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Comment of the Week: The real cost of having unsafe streets

Posted by on June 5th, 2015 at 6:34 pm

Eleni rides home alone-1

On her own.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Portland is, thankfully, a relatively safe city to get around. Even the United States in general, with our 30,000 road deaths every year, is full of hundreds of millions of people who aren’t getting physically hurt.

But the real cost of Vision 30,000 (as I saw a local transportation planner put it the other day) isn’t broken bodies. And it doesn’t have anything to do with biking in particular. It’s the fact that almost all of us spend our entire lives in a constant, low-level fear of losing our daughter, our son, our spouse, our best friend, to traffic.

How does that perfectly reasonable fear shape our lives? How does it lead us to shape theirs?

That’s the haunting argument that BikePortland reader SD made in a comment Monday, responding to another reader’s argument that the BikePortland community is hateful toward people who drive.

Emphasis added:

I can see where you are coming from tnash and can see how this article in this context looks like a way for cyclists to take revenge on motorists. But, we can also look at this in a manner that leaves cyclists out of the equation.

I feel fairly confident that the biggest danger almost every Portlander faces each day is being in proximity to motorized vehicles. We have gone to great lengths to reduce the risk and harm done by cars and trucks because of the benefits that they provide, but irresponsible use of and overuse of motorized transport continues to create a significant threat and we all live in its shadow.

I desperately want to see safer driving practices partially as a cyclist but primarily as a parent. We can measure the harm from bad driving by counting the morbid events that happen daily and focus on them as a marker of failures of our system. However, the far greater impact of irresponsible driving is more insidious. It is the fear of our children or our friends being hit by a car. It keeps us from walking, riding our bikes, or letting kids play outside and have autonomy in our neighborhoods.

Restricting active transportation weakens our neighborhoods and our communities. Many people live inside their houses or inside their cars with brief moments spent at the places they traveled to in their cars. This type of living undermines the social cohesiveness of communities. Being outside, seeing each other, talking to each other is very valuable and much harder to do when you are inside your car.

We are all very lucky that there are so many people in Portland who want to walk and bike on public streets. Although there is risk, there is also the realization that our streets are not only for cars and that a culture that normalizes irresponsible and inattentive driving is not acceptable.

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With traffic, there is a risk, and there is a tendency to escalate precautions in a manner that also escalates risk. Many places in the US, the conversation about traffic safety isn’t about how it is unsafe to ride a bike, it is about how it is unsafe to drive a small fuel efficient vehicle. The argument is often made that if you are driving a small car and are hit by an SUV then you are partly responsible for the harm caused to you because you weren’t driving an SUV. It is frustrating to see this same logic applied reflexively to cyclists. Essentially, the argument is if you do anything that makes you vulnerable you are responsible for the harm done to you by others, even if the harm was caused by someone acting illegally or with malice.

This argument undermines our liberties and our quality of life and it normalizes and empowers bad actors, in this case irresponsible and inattentive drivers. Cycling safely is very important and something that we should all embrace, but it is not a solution to dealing with bad drivers and poor infrastructure. As far as I am concerned, it is a separate conversation and it is disingenuous to tout it as an antidote to the 3 left hooks and red light incident over the past 3 weeks. It is similar to blaming people who are physically or sexually assaulted for the way that they dress or for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. It is also an argument to maintain the status quo.

There will always be vulnerable road users who may be operating legally but not perfectly on infrastructure that sometimes can be confusing. I make every effort to drive in a way that allows people not to be perfect, but still safe. I had to learn how to drive like this after moving to Portland and I was highly motivated because I cycle and I have children living in a dense urban area. The more productive safety conversations are those that imagine everything the operator of a deadly force could do to prevent harm instead of normalizing the deadly force and focusing on its victims.

If we want Portland to be the city we all know that it can be, we have to deescalate the danger that surrounds us. This doesn’t mean staying inside our houses or our cars. This means more active transportation and creating a culture of thoughtful driving, that is cooperative instead of selfish and honors the people on our roads who chose to leave their cars at home; that respects the fact that we are driving where people and their children live and play.

Fortunately for all of us in Portland, there is no going back and there are fantastic dedicated people who believe in community and quality of life. We should all be them/help them.

P.S. I would be concerned about the lack of due process in the “shaming” approach and that it could ultimately cause more problems than it solves. But, I would also love to hear suggestions on how to stop cars from speeding and running the stop signs next to my house that is on a low traffic, residential road with lots of families.

Thoughtfully and powerfully said.

Yes, we pay for good comments. We’ll be sending $5 and a little goodie bag to SD in thanks for this great one. Watch your email!

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Kelly Francois
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Kelly Francois

Bike snob had a similar blog post today: http://bikesnobnyc.blogspot.com/2015/06/bsnyc-friday-fun-quiz.html?m=1 My favorite quote from the article: “I’m teaching my kids the number one thing they should be afraid of is drivers. DRIVERS!!!”

Pat Franz
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Pat Franz

Thoughtfully and powerfully said indeed. We pay for our auto convenience in so many ways, and we need to get them all out in the open if we’re to ever sort this out. All the hidden negative things we take for granted are robbing us of a lot. A whole lot.

9watts
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9watts

SD’s comment is an example of the very best of what bikeportland conversations inspire. Super impressive, thoughtful, with an appreciation of the subtleties that dog the issues we wrestle with here. Thank you.

Spencer
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Spencer

+1, well said

JMak00
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JMak00

“It’s the fact that almost all of us spend our entire lives in a constant, low-level fear of losing our daughter, our son, our spouse, our best friend, to traffic.”

When lacking facts, just make ’em up, right?

I note that the use of the phrase “low-level”. The author doesn’t have confidence in his assertion, so he minimizes the intensity to get away with what is a wholly fabricated perception being attributed to the rest of us…notwithstanding that some reading it in this echo chamber will mindlessly nod their head in agreement.

“How does that perfectly reasonable fear shape our lives? How does it lead us to shape theirs?”

It doesn’t…at all.

JMak00
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JMak00

SD says, “I feel fairly confident that the biggest danger almost every Portlander faces each day is being in proximity to motorized vehicles. ”

Well, that settles it…your confidence is the epitome of fact-finding and logical reasoning.

But, notice…the total lack of reasoning. His perception of the biggest danger is merely a naked assertion, supported by no data, no reasoning, nothing.

I could just as easily assert, “I fell fairly confident that the biggest danger almost every Portlander faces each day is from contaminated water”. And then go on to write nothing at all that supports this assertion, but demands action.

Most of you, I hope, would question such an assertion were I to make it. Just as you should question SD’s assertion. That you are sympathetic to his larger theses of instill more thoughtful driving behaviors, for example, shouldn’t override the thinking part of your brains.

Further from SD, “However, the far greater impact of irresponsible driving is more insidious. It is the fear of our children or our friends being hit by a car. It keeps us from walking, riding our bikes, or letting kids play outside and have autonomy in our neighborhoods.”

But it doesn’t keep us from walking, riding our bikes or letting kids play outside (and, please, stop with the it’s-for-the-kids pandering). It is not the driving behaviors of other drivers that keep us in the suburbs from walking to the grocery store letting kids play outside. The layout of the burbs is what stops most people from walking to the post office, store, bakery, etc. Further, where there are kids, if they’re not outside, they’re not inside because they’re parents are fearful of their safety. Is SD a parent??

We have all the autonomy in our neighborhoods that we want and that we choose to have and driving a car is just one expression of that autonomy.

Further, if poor driving behaviors instills these types of fears, why all the foot traffic around pioneer square, along the streets of NYC, Chicago, Boston, etc., etc., etc.?? Well, because no such fear exists.

“Being outside, seeing each other, talking to each other is very valuable and much harder to do when you are inside your car.”

And there it is…car hatred. Cars are turning us away from our neighbors and families…uh, no.

“The argument is often made that if you are driving a small car and are hit by an SUV then you are partly responsible for the harm caused to you because you weren’t driving an SUV.”

Another wholly unsupported assertion. Who makes this argument??

Whenever I have seen arguments or debates about small cars and auto accidents,whether in the NYT or WaPo or at The Nation or National Review or elsewhere, it is normally argued that government fuel standards to a) force people to buy small cars; and b) requires automakers to make small cars and, well, that doesn’t work as we see more and more people choosing larger, more safe vehicles to drive. Not that those who drive small vehicles are responsible for the damage inflicted by others.

“It is similar to blaming people who are physically or sexually assaulted for the way that they dress or for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. It is also an argument to maintain the status quo.”

But no one blames the victims here. Yes, those with a vested interest in perpetuating the supposed rape culture on college campuses, for example, will condemn those who suggest that campus drinking should be dealt with as blaming the victim. It doesn’t make true though that the person asking for stricter campus controls is blaming the victim.

rick
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rick

It costs a lot of money for police and fire departments to take care of all of these hit-and-runs.

Justin
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Justin

First of all – brilliant post. Thanks to SD for the comment.

I used to live on a bike boulevard, and now live on another residential street here in SE Portland. But my new street is a frequent cut through for drivers. I’ve been amazed at the difference in community feel since moving. A lot of what I ascribed to Portland culture in my last home was actually bike boulevard culture. The bikers passing by, and their interactions with pedestrians, created a humanizing environment that carried over into the neighborhood itself.

All of that is to say that transportation priorities can have a very real, if unconscious, effect on how we live our lives and interact with our neighbors. Getting rid of the fear – for active transport AND drivers – will make for a happier community.

SD
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SD

Wow. Thanks Michael, for highlighting my comment. More importantly, thanks to you and Johnathan and BP commenters for creating a forum for discussion where we can share our thoughts without feeling like its a huge waste of time. It goes without saying that bikeportland is a crucial part of the cycling community and the work that you guys have put into it and the standards that you have maintained over the years are invaluable.

Tom Hardy
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Tom Hardy

I live on a state highway with a bike path. I have a decent automobile. I used to drive it too and from work when the weather was cruddy. Now I only drive it when the wife wishes to have me take her somewhere, she cannot drive because she can see the hood ornament but not the road. I ride the bike for anywhere I need to go for personal, social, or fitness purposes. I have been riding greater Portland streets since 1953 with the exception of when I was in the service in Viet Nam. I still get wierd looks from some neighbors and fellow church members (where I have gone for 46 years) “Oh you ride a bike?” Even the younger members do not and will not ride a bicycle on the streets, in spite of them living on bike paths and going to a school less than a mile a way connected by a bike path.
Many times I have tried connecting with the schools to promote the “Bike to school” program for the last 30 years, but the cycling promotion is still being run by non cyclists that teach “Ride against the traffic like a pedestrian!”

Just a little spooky.

Less than 5 students were riding on the streets period at the local middle school at the end of the year. School bus’s were picking up and dropping off students within a quarter mile of the school. The picking up and dropping off lines were 1/4 mile of SUV’s daily.
Strangely enough, Cyclists have not had any problem in the neighbor hood within 1-1/2 miles.

Glenn
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Glenn

Well this sums it all up pretty well. After 23 years of biking for daily transportation in the PNW, I can’t help but feel like “What, everybody doesn’t know all this already?” But no, a new high school graduating class is born every year, that needs to learn it. Which of course leads to, shouldn’t this perspective be at least touched-on in schools? Well anyway…

The Odd Duck
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The Odd Duck

If you truly believe that cars in general are dangerous then after reading this blog destroy your driver license at one that way you won’t be tempted to get behind the wheel of a car.

Tait
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Tait

I don’t think active transportation is a primary, nor even significant factor affecting social cohesiveness around me. Seeing each other and talking to each other is a function of shared interests, local activities, cooperative projects, and recreational opportunities (in particular: a park or playground within short walking distance). These are things that public policy can shape and improve. But they have nothing to do with transportation choices. I’ve lived adjacent to neighbors who (primarily) bike and neighbors who car; I don’t think it’s made any difference to how much I talked to them or how well I knew them.

The conversation about traffic safety faulting smaller motorized vehicles is foreign to me. Every conversation I’ve had on the topic realizes the greater maneuverability and handling of smaller vehicles as an advantage. SUVs have bigger crush zones to protect the occupants, but they also have larger momentum and handle poorly under duress. The best accident is one that doesn’t happen, and smaller vehicles win on that front.

(And for the record, I do not share the overwhelming worry that’s been attributed to me that I or my children or friends will be injured in a motor-vehicle-involved accident. It’s a risk, among hundreds of others, that I realize and account for, but it certainly doesn’t keep me from walking, riding, or letting kids play outside or have autonomy.)

So I agree (with SD) that we need to discourage bad actors, create better infrastructure, de-esclate danger, and respect the livable communities we want to foster. Let’s work toward those goals, even if we don’t agree on why we need them.

Spiffy
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Spiffy

one of the best comments ever…

easily a $10 comment…

Patrick Barber
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SD for president.

rachel b
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rachel b

Fabulous comment, SD.