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In a recent interview, Fox 9’s Tom Lyden asked some great questions, including one about fear that took me another day of thought and help from my wife and friends to sort out.
Who’s at fault, bicycle riders or drivers?
There is indeed considerable conflict between motor vehicles and bicycle riders. There is also conflict between bicycle riders and pedestrians. As a motorist I’ve been quite frustrated when stuck behind 13 mph bicycle riders on curvy and hilly roads that didn’t offer a safe opportunity to pass. On numerous occasions I’ve wished a bicycle rider was not in front of me blocking my way.
I’ve also been frustrated by slow pedestrians when riding my bicycle and have nearly been hit by fast moving bicycle riders when walking. I’ve talked to dozens of people who are afraid to walk, ride a bicycle, or take their mobility scooter to a local cafe due to these conflicts.
Conflict? Drivers in Minnesota kill about 400 people every year with their cars including 40 pedestrians and 6 bicycle riders.
Do drivers fear injuring or killing bicycle riders?
If Minnesota drivers really feared killing others, whether riding bicycles, walking, or in other cars, would we so willingly use cell phones or eat while driving? Drive drunk? Turn right on red without stopping and looking, or drive too fast? If we so feared for others lives would we be so hesitant to speak up to others when they do these things?
On the surface and based on how many people we kill each year with our cars I can’t say that we seem to have much fear of killing others.
Even so, many drivers do drive safely and do fear for bicycle riders and others safety. This perhaps particularly when they don’t know what a rider will do, a common problem in the U.S. where so many actions are undefined, like transitions from bicycle paths or sidewalks to having to ride in traffic. Given our death statistics, clearly not enough have these fears though.
Fear does play a larger role however. If we are patient and not in a hurry then we’ll usually not drive too fast. We’ll stop and look before turning right on red and we’ll patiently wait for a safe opportunity to pass bicycle riders or people on mobility scooters. Some of us anyway.
When we are in a hurry or simply don’t want to drive very slow then fear does creep in. We begin, often subconsciously, weighing the risk of passing a slower bicycle rider or turning right on red without checking to see who may be about to cross in front of us. We can’t drive as fast as we’d like or as fast as we think we’re entitled to drive. Or, more likely, we’ll do so anyway and fear that in so doing we will hit someone.
On top of this we’re frustrated and angry that this person or situation is causing us this fear and that we must make this decision. And, having seen a small minority of bicycle riders blow red lights or pull out in front of traffic from sidewalks we’ll project these actions on to all bicycle riders including the one involved in our current situation. There, that feels righteously better.
Interestingly, if we get stuck in a situation that slows us down but offers no alternatives upon which a decision is needed there is no fear involved. Anger and frustration perhaps, but not fear.
BTW, there is no finger pointing here. I can lay claim to each and every one of these.
So, who’s at fault? Primarily, none of the above.
I’d place the initial blame on our traffic engineers who have given us the most dangerous road system in the developed world. Completely aside from bicycles, we kill about three times as many people as those in other developed countries and I think this is largely due to how our road system is designed.
But this is about bicycles. And disabled. And pedestrians. And their relationship to drivers. Not the 400 dead Minnesotans we leave in our motoring wake each year.
U.S. traffic engineers are in love with sharing. They hold to a belief that motor vehicles and bicycles can happily share the road. Bollocks. Ain’t gonna happen.
There are three very distinct modal groups of personal transportation:
Walking is typically about 3-5 mph. Pedestrians are extremely maneuverable and among themselves need no traffic control. Mistakes rarely result in harm.
Low Power includes bicycles and most disabled mobility such as mobility scooters and handcycles. This is typically 10-15 mph though may be as high as low 20’s. [Low power is highly maneuverable and among themselves and between themselves and pedestrians require little to no traffic control. Mistakes carry a slightly higher risk than walking but is still quite benign.
High Power includes motor vehicles and trams or streetcars. Speeds range up to 100 mph. High power vehicles have very low maneuverability and require a very high degree of traffic control. Mistakes can often result in significant harm or death.
Each of these is distinct in speed and mass, as well as maneuverability, and the danger presented to others.
Mark Brauer recently asked: Where do Bicycles Fit? We provide complete facilities (roads, streets, parking, etc) for high power, moderately good to poor facilities for walking, and minimal or no facilities for low power. And then we wonder why we have conflict.
Pedestrian and low power can successfully share when traffic volumes are somewhat low and everyone obeys some simple rules, like keeping right except to pass. The MUP along Hodgson Rd in Shoreview is a good local example. The Gateway trail, when crowded, not so much. Many pedestrianized shopping streets are also shared successfully though here bicycle riders must use considerable caution.
Low power and high power can share when traffic volumes and speeds are extremely low, bicycles are given absolute priority, and cars are considered guests and aren’t allowed to pass bicycle riders. The Netherlands has experimented extensively with a large variety of sharing schemes over the past 30 to 40 years and even with a road system and drivers about three times safer than the U.S. they have determined that sharing only works within these parameters.
Outside of these scenarios sharing does not work well and leads to conflict, frustration, and fear. Each modal group needs its own space, both for real and subjective safety.
The Dutch call this homogeneity of modes and it is one of the five tenants that forms the foundation of their road system — Sustainable Safety.
Keep in mind that the Dutch road system is over three times safer than ours and even so they’ve determined that this segregation is necessary. To expect a better outcome here in the U.S. is nuts. Yet our traffic engineers (and vehicular cyclists) believe that with our much more dangerous road system that we can all share? It seems they’ve been smoking something on their visits to Amsterdam rather than learning how to make roads safer.
For some perspective, about 260 more Minnesotans (and 30 pedestrians and 5 bicycle riders) would be alive today if our roads were as safe as The Netherlands. Given average lifespans that’s about 14,000 Minnesotans who would be alive today.
None of this should be taken to mean that drivers are excused from driving safely. If all drivers obeyed our laws and drove carefully we’d kill many fewer people every year. Nearly every one of the 400 Minnesotans killed each year is the fault of the driver. Dutch engineers and increasingly others from around the globe realize that we don’t do so good at obeying laws and so they design roads appropriately. They also realize that even within a fully law-abiding population there will be conflict between 45 mph drivers and 13 mph bicycle riders or mobility scooters and design appropriately.
The Dutch model isn’t perfect. People are still killed and there are occasional pockets of conflict. There are numerous streets and roads that don’t work very well. But to paraphrase Winston Churchill, again. The Dutch road system is the worst there is. Except for all of the others.
 Some bicycle crashes and fatalities are at least somewhat the fault of the bicycle rider doing something stupid. A very rough guesstimate is that about 20% are solely the fault of the bicycle rider, 50% solely the fault of the driver and about 30% involve error from both.
 We are tied with Greece for last place among all OECD countries. Just consider that many restaurants in Greece still have a hole in the ground for a toilet. Developed? I’ll let you be the judge (but I’ll thank Greece for giving us the foundations for our democracy).
 Also includes e-bikes that provide graduated pedal assist up to about 15 mph. Should likely not include mopeds of any configuration nor of e-bikes that provide more than low power pedal assist. [link to e-bike post]
 Consider an intersection with no traffic control. 50 pedestrians approaching from each of the four sides will maneuver their way through very well. Similarly, 50 bicycle riders and mobility scooters, 200 in all, will maneuver their way through quite well. [simultaneous green video] Now imagine 50 cars approaching from each direction and having to negotiate their way through. Or, consider what happens when a kid suddenly runs in front of a pedestrian, bicycle rider, or car.
 As soon as cars are allowed to pass bicycle riders they become much more aggressive and a greater danger to bicycle riders and pedestrians.
 Note that even places designed by the famed Hans Monderman are being reconfigured. They worked well for a short time but in the long run became car dominant and unfriendly to pedestrians and bicycle riders.
 Subjective is how safe someone feels, regardless of actual safety. For instance, many people feel much less safe on many roads than actual risk requires. Similarly, people feel much safer in cars than reality says that they should.