Writer. Warning: opinions. My lawyer advised a disclaimer, but didn't include any jokes to go with. Damned if I can think of any either.

Safe Cycling and The Journalism Epidemic

I firmly believe that a cycling-friendly city starts with friendly cyclists. That’s why I get irritated when I see riders splitting lanes and running lights. I think that each of these tiny transgressions joins with its like to constitute an ongoing detriment to whatever efforts there are in Atlanta to make it an easier and safer city for everyone. Sometimes, though, drivers are the huffy ones.

Both my regular readers will recall that I wrote the “Atlanta’s Cycling Community Needs to Think” post some time ago when I read Thomas Wheatley’s article in Creative Loafing, our local alternative paper. My aim was to illustrate that some of the responsibility of safe cycling and driving — in fact, half of it — rests on two wheels, and some of the things that pass for bike activism, in my view, are actually hurtful to cycling.

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I say “alternative paper”, but I rarely ever pick up the AJC and I’ve been reading The Loaf regularly since I moved here over ten years ago. Anyway, that post led to trading emails and 140-character twitular transmissions with Mr Wheatley on such subjects as best Atlanta bike shops (I like InTown Bikes) and members of The Monkees eating his face (minus Peter Tork).

That spirit of amity and concord between actual journalists and integrity-pariah bloggers like myself is exactly the sort of mutual understanding that I wish cyclists and drivers could manage.

Further, that’s exactly why I’m hurt but hopeful regarding an article I read last night in Charlotte’s Creative Loafing, forwarded to me by Chris.

As an aside, I’m also deeply hurt that The Loaf is seeing another city. I thought we had something special, baby!

The article, written by Tara Servatius, is entitled “The Cycling Epidemic”. It has this to say:

Now consider this: You are 12 times more likely to die bicycling to work than you are if you ride in a car, according to a study by professors at Rutgers University and the European Commission. Other studies put the likelihood of death at 10 times higher per kilometer traveled on a bike.

So where are the public service announcements against bicycling on public roads?

Ms. Servatius neglects to cite her source, but some googling has turned up a paper by a Dr. John Pucher, Phd, of Rutgers University, titled “Making Walking and Cycling Safer” (click for the PDF) which was published in something called Transportation Quarterly in 2000, as near as I can tell. In it, on page 3, there is a graph showing the fatality rates for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers per trip and per kilometer traveled.

In this report, walking is “36 times more likely to result in fatal injury than riding in a car; cycling is 11 times times more likely to result in death”. Again, I’m not sure if this is the study that Ms Servatius was thinking of, but its the best I found. Dr. Pucher makes a solid case that cycling and walking are indeed more dangerous than driving, and also goes on to discuss the success that European countries have had in reducing these numbers drastically through “urban design oriented to people and not cars”.

So, it seems that Ms Servatius has a point, even if it is buried deep beneath some fairly horrific comparisons to sudden infant death syndrome and smoking. She also wonders what a family expected when they lost a mother of two who got hit by a minivan on a two-lane road and killed.

Yeah, family! Surely you didn’t expect that minivan to wait a few seconds, did you? I am sure that Ms. Servatius doesn’t mean to suggest that the mother or the family got what was coming to her, but it kind of sounds that way. It sounds like Ms. Servatius thinks that the rider took a known risk and paid the price for her actions.

As a person who has lost his mother, I find this part of an already pretty terrible excuse for an article to be particularly grotesque. I would never wish such a thing on anyone, least of all a child. All jocularity aside, it is the single worst experience of my life.

So, if it is so much more dangerous to ride a bike, where are the public service announcements against it? Why are governments encouraging people to bike? Moreover, why hasn’t anyone outlawed walking, at 36 times more dangerous than driving?

Well, the statistics as presented are a little confusing. Cars still account for 76% of total traffic fatalities, according to the paper, because people drive cars far more than they ride a bike or walk. So, any conjectures made about the eventuality of injury on a bike can also be made about the same eventuality of injury in a car.

Truthfully, I think everyone who rides a bike regularly in traffic has to come to grips with this issue. Ultimaltely, for me, it comes down to this: Am I okay with taking a risk to do something I love doing, getting fit in the process, or do I want to be safer in return for less life enjoyment and more ass fat?

Yes riding a bike in traffic can be dangerous, but I think that has a lot to do with things like people operating their chosen vehicle like a jerk, cities being designed for cars and not for people, and the fact that even a low speed accident between a car and a bike has the potential to kill the cyclist, whereas the car might only get a dent or have to stop tweeting for a second or two.

We’re all busy, we’re all in a hurry to get wherever we’re going, and we’re all better off when we take a step back and try to relate to one another. Like it or not, Ms Servatius, cyclists are traffic. We have the same right to the road that you do. It is our responsibility, and when I say “our” I mean “everyone on the road”, to properly observe the rules. That means that drivers might have to drive a bit more slowly, and cyclists might have to stop at red lights and pick a single lane to be in.

There is no way forward better than together, and rash articles are only exacerbating whatever problems there are. Like an irresponsible rider or car driving recklessly, I must ask you, Ms. Servatius, to stop.

9 thoughts on “Safe Cycling and The Journalism Epidemic”

  1. abby

    WOW. I hoped that article was a joke … ah, that’s okay, now I see that she’s the joke. Unbelievable that this illogical tripe was printed. You are correct on all counts as usual, Jim, except for the red light stop thing.

    On a bike, I slow/stop till I confirm that there are no cars coming and no pedestrians to run over. Do you seriously stop at every abandoned intersection? I can’t stand seeing the fixie kids blow through red lights, but waiting till a light turns green while I bake in 100 degree heat with even hotter exhaust blowing in my face just so that I can make the cars behind me wait on my slow ass to get moving seems silly most of the time.

  2. jim

    Abby, in the interest of 100% truth, no I don’t stop at every red light. If the intersection is empty I might roll it, but if there is a car there I will wait. I want drivers to think of me as a fellow member of traffic. That means no sidewalks, no abusing lanes, and no riding off before the light changes when the cars have to wait.

    I like to think of myself as setting a good example, but if there’s no one around to set that example for, well, I’m as selfish as anyone at my core. Maybe more!

  3. abby

    Spreading some goodwill, for reals! If I’m behind a car, I’ll wait, especially when the light’s about to change and they’ll just pass me in a half a block… but I’m an Idaho stop proponent, think it just makes sense.

  4. Nikki

    I can’t count the number of times we’ve been driving through bike-friendly Roswell only to deal with cyclists who don’t follow the rules of the road. I know it’s not every person on a bike. I know that plenty of cyclists are perfectly responsible people, but that’s not what you think when you see a guy who will be taking up his lane and yours in 30 seconds run a red light.

    I don’t hate cyclists, but it’s never going to get better without cross-education – we all have rights AND responsibilities here. Great post.

  5. Christopher Rampton

    The statistics showing the danger of driving-vs-cycling-vs-walking are all based on deaths per mile travelled. Since driving is faster than cycling and both are faster than walking, you could really change the statistic if you baed it on time spent doing each activity or by basing it on the number of trips. So as usual there are liars, damn liars, and then there are statistians. Then there are dumbasses like Tara Servatius.

  6. Brian Headrick

    Jim, I have recently discovered your website after looking for some training advice on my first Ironman. You have been an inspiration and I have read every single post on here going back to 2001 in about a week. I like new Jim better than old Jim. Btw, I would like to procure my very own copy of Beep Beep Awooga, if only so that when people ask me what I’m listening to I can make a cartoonishly loud sound. Please get back to me, I would be willing to meet you anywhere or send cash in advance.

  7. Tony Bullard

    Chris covered the flaw of comparing these three modes of transportation by mileage.

    I’m at work, so I don’t have time to search for it, but I know the amsterdamize and the like have quoted it a thousand times, there’s another study that basically says that the health benefits given to a person from daily bike riding is so great, it more than negates the “11 times more deadly” factor.

    So while cyclists may be more likely to die from how they travel, drivers are more likely to die from their lifestyle.

    The article quotes a number of how many lives could be saved a year if all cycling deaths disappeared. She oddly left out all death related to heart disease and lack of activity.