to be wary of anything with the words “death” and “bike” or “bicycle” in the title that appears on a mainstream news organization’s website. One doesn’t get over the shock of seeing Dorothy Rabinowitz in her bikelash debut, “Death by Bicycle,” for a long, long time.

So it was with great skepticism that I read “Death on a Bike,” by the Times’ Timothy Egan. In fact, I was only able to get around to reading it a full 24-hours after it was posted because New York was in the midst of reacting to a very real and tragic death by bike, a case that — rightfully — caused a lot of soul-searching by advocates and — predictably — caused a lot of “Off with their heads!” stories from the tabloids.

In the space of that 24-hours a lot of my non-cycling friends posted Egan’s piece on Facebook, which is now more or less the place where I learn about how dangerous cycling is from people who rarely or never bike. So I’m probably also inclined to react to anything bike-related that first comes across my radar over Facebook the same way I might want to change the subject after a racist great-uncle says something about Barack Obama at Thanksgiving dinner.

When I finally did get around to clicking over to the Times to read the article, another red flag was raised immediately. As of this posting, Egan’s essay has 765 comments. And one of those comments — which received the coveted-by-the-petty “NYT Picks” status, by the way — is from Gary Taustine. Remember Gary? He once argued that bike parking portended his “worst fears about New York City,” ISIS not being a thing most people could have predicted in 2013. For this bit of histrionics he was awarded a “dialogue” with Times readers in the Sunday paper.

So forgive me if I went into Egan’s piece with more than a fair amount of certainty that it would not provide the most nuanced picture of the threat posed to cyclists and how to deal with it. Sadly – or thankfully, considering the material it provided me here – it did not disappoint.

Egan begins with the tragic story of Sher Kung, a young, promising lawyer and new mom who was killed while biking to work on 2nd Avenue in Seattle by a truck driver. Egan paints a vivid picture:

She was doing all the right things in the morning commute, traveling in the bike lane, wearing a helmet, following the rules of the road. In an instant, Sher Kung — new mother, brilliant attorney, avid cyclist — was struck and killed by a vehicle making a turn in downtown Seattle last month.

At the scene, the truck driver wept and swore he never saw her. Mourners placed a ghost bike, painted white, at the corner. In the local law office of Perkins Coie, where Ms. Kung worked, colleagues passed by the poster in her office — “It’s a girl!” — and couldn’t believe she was gone, dead at 31.

As a piece of writing, Egan’s prose is concise, chilling and heart-wrenching all at once. What happened to Kung is awful. But what happened to Kung does not in anyway support Egan’s thesis: that all those bike lanes cities across the country have been installing over the past number of years to “accommodate the new urban commuter” just don’t work. Egan essentially blames bike lanes for deaths like Kung’s since they lure people into a false sense of complacency:

But lanes for cyclists and signage for special routes might offer little more than the illusion of safety. The designated bike corridor on the street where Ms. Kung died, Second Avenue, is known as the Lane of Death for all the accidents. She was struck down just days before a new signal system was put in place.

To those not in the know, this suggests that all that happened on the “Lane of Death” after Kung’s death was the addition of just a few flashing lights or perhaps a lone traffic signal with a bike symbol on it. What actually happened was that Second Avenue was upgraded from a painted bike lane placed next to cars to a two-way protected bike lane along the curb. This fact, which is completely omitted from Egan’s piece, actually makes Kung’s death all the more tragic. Seattle Bike Blog has some good videos of Second Avenue before and after the upgrade, and while it still has a few weak spots, had this new design been installed earlier it might have prevented the collision that killed Sher Kung.

Yet Egan never mentions this, nor does he mention how bike traffic tripled in the week after the new Second Avenue bike lane was installed, adding something else to the street that might have helped Kung, which is safety in numbers. To do so in service of a larger point – Biking is dangerous! So just listen to me and stop it, people! – seems lazy at best and dishonest at worst. In fact, if the latter is true, I suspect it has something to do with Egan’s probable status as a former vehicular cyclist:

I love to daydream when I ride. I used to love to pretend I was Lance Armstrong in the Pyrenees, until he was proven a pathological liar and cheat. But I’m my own worst enemy, because every cyclist must assume that every car driver could kill them. And you should never daydream.

This sounds a lot like what I often read on vehicular cyclist forums: that if you just have your wits about you and do your best to pay attention and keep up, you can ride anywhere. Look, I always assume that every car driver could kill me. That’s why I breathe a sigh of relief every time I get to Prospect Park West or the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway. Something about my entire body – my posture, my pace, the expression on my face – just becomes more relaxed. Even the protected lanes on 8th and 9th Avenue, while not quite places where daydreaming is a good idea, are still far more relaxing than a trip on 6th Avenue.

Egan then brings up the example set by the Netherlands, only to completely misunderstand the Netherlands’ example:

It’s better to learn from places with long biking traditions, and to change the way we think about the road when on the road. In the Netherlands, deaths per total number of miles cycled are much lower. This is attributed to educated bike riders, who stay in the lanes, signal properly and obey traffic signals. In turn, drivers learn to look for cyclists who may be just out of mirror range.

Yes, it is a good idea to learn from places with long biking traditions, especially if those traditions include people not being crushed by automobiles in significant numbers. But the lesson to be gleaned from these places isn’t “think differently” in the philosophical sense. It’s “Think Different®” in the Macintosh computer sense: design. Fatality rates in the Netherlands are significantly lower than in the U.S. not because of education, but because of infrastructure. Bike riders “stay in the lanes” because they have lanes that are easy to stay in; they’re either physically separated from automobile traffic or they’re located on streets where speed limits are kept low with narrow car lanes, chicanes, and other physical traffic-calming elements. I’m oversimplifying Dutch design by about a mile, but at least I’m not leaving it out of the discussion entirely, as Egan does.

As for the other behavioral examples Egan cites — signaling properly and obeying traffic signals — they too are influenced by design. In fact, Dutch infrastructure is so good relative to ours that the signals cyclists send each other on the road to signify their intent are so understated as to be almost invisible to the average American. They don’t bend their arms at right angles to announce a turn. They point with their hands held out just slightly and angled down, if they signal at all. Why? Because you don’t have to make giant, grand gestures when you’re communicating with people who are also moving at a human-powered pace. You also don’t often hear people calling out warnings like “on your left” largely because passing another cyclist probably won’t result in that person catching a door prize or being nudged into fast-moving car traffic. Dutch infrastructure not only lessens conflicts and confusion between motorists and cyclists but also minimizes conflicts between cyclists and other cyclists. (Or “people” as they’re called in the Netherlands.)

As for Egan’s other points about traffic signals and attentive drivers? Well, again, it’s the infrastructure, stupid. It’s easy and quite pleasant to obey a system that’s designed with you in mind. Egan makes the mistake that it’s this good behavior that earns Dutch cyclists the respect of drivers – “In turn, drivers learn…” — but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Drivers learn to be mindful of cyclists because the infrastructure is designed to make them mindful. Plus, most Dutch drivers are also Dutch cyclists.

Egan writes that “If each side could just think a little more like the other side, it would go a long way toward improved safety.” And while this sounds nice, it’s actually my biggest personal gripe with the Vision Zero conversation as it exists in New York City right now. Yes, mutual respect and empathy are important skills to have if one wants to build a civilized society, but depending on people to be respectful or to bike a mile in someone else’s saddle will only get society so far. Some people just can’t be convinced that giving space to cyclists is worth it. Like, for example, local TV news reporters.

Laws and stiff consequences for injuring and killing people are certainly one important part of changing the tone and making people safer, but in discussing how laws work Egan once again blows it:

In California, after 153 cyclists were killed in collisions in 2012, the state tried to do something about it. This week a new law took effect — the Three Feet for Safety Act. It mandates a yard-long cushion between autos and cyclists, with fines for violators. It’s a start, born of good intentions, but best of luck enforcing that.

No one thinks that three-feet-to-pass laws will suddenly create magic forcefields preventing drivers from hitting people, or that drivers will automatically know exactly how far away they are from a person on a bike at any given moment. And no one thinks that cops will be out there with measuring tape. “Sorry, sir, but we had you at just two feet, ten inches from your side mirror to Lance over there. He’s dead now, so that’ll be $500, please.” What will happen, however, is that when a person on a bike is hit by a driver from behind, for example, it will almost automatically be seen as evidence that the driver didn’t keep his car far enough away from the cyclist. As a result, a stiff fine may be levied against the driver. And as a result, a person who hears about a driver getting a stiff fine for not passing with enough clearance will be more likely to take it into consideration the next time he tries to do it. And he’ll tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends, and so on. And in a time frame that’s probably longer than a day but definitely shorter than fifty years, people will eventually just know that you have to pass people on bikes safely when you’re behind the wheel of a car.

Egan then sounds a bit Cuozzo-ian, and conjures up images of bike zealots who want to take away Americans’ god-given right to drive by installing bike lanes — bad bike lanes — all over the place willy nilly.

Seattle has a bike master plan, and bike lanes all over the city. The last mayor was bike-crazed, prompting many to complain about a “war on cars.” None of that prevented the kind of collision that took the life of Sher Kung one bright summer morning.

I’m not hip to everything going on in Seattle, and I don’t know how deep their bikelash has been, but based on my experience here in New York, deriding a mayor as “bike-crazed” and complaining about a “war on cars” is a great way to prevent the kind of infrastructure that can prevent the kind of collisions that take lives. (And isn’t it funny how effective mayors are never written off as “education-crazed” or “balanced-budget-crazed.”)

Egan concludes by inadvertently making the case for protected bicycle infrastructure:

A bike rider is flesh, bones, tendons and skin against a two-ton S.U.V. What would be a fender-bender, scrap or brush between cars can be fatal to a cyclist.

Exactly! For some reason, Egan can not bring himself from this very obvious fact to its very logical conclusion: separate the squishy bike rider from the heavy S.U.V.s as much as possible or slow the two-ton trucks down to a crawl when it’s not.

But Egan is right about one thing. He writes, “Getting on a bike in the city is an act of faith in a flawed urban contract, and in beating the odds.” The urban contract is flawed because the wrong people – poll-minded politicians, NIMBYs, local TV news anchors, tabloid columnists, and parking-obsessed community leaders — are writing the terms of the contract.

As I’ve mentioned before, most arguments against bike lanes are actually arguments for bike lanes. Never has that been more true than with Timothy Egan’s widely shared opinion piece. Sometimes, the worst enemies of safe cycling are people who claim to be cyclists.

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8 Comments
  1. Gabe Brier permalink
    September 20, 2014 12:47 am

    This is perfect. The ignorance of Egan’s piece is astounding. I have a dismal outlook concerning the development of real bike infrastructure in NYC under DeBlasio with his ingrained windshield perspective and a largely ineffectual DOT commish in Trottenberg. That said, I admire the hell out of the good fight you are putting up. Don’t give an inch to these bastards.

  2. September 20, 2014 8:24 am

    Well done. I can only add, isn’t it amusing that physics only means one thing, and not that we should (a) add separation, which physics tells us will increase time for reaction or (b) enhance driver training or (c) hold drivers responsible for the danger they choose to bring on to public ways? And it isn’t it amusing that somehow cyclists are presumed to be ignorant of physics, yet the people who don’t personally experience it are the experts?

    I drive — I learned to drive offroad, have driven stick in San Francisco, have placed first in on-road rally competitions, have rebuilt most parts of an automobile. I was a Very Effective Cyclist from about age 13 (it wasn’t just Forester, I remember learning it all while I was still racing, back before 1975) to about age 45. And now I’m a firm believer in doing it the Dutch way, in special rules and special roads for cyclists, not because cycling is inferior and needs to be gotten out of the way, but because it is superior (in urban areas, far superior) and needs to be less restricted in its use of the roads because it is so much less greedy of public space and so much less dangerous. I’ve done all these things, I still happily use vehicular tactics to manage cars in traffic — more experience means that all else being equal, I know more than people with less experience. People who are only drivers or only vehicular cyclists (or for that matter, never been vehicular cyclists) seem to forget that sometimes.

    But if I had to tried to write what you wrote, it would have come out “Christ, what a fucking idiot, can you believe that this guy has still got that damn vehicular brain-worm?” Can you believe he’s repeating that canard about good behavior earning respect? I tried good behavior for 30 years, doesn’t help one bit when the other idiots on the road don’t know the law well enough to realize that you’re obeying it, not breaking it.

  3. September 20, 2014 8:49 am

    A lovely steady piece of carefully-thought and considerate writing. One reason why such pieces as the one you deal with keep on coming is that, happily, far more people are being drawn into the discussion of cycling’s place in the improvement of urban areas. Each one of the new arrivals has to go through the journey from ignorance and fear to knowledge and balanced enlightenment.

    When I first started cycling to work in the North East of England in the 1980s almost no one I knew had any opinion at all about cycling or about people like me who cycled routinely. As the years have gone by I have read lots of silly pieces (some written by me) that were based on nothing more than strong personal anecdotes and unchecked hypotheses. Each year the balance moves towards something approaching sanity. One or two nations seem to have arrived and are waiting for the rest of use to get smart enough to go and seek their help.

    So thanks for this. For each new (now diminishing) cohort of self-taught false prophets of bike-safety we need contemporary wisdom to show them a valuable contemporary alternative.

  4. Aaron permalink
    September 20, 2014 11:41 am

    What’s striking to me about the Timothy Egan piece is the extent to which he apparently allows his own rather illogical feelings and biases to trump a vast body of urban design best practices, planning and policy. Why is it when it comes to issues related to urban bicycle commuting, smart New York Times writers simply decide to ignore a vast realm of mainstream thought, facts and experts and fall back on emotion? Why can’t the New York Times simply be New York Timesy about bicycle policy?

  5. September 20, 2014 3:08 pm

    Oh, thank you for explaining so well all that Egan got wrong.

  6. nhamblen permalink
    September 20, 2014 7:22 pm

    ‘But Egan is right about one thing. He writes, “Getting on a bike in the city is an act of faith in a flawed urban contract, and in beating the odds.”’

    Egan is so bad at being right he still mostly gets that wrong. There are no odds to “beat” on a bike when we’re talking about survival; even riding on our crappy streets populated by ignorant, aggressive, distracted, and drunk drivers, the odds are that you will live.

    And the odds are comparable to walking, which is by some reports actually more dangerous by distance travelled. Shall we hold our breath for a Death-by-Shoe piece from Mr. Egan?

    All forms of active and mass transportation in America require us to submit to a fundamentally unfair, unreliable, unsustainable, stressful, and needlessly dangerous system.

    The only thing to talk about is fixing it.

  7. September 21, 2014 2:58 pm

    I was very frustrated as I read the Times piece the other day, and immediately looked forward the brooklynspoke response on here. Thanks for weighing in.

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