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PSU publishes response to ‘Bike Wars’ magazine article

Posted by on August 3rd, 2009 at 11:57 am

Cover of PSU’s Metroscape magazine.

The Summer 2009 issue of Portland State University’s Metroscape magazine features a cover story titled, “Bike Wars: Hostile forces — drivers and riders — go wheel to wheel in the streets. Can’t we all just get along?”

The 17-year old magazine is published twice yearly by PSU’s Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies. The Bike Wars article was written by a freelancer named Kyle Cassidy. In it, he claims that as bike use has skyrocketed in Portland, so have feelings of tension between people in cars and on bikes.

Here’s an excerpt from Cassidy’s introduction:

“Portland boasts the nation’s highest percentage of workers who commute by bike — eight-times the national average — and much to the chagrin of many motorists, that number is growing.

… with the economy in the tank and gas prices soaring, more and more commuters are choosing the pedal over the pump, resulting in increased tension between bicyclists and motorists and dangerously
crowded roadways that are unequipped to manage the different modes of transportation.”

Not surprisingly, in this city with such a high bike I.Q. and a hyper-awareness of transportation issues, the article has created a bit of controversy.

“The most controversial article ever to appear in the magazine… It has received both praise for calling attention to a looming problem and disapproval for factual inaccuracy.”
— Craig Wollner, Editor-in-chief of Metroscape

The magazine’s editor, Craig Wollner noted that it has been, “The most controversial article ever to appear in the magazine… It has received both praise for calling attention to a looming problem and disapproval for factual inaccuracy.”

In order to try and stem the tide of controversy, Wollner withheld publishing the article online until a response could be written. When the Bike Wars article went online a few days ago, Wollner published alongside it a detailed, two-page “unbiased opinion” by noted bicycle researcher and PSU Associate Professor of Urban Studies and Planning, Jennifer Dill.

In her response, Dill writes that the article raises, “important questions about building facilities that will reduce conflicts and improve safety.” However, Dill says that Cassidy’s assertions that tensions are on the rise are based on “drawing conclusions from anecdotes of conflict recently appearing in the media.” Dill is referring to the infamous bike/car road rage media frenzy by The Oregonian in the summer of 2008 and by a few other road rage incidents from around the globe that caught the media’s attention.

In her response, Dill points out that between 1996 and 2007, bike traffic across Portland’s downtown bridges increased 400%, but that over the same time, bike crashes only went up by 20% (from 155 to 186). She writes:

“One potential reason for this relationship is that as more people bicycle, motorists become more aware and watch out more for bicycles. In addition, more motorists may be bicyclists themselves, making them more cautious when they drive.”

You can download Cassidy’s article (which, despite it’s unfortunate premise, is an interesting, in-depth look into Portland’s transportation infrastructure) and read Dill’s response here.

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  • Adam August 3, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    This is a very touchy subject. There are good and bad drivers just like there are good and bad cyclists. Just last night I witnessed tension between the two modes of transportation in two separate incidents. One was unfortunately a usual occurrence, someone on a bike blowing through a red light. Come on people. Really? Are we just trying to tick people off? The second was on a narrow road with not much of a shoulder. There is ample space on the shoulder but it is a hard pack gravel. A person on a bike riding head on in the lane of travel. If he were riding on the proper side of the road it would have been a different story. Fortunately no one in these incidents got hurt from their actions but people need to think a little more about what they are doing.

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  • robbie August 3, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    adam, i hate to nitpick over a specific word, but in a situation where the cyclist cannot ride on the right side of the road due to unsafe conditions the center of the lane is the “proper” side of the road.

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  • Esta Nevando Aqui August 3, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    Thank you, Professor Dill. Good to know somebody at PSU is paying attention to reality.

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  • dan August 3, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    @ Robbie, #2.

    That first poster was describing someone who was riding on the _left_ side of the road, i.e., into oncoming traffic, not someone who was just taking the lane on the right side of the road.

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  • Adam August 3, 2009 at 12:28 pm

    @ #4. Exactly, if he were using the lane in the proper direction it would be a whole different story. Riding in the center of the on coming lane? Come on. He was riding in a very weaving manner as well. Not a safe situation for him or anyone passing him.

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  • nuovorecord August 3, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    This isn’t a cyclist v. motorist issue. It’s a societal issue regarding the general lack of respect with which humans treat each other.

    People, be nice. Everybody. That means YOU.

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  • Adam August 3, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    Nuovorecord #6.

    Well said.

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  • buzz August 3, 2009 at 1:38 pm

    I really think drivers in this town, for the most part, do a good job dealing with cyclists and treat them with respect. I suppose it depends on where you ride, but it is not rare for me at all to be riding in close-in NE or SE and have a car wave me through a stop sign or through a four way.

    I just think I remember people that are not so nice and it sticks with me a lot more. It’s almost like I need about 20 friendly “wave throughs” in order to make up for that one person that cut me off. It was no different when I worked at the customer service counter at a grocery store. Twenty nice people come through and then one jerk and guess who gets remembered?!

    And, yes Nuovorecord! Great post!

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  • peejay August 3, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    Jennifer Dill’s response goes to show how sensible you can be if you ignore (or at least don’t overvalue) anecdotal evidence. Sometimes, however, sensible is not the objective of the writer.

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  • Mike August 3, 2009 at 2:09 pm

    The bike vs car debate in Portland is completely overblown. I don’t feel the need to say anything more.

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  • bikieboy August 3, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    thanks, Ms. Dill- it seems pretty clear from the crash numbers that cyclist safety has improved in the last decade. But i am a bit concerned that those numbers are possibly a bit soft, inasmuch as the reporting criteria for bike / motor vehicle crashes has shifted considerably over this time period.

    I’d love to see someone undertake research aimed at obtaining more definitive numbers. Any interest here, Ms. Dill?

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  • Chick Biker August 3, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    Although I am an avid cyclist and an advocate, I am spending more time at the wheel of my car this year. I have found it very stressful to drive on popular biking streets such as SW Madison through downtown and the Hawthorne Bridge. There are good and bad drivers and cyclists, agreed, but the sheer numbers increase tensions. I think there are several legitimate challenges that are not being adequately addressed:
    1. Inadequate facilities – just think of the Hawthorne Bridge sidewalk – at rush hour it is far too narrow and heavily used. Width, separation of peds and bikes and additional river crossing facilities are all needed.
    2. Driver education – this should be a high priority. I would think it could be coordinated by State of Oregon.
    3. Biker education – this is barely available for adults. And the more bike friendly Portland is perceived, the more new inexperienced riders will hit the streets. Which is great, but let’s make sure people know there are great, safe alternatives to SE 39th and Hawthorne Boulevard. (Pick your streets, these are just examples from my neighborhood)

    Okay, I rest my case!

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  • Jesse August 3, 2009 at 3:53 pm

    Where is this tension that people keep talking about? I moved to Portland 6 weeks ago and have been riding my bike everywhere. In that time I have not been honked at once. I have not been given the finger. I have not been verbally abused and no motorist has purposefully endangered me. Living on the (l)east coast, I was assured of at least one of these things happening on every ride.

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  • KJ August 3, 2009 at 7:33 pm

    I’d love to see some media attention on how the media helps over inflate non issues and risks. I’d rather see something like driving and cycling in Oregon has never been safer!

    For example, in 2008, nationwide there were 37,261 car crash related deaths, of those 716 were cyclists and 4,378 were pedestrians, the rest were auto and motorcycle users.(source: http://www.oregoninjurylawyerblog.com/2009/07/416_oregon_traffic_deaths_in_2.html)

    And the good news out of that is that the number of deaths was down from the previous years total of 41,259. Yay we aren’t killing each other as much!

    Road rage was a moral panic, it never existed as a legitimate issue, so follows this bike/car war, it;s a moral panic. it makes good copy even if it’s a falsehood.

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  • Eileen August 4, 2009 at 12:30 am

    I just think this is the type of article that raises awareness and gets people to think about their own reactions. Think who the average readership of this magazine will be and I am betting the target audience tends to be progressives with a conscience. Overblown or not, it’s a conversation we need to continue having. Nobody wants to BE that road rage guy and so putting “him” in print makes people see that behavior as vile. I think. I’m not sure really. I used to think what a great service Oprah did by bringing all these safety issues to our attention and now I see a culture of micro-parenting (micro-managing your kids) and kids with no sense of responsibility or independence. It’s hard to predict the backlash of these things. I KNOW people drive more carefully around bikes these days than even a few years ago and I’m sure that the crazy media attention given to cyclists had a lot to do with that.

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  • Will Radik August 4, 2009 at 3:45 am

    Personally, I’ve noticed an increase (minor) in driver courtesy and conscientiousness. Every now and then, someone tries to menace me or displays ignorance of my legal rights, but that’s definitely the exception.

    That article is just plain silly.

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  • Matt Picio August 4, 2009 at 8:02 am

    Jesse (#13) – Everyone’s experience is different, and to a certain extent people see what they are looking for – if one is on the lookout for jerks, one notices jerks. Frequently.

    I think the problem is overblown in the media, but it does exist – it’s just not as severe as it’s made out to be.

    Go out to the ‘burbs, or outer east Portland, and you’ll see conflict, get honked at, passed too closely, get shown the finger, or have things thrown at you.

    On Occasion.

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  • gix August 4, 2009 at 9:11 am

    “Bike Wars” is a poor and misleading choice of words for the situation.

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  • Lenny Anderson August 4, 2009 at 10:27 am

    Thanks again to Professor Dill for some data! But when is Portland going to embrace the “naked street” approach that data has shown to be effective in Europe.

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  • sabes August 4, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Have you ever seen how cyclists are treated in other cities? Portland drivers are, for the most part, very conscientious and polite to drivers. Are there exceptions to the rule? Of course. But try and ride your bicycle in another city, say Atlanta, and see how you’re treated by just about everyone. It’s an eye opener. Can we make it better here in Portland? Of course we can, but let’s try and keep the high quality of bicycle amenities and polite drivers we have here.

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  • KJ August 4, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    Aren’t some folks actually trying to Ban cyclists out in Colorado? Pass legislation to prevent them from using county roads or something? OOoo Iowa too…progressive… I think we got it pretty darn good here. And it’s only getting better with time I think!


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