American Fear of a Non-Motorized Planet

The area around Polk Street in San Francisco has experienced a high level of bicycle accidents. It has been ranked in the top five most dangerous streets. I can support this both quantitatively and qualitatively. Through nearly three decades of commuting by bicycle in the Twin Cities, London, Los Angeles and San Francisco the only place I have been hit by cars (twice!) is San Francisco.

In fact, in 1993 for more than six months day-or-night, rain-or-shine I rode 20 miles every day in central London and never once had impact with vehicles. (Other risks were higher: I was stopped and detained by anti-terror police once and I eventually was forced to reduce my daily ride time after a GP diagnosed me with serious respiratory damage from diesel-sulfur pollution).

Naturally the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition is looking at the same data. They work on traffic flow changes with urban planners to encourage cycling and reduce harm spots. This means increasing of non-motorist traffic, supporting higher-density of consumers and increasing sales for local businesses.

Studies have proven that an increase in safety for cyclists creates so much more non-motorized traffic that flow calculations have to be adjusted. Urban planners in London used to assume non-motorized traffic would equate to a quarter of a space used by motorized vehicles. It turns out to be much higher. This is an amazing development when you consider the potential density of bicycles and how much space is wasted by automobiles.

Separate Transport for London figures already show that cyclists now make 570,000 trips in London every day compared with 290,000 trips in 2001.

Blackfriars, Waterloo and London bridges are all now among the top 10 busiest cycle streets in London. On all of these, cyclists make up 42 per cent of traffic and 15 per cent of people – though they take up just 12 per cent of road space.

Almost 9,300 riders – 11 a minute – cross London Bridge a day.

Why aren’t more people cycling, given the obvious advantages? Turns out that even as bicycling is soaring it has been held back by safety concerns linked directly to automobile-centric thinking.

The inquiry heard that more than 42 per cent of Britons own a bicycle, but only 2 per cent of journeys in the UK are made by bike.

Many people who would like to cycle do not feel safe enough, and the inquiry heard that all road projects and urban development must include high-quality cycle lanes as part of the planning process.

In 1904 20% of traffic in London was by bicycle. It’s now planning to return to that level again because of increased value it brings across the board to a city (healthier citizens, cleaner air, higher density, lower infrastructure cost, more resilient to disasters, etc.) Look at how safety factors into their mayoral plan — a plan to reduce threat and harm from automobiles:

  1. A Tube network for the bike. London will have a network of direct, joined-up cycle tracks, with many running in parallel with key Underground, rail and bus routes
  2. Safer streets for the bike. Spending on the junction review will be significantly increased and substantial improvements to the worst junctions will be prioritised. With government help, a range of radical measures will improve the safety of cyclists around large vehicles
  3. More people travelling by bike. We will ‘normalise’ cycling, making it something anyone feels comfortable doing
  4. Better places for everyone. The new bike routes are a step towards the Mayor’s vision of a ‘village in the city’, with more trees, more space for pedestrians and less traffic

Let’s look at what higher density of more consistent-speed traffic really means.

In terms of commercial return, ask any shop owner or real-estate agent if they would rather see 1 customer enter their sales funnel or 10X customers. Instead of a single person taking up a giant parking space, or a full lane, we see the potential for 10X traffic for less cost. We also know that street-level advertisements (signs and store-fronts) are more effective on pedestrians and cyclists. That’s the kind of low-impact scalability model any modern urban space should be rushing towards. You’d expect retailers to be leading the charge.

Despite these facts, many American businesses seem to be up in arms instead. Lose a parking space? Never. Look at the data? Impossible.

Believe it or not, some Americans consider pedestrian harm collateral damage acceptable in their automobile-centric life. And if the subtext to that culture isn’t obvious enough, it’s based in racism cloaked in the “privilege” of wealth to afford a vehicle. When non-whites are disadvantaged systemically into remaining below a line of poverty, whites use concepts like property owner (car, house) to declare themselves “better” and more deserving of rights. Indeed, there are huge fines and felony charges for a car that damages property yet often none at all for killing a human.

A resistance to progress, despite obvious gains in traffic and better living conditions, comes from those who argue every parking spot translates to direct positive impact to the value of their property. The same group also seem to believe everyone can win a dead-end race to own the biggest vehicle on the road to stay safe and that pollution is a necessary evil within wealth accumulation.

It turns out that more carefully planned parking spaces, and even reduced motorized traffic flow, has an increased value to property investments. This is the converse of what car parking extremist believe. Of course common sense proves this. Suburbs, with the highest percentage of parking, struggle to hold value while urban spaces attract more people than ever despite a lack of car parking.

Consider also that the rate of driving is declining as people realize an American model of excessive automobile ownership (e.g. being stranded without a car) is the opposite of true quality-of-life values. Transportation options that make spaces clean and quiet with lower barrier to entry are where people are wisely spending money now (see “Young People Aren’t Buying Cars” and “Young Americans Lead Trend to Less Driving“)

So I just noticed that Boston news is facing a similar debate as in SF.

“There seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to the eliminated parking wherever something like this is proposed.” said Pete Stidman, executive director of the Boston Cyclists Union. “We think if it was fixed up and made safer, you’d see an even huger increase in cycling there.”

Hayes Morrison, Somerville’s director of Transportation & Infrastructure, said the city has reviewed the street with two parking studies, finding that there is ample parking available, and would continue to be after the reconstruction and loss of spaces.

Think about why a Boston or San Francisco is far more desirable to live in than a Los Angeles. It is like asking why people prefer to live near green spaces, parks and bicycle lanes instead of dangerous and polluted petroleum gulches like Polk St.

Trust me, I commuted by bicycle in Los Angeles in 1995 after I left London. It was nearly impossible. Bike lanes literally dead-ended at freeways with no options. I spent hours trying to map out routes that someone could actually ride and not be stranded by planners who ignored non-motorized traffic.

Bottom line is that areas of a city that have safe bicycle traffic will be the areas of density and prosperity growth. Cleaner, quieter…fewer cars, less parking, yet more people means better living. By comparison, neighborhoods that emphasize car parking are higher-risk, less desirable, less able to sustain heavy traffic and will lose value. Wasted space makes commerce more expensive with less return.

Until Polk street allows reasonable pathways for non-motorized traffic we all should avoid spending money in that area. Take your business elsewhere (e.g. Mission, Haight, FiDi), places that are working to maximize quality of life, reduce injury, and let us breathe easier. It’s time to support areas invested in sustainable value. Stop protecting dead spaces for empty cars.

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