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Taking Lanes Away from Cars Is Better for Everyone

May 25, 2010

The way a street looks has more to do with the way people drive than anything else. Specifically, drivers are more territorial when they are on streets that look like they were made for cars.

A recent report released by the Seattle Department of Transportation looks at what happened to traffic, bike use and safety after taking a vehicle lane from Stone Way and adding pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. Publicola has a good breakdown of the highlights:

• The percentage of drivers exceeding the 30 mph speed limit on Stone Way by 10 mph or more dropped about 75 percent—from about 4 percent to about 1 percent. A pedestrian struck at 20 mph, according to studies cited in SDOT’s report, has an 85 percent chance of survival, compared to only 15 percent for a pedestrian struck at 40 mph.

• While car traffic on Stone Way decreased 6 percent after the road was rechannelized, bike traffic increased a whopping 35 percent, with bike traffic representing around 15 percent of rush-hour trips on the road.

Traffic on neighborhood streets did not increase, as some neighborhood residents feared; instead, it actually declined substantially, with traffic volumes as much as 49 percent lower on streets parallel to Stone Way…

• Collisions between cars and cars, bikes, and pedestrians declined dramatically—14 percent—after the new bike lane and sharrow were introduced. And collisions causing injuries fell even further—33 percent. Finally, car collisions with pedestrians declined even more dramatically —fully 80 percent.

In the immediate, this report should give some weight to argue against those worried about traffic problems when Nickerson goes on a “diet.” But I am also interested in something slightly more psychological that came up during this study that I have been thinking about as I ride my bike around the city experiencing both spaces of peace and spaces of aggression. Maybe cars get so mad at me because the streets they are on look like they are for cars only. Maybe it’s more about territorial protection than the fear of losing precious time. It’s about the vehicle-weight hierarchy, sure, but maybe it’s too simple to just say the rule is always “More Weight > Less Weight.” Maybe that rule only applies to roads where a bicycle or pedestrian appears to be out-of-place.

Compare this photo with the photo up top. The lane nearest the camera does not even have a bike lane, but the design of the street now “says” that the street is for cars, bicycles and pedestrian crossings. Just by changing the street layout and putting something other than traffic lanes on the street, speeding, injuries and pedestrian collisions dramatically dropped. The report also notes that traffic did not become more congested. Perhaps that’s because biking increased 35 percent.

So I’m riding south on Westlake. It’s a four-lane, car-dominated street. People are honking and frustrated and yelling at me, speeding WAY too close to me as they pass me. You know, the usual. It’s scary and it is, indeed, dangerous. Why is this street so much worse than most the others? Well, it looks like this:

This looks like a car’s domain. And nevermind that cars will hit stop lights at either Nickerson or Mercer, they will speed and be angry with you, anyway. It’s not about speed or time (there are two lanes, so they are only out like 10-15 seconds max if they have to slow down and change lanes to pass me, and they are out zero if they hit a red light, which they nearly always do). It’s not like drivers on Westlake are meaner people than drivers on other streets. It’s about the fact that I do not look like I belong on this street. This is car territory, and any infringement on that will be met with hostility.

Street Films has a very interesting interview with Tom Vanderbilt, author of the book “Traffic.” At one point, Tom compares the car bubble to the anonymity of Internet message boards and comments. People in cars are less likely to see those outside their cars as people, and they feel empowered to behave in ways that they would never behave to someone’s face. Basically, people in cars are a lot like commenters on SeattleTimes.com (or any major daily newspaper website). That makes sense. I can’t tell you how many times normal people have sped by me going a potentially lethal speed within a foot of my bike. Those same people would never swing a knife at me or shoot a gun within a foot of my body. Yet they made a decision that is just as dangerous, and they probably didn’t think twice about doing it. When you are in the car, you are willing to risk the life of someone else in order to save a potential ten seconds.

It is the city’s responsibility to change the streets so the lives and rights of everyone are respected. A space that says, “This is for cars,” will create aggression and are dangerous. Clearly, people should take responsibility for their action, but cities should revamp spaces that repeatedly encourage dangerous behavior.

Our streets do not need to be so scary.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 25, 2010 7:40 pm

    I don’t currently own a bike (but wish I did). However…

    The cars pay for that road.

    The cars pay for that road.

    No that’s not an echo, that’s an emphasis. Are all the “radical bikers” ready to pay yearly fees? Registrations, licenses, etc.? Inspections of their equipment (with fees, of course)? Like, say bye-bye to your beloved fixie, Mr/Ms Uber-cyclist.

    Ah, and there has to be some fee to correlate with the gasoline taxes, since they pay for a lot of the road work… like, say… those spiffy lines and graphics that indicate a bike lane.

    No? No fees for you?

    Then you really have to think twice before your next “critical mass” that blocks the people who paid for that road from using that road.

    And frankly, when there’s a bike lane available (like on 24th near my home) and you’re still puttering up the hill at 10mph in the 30mph zone you’d better bloody well be in that bike lane. Often you’re not. Why are you surprised that you get cursed at?

    People in the automobiles don’t really care how freaking superior you feel because you’re peddling around instead of driving. What they care about is that they’re trying to live their lives, do their errands, etc. and there is some bozo in front of them waggling his/her spandex-clad ass at them and making it impossible to use the road they paid for.

    • May 26, 2010 4:46 pm

      Aww, Howlin’. I wasn’t expecting this from you!

      Before we get into this, y’all should check out Howlin’s music at his blog. He’s got great style and mad uke skills: http://www.howlinhobbit.com/blog/pivot/entry.php?id=631

      Now, to argue:

      First, let me reiterate that I am talking about safety here. People are getting hurt. I don’t care who paid for it, if it’s hurting (and killing) people, we need to fix it. And not just bikers, pedestrians, too. Should we charge a pedestrian tax for all those crosswalks? Maybe tax the rubber on their shoe soles (below, you will see that, because of sales tax, we already do!)? That’s ridiculous.

      Bikes and pedestrians do not damage roads like cars do (they are about two tons lighter on average), and they don’t take up street parking space. Their financial wear on streets is not comparable to that of cars, and don’t try to act like it is.

      And as for “The cars pay for that road,” well, that’s not really true. This breakdown from the awesome local blog Seattle Likes Bikes puts that argument in its place: http://seattlelikesbikes.org/wordpress/?p=228

      To summarize the post, most of Seattle’s local roadway funds come from non gas-related sources (i.e. property taxes, employment taxes). Statewide, about 75% of the roadway funding comes from “gas taxes,” and the writer of the post does a good job of pointing out that there are many many sources other than the surcharge at the pump. But that 75% includes Interstates and highways that bikes and pedestrians are not even allowed (or are VERY discouraged) to use. So, for those keeping score at home, I subsidize your trip every time you drive on I-5, a road I am not even allowed to use.

      I can’t comment on the bike lane you are talking about on 24th because I don’t know it, but I can say that many Seattle “bike lanes” are poorly and dangerously placed. For example, if riding in a bike lane puts me within door-opening distance of parked cars, I am going to ride in the lane. It’s not to make driver’s angry. I don’t want someone to open their car door and KILL me.

      Also, most of us do not wear spandex (for some reason, no company want to sponsor me to ride a franken-bike that is two years older than I am).

      I am surprised when I get cursed at because, like most car drivers, I am just trying to live my life, do my thing and get where I’m going. I don’t curse at drivers unless they almost kill me, but drivers curse at me because i prevented them from getting to that stop light 10 seconds sooner. I can truly say that my bike riding has never endangered any car driver’s life, but their driving has endangered mine. These are not equal things, and they show the lack of compassion that this blog post was theorizing about.

      I doubt any biker has ever made a road “impossible” to use. Moving 10 mph is still using the road, and I’m sure you were able to pass the biker within a block of their inconvenient presence. Why don’t you get angry at a car that forces you to stop completely while it parallel parks in front of you? That car just “wasted” as much of your time as that biker did. Why does the person having a bike make you so much more angry than if the same person took up the same amount of time using a car?

      Also, if that biker is commuting, that is one fewer car on the street. Cars take up more room than bikes, and cars cause bottlenecks and traffic jams. How about this thought experiment: An estimated 20,000 people biked to work on Bike to Work Day. Can you imagine what would happen to the streets of Seattle if there were a Drive to Work Day? Can you image 20,000 more cars on the streets of Seattle? No one would get anywhere. Bikers help alleviate congestion, and they get honked and cursed at for their efforts.

      You can see why it gets annoying.

      But supposed biker arrogance is LARGELY a misread, I feel. Sure, some bikers are assholes. But some drivers are assholes, and some pedestrians are assholes, and some transit riders and hang gliders and pilots are assholes. I can’t say I have ever noticed any increase in dickishness because someone is a biker. For every biker who is really an arrogant ass, there is at least one Ferrari or upscale BMW (plug: http://www.seattlecrime.com/2010/03/23/dude-who-is-bff-with-bmw-caught-going-135-mph-on-520-bridge-while-drunk ) who is at least as big of an ass. I would argue that people are just resistant to bikers asserting their lawful and deserved space in a way that challenges the vehicle-weight hierarchy.

      You said you think bikers feel they are superior, but I would say most bikers just don’t want to die. My decisions on the road are always guided by my desire for self-preservation, and you can’t hold that against me. If I’m riding so far into the lane that you can’t pass me, for example, that is because I have made the decision that there is not enough room in that space at that time for a car to pass me safely. My life will always be more important that whether a driver gets somewhere a few seconds faster.

      As for critical mass, well, that’s a whole other argument, I suppose.

      If you take anything home from the post above, I would hope you notice that driving on Stone Way was in no way hindered or impeded by the changes they made. Speeding appears to have been hindered, WHICH IS A GOOD THING. Cars hitting pedestrians also went down. I highly doubt any drivers enjoy hitting pedestrians. So, like I said, the change was better for everyone.

      I understand that most car drivers are just doing their thing, and I respect that. Everyone has their own shit, and I am not telling them they have to ride a bike. But biking is a very low cost solution to a high percentage of trips people in Seattle take. The city should encourage this as an important part of the solution to transportation, public health and good old fun in an increasingly dense urban area.

      P.S. You should totally get a bike (you said you wish you had one). Bike Works ( http://www.bikeworks.org/ ) can hook you up on the cheap. They are a lot of fun. And luckily, a Uke is one of those instruments that is not hard to transport on a bike.

  2. August 25, 2011 10:41 pm

    Wow, great article, Danny. You are very eloquent with your writing, but also avoid the pitfall of letting your passion charge your words. You have also introduced me to a new perspective with this article. I have been bike-commuting for many, many years, but even i have upheald the belief that the road is ultimately for cars, and i am just borrowing use on it (much the way Amtrak borrows use on freight lines). But seeing as even the city considers bicycles “vehicles” and subjects them to the same laws of traffic, we should be considered a bona fide use of street space.

    Here’s another thought: on a multi-lane road, i will often ride two abreast in a car lane with my riding partner. In a car, you get to sit horizontally across and chat with the person you are travelling with. Why not on a bike?

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