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Friday, December 15, 2006

Advocacy works for bicyclists

Oklahoma cycling blogger CycleDog writes this week:

There were a couple of (bicycling articles) with the usual ‘you can’t ride ABC Street because it’s too dangerous/too fast/too narrow/too whatever’. Many cyclists think this way and too many of our alleged advocacy groups encourage them to do so. They hype the danger of riding in traffic because their agenda calls for bike lanes on every street and roadway in the nation. Never mind if this is good for the community, good for cyclists, or good for the taxpayers. It’s VERY good for the organizations involved. Thunderhead Alliance, Bikes Belong, and sadly, even the League of American Bicyclists endorse such projects.

These bike lane proponents claim to have the needs of cyclists in mind when in fact their projects are mainly beneficial to motorists. (Read more)
CycleDog is one of a shrinking number of old-paradigm bicyclists who spout such "straw man" nonsense. ("Bike lanes on every street"? Which groups call for that?) Sigh. This "paint-n-path" versus "effective cycling" argument is soooo very tiresome.

The sad reality is that bicyclists in much of auto-centric America face hostile street conditions. How should bicyclists respond to a hostile streetscape? Alternative #1: Change the streetscape to a create "complete streets" more amenable to cycling, walking, transit. Alternative #2: Cope with bad streets; teach bicyclists how to adapt to hostile streets, through bike safety education programs. Change or cope.

CycleDog condemns organizations ("they only want your dues") which favor Alternative #1. However, changing streets to better support bicycling is imperative, which is why the most effective bike advocacy organizations pursue Alternative #1. This means serious political organizing, agitating, advocating, coalition building, campaigning. And this is what has worked in San Francisco, which is the only city in the US to have seen a doubling of bicycling for transportation according to U.S. Census Bureau.

Alternative #1 (change streets) is positive, empowering, and effective. It works to increase bicycling presence, power, and participation, and nothing improves safety for cyclists more than the abundant presence of bicyclists. It is proactive, working to shape future street development and reshape existing public space. It is expansive, reaching out to improve communities through bicycling.

Alternative #2 (education to better cope with road hazards, apparently favored by CycleDog) is demoralizing, defeatist, and ineffective. It leads to even further marginalization of bicyclists on public streets, as unopposed auto interests create streetscapes even more hostile to bicyclists. It is reactive, working to adapt present "square" cyclists to "round" streets.

As a League Cycling Instructor (#1237) I support bicycle education. But it is no substitute for advocacy. Nor is it universally effective; note the "success" of motorist education--42,000 deaths a year and counting. And education is more than simply bike-handling and street safety clinics: media outreach, street signage, bike lanes, "sharrows", public service advertising campaigns--all serve to educate motorists, bicyclists, and public officials.

In reality all cyclists do both, change and cope. They cope with existing conditions as they endeavor to change them. But clearly the path to a more bicyclist-friendly U.S. is to pursue change.

Image: Tony Eason.
See: Bicyclists winning a war of lanes in San Francisco, Christian Science Monitor, 09.12.06
See: Cycling supporters on a roll in S.F., San Francisco Chronicle, 08.21.06
See: League of American Bicyclists
See: Thunderhead Alliance
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips Site


Ed W said...

This is excerpted from a longer post responding to Paul Dorn. The full text can be read at CycleDog.

Apparently Mr. Dorn equates advocacy with facilities. "I support bicycle education. But it is no substitute for advocacy." Paint and pavers exist to 'give the people what they want' and what they want are bike lanes because so-called advocacy organizations have told them so for better than 30 years. They fear riding in traffic, and ‘advocates’ like Mr. Dorn reinforce their fears by telling them about our “hostile streets”. Most cyclists are totally unaware of bicycling education, and 'advocates' like Mr. Dorn - despite his LCI credentials - would prefer they remain blissfully ignorant. So it's more than a little disingenuous to suggest that vehicular cycling is an old way of thinking. Most cyclists have never been exposed to it. It’s a startling revelation when they discover that riding in traffic isn't a terribly fearful experience.

I think that Mr. Dorn and I share a common goal – to see more cyclists using our streets and roads. We differ widely on how to achieve that goal, yet we’d agree that change is necessary.

It’s easy for an advocacy group to point at a strip of concrete and tout what they’ve accomplished for cyclists. It far more difficult to point out some cyclists and tout their bicycling education as an accomplishment. Changed behavior is far less obvious than that concrete slab. The existence of the concrete is a memorial to the efforts of the paint and pave groups, not unlike a tombstone. Ten years from now, let’s hope that those crumbling tombstones are all that remain of paint and pave advocacy.

Paul Dorn said...

Thanks CycleDog for your response. A couple clarifications:

1) Advocates (like me) don't need to tell people about "hostile streets." Prospective bicyclists are already aware of the dangers; and admittedly those perceived fears are perhaps exaggerated from limited actual bicycling experience. Advocates (like me) are responding to fears expressed by prospective cyclists. We aren't creating fear. I don't accuse bike education proponents or LCIs of fostering unfounded fears to fill their clinics/workshops. Education and advocacy are both responses to fear of traffic by prospective bicyclists. I simply believe--and evidence shows--that advocacy is more effective at increasing bicycling participation.

2) No, I don't suggest that "vehicular cycling" is outdated. However, the idea that the only response to hazardous streets is outdated. Bike advocacy is gaining momentum, and the potential to change the streetscape is greater than ever. The "old paradigm" I mention as outdated is the pessimism about transforming streets to encourage bicycling that existed prior to ISTEA.

3) I take an expansive view toward bicycling education. Media campaigns, brochures, guidebooks, bike route maps, signage, newsletters, websites, bike lanes, traffic calming, Critical Mass, and other activities are all "educational" for both bicyclists and motorists. I don't limit the concept of "bicycling education" to simply street skills clinics.