The Mechanic Speaks

A Two-Day Trip?

So far my focus on walking and cycling for transportation has been mostly focused on short trips near a person’s home.  For the 80.7% of Americans living in urban areas (loosely defined) this is fine as it covers a potentially large portion of total trips.  But what happens when trips start to extend a bit further?

Here’s a hypothetical trip example: let’s say a person wants to go from Harrisonburg, VA to Roanoke, VA.  Google Maps estimates this trip at about 120 miles.  This is more than I can cover in one day on a loaded bicycle in hilly terrain, so let’s assume that bicycling will require a night of camping somewhere mid-trip.  We’ll revisit this example, but first, let’s talk a bit about camping.

no_camping

Pulling over in a car and grabbing a few hours of shut-eye on a road trip is an easy and common solution to a multi-day trip.  I’ve car camped more times than I can count.  This can, at times, be challenging to do in an entirely legal fashion, though.  Most Interstate highway rest stops have “No Overnight Parking” signs posted, though enforcement is generally lax.  Parking lots typically don’t allow overnight parking: I once woke with a tow notice on my windshield after stopping for the night in a shopping center parking lot.  Take away the car, though, and the task suddenly becomes much more difficult.  I’ve camped while traveling by car, motorcycle, bicycle, and hiking, and in settings from secluded rural to dense urban.  The primary advantage of using a car for overnight camping is that there is no visual cue, at a distance, differentiating it from any other parked car; so a person can car camp in the open without being bothered.  Two-wheeled or foot travelers don’t have this luxury and must seek some sort of cover (e.g. trees) to avoid being bothered by passers-by.

motorcycle camping in jefferson natl. forest

motorcycle camping in jefferson natl. forest

Ken Kifer was a cyclist, English teacher and writer who wrote a great deal about responsible, legal cycle camping.  Sadly, he was killed by a drunk driver near his home in Alabama in 2003.  Kifer’s website (link goes to mirror, original site is now defunct), despite its Web 1.0 style, is a trove of thoughtful and eloquent musings on every aspect of cycling, with particularly relevant entries on camping.  Much of his advice on picking a good campsite applies to foot travel as well.  He goes straight to the heart of the issue with this observation: “In traveling by bike, does the law require me to beg or buy a place to sleep at night? There is no such law.”  This is commonly assumed as a de facto law, however, and some may struggle to accept that stopping overnight is a part of travel and should be protected as such; as a fundamental civil right.  There is no legal requirement to pay for a hotel on a multi-day journey.  Freedom of movement is a right, and this freedom is not restricted to the radius of travel that a person can cover in one day.  Outside of urban areas (defined loosely, above), camping becomes an extension of freedom of movement.

Kifer expands his discussion on wild camping: “For a motorist, to travel an extra five miles one way to the campground is no big deal, but to a cyclist the ten-mile round trip to the campground is likely to be 20% of the day’s travel.”  For a person traveling by foot, the difference is even more extreme: designated campsites may be spaced apart by more than a full day’s walk.  Going back to our Harrisonburg – Roanoke example, the map shows only a couple roads leading off into the nearby parklands.  These roads will all be steep uphill climbs leading out of the Shenandoah Valley.  The obvious conclusion is that our hypothetical traveler would camp along the roadway rather than going far out of the way to find a designated campsite.  Kifer goes into great depth on the intricacies of camping on/near public vs. private property, distance to camp from roadways, etc, so I won’t rehash those topics.  If you’re interested, give the camping article a read, it’s well worth it.

cycle touring in rural florida, plenty of camping options here

cycle touring on a rural dirt road, plenty of camping options here

Now I’d like to return to the main focus of this blog series, which is attitudes towards transportation options.  Americans have a somewhat unique disdain of activities like camping (non-recreational camping, at least) and hitchhiking.  Many European countries, despite having better public transit systems than the US, see much greater rates of camping and hitchhiking.  Perhaps relatedly, many of these same European countries also encourage students to take a gap year between high school and university.   Many young people devote this period of time to travel, often on a tight budget, and may be more inclined to embrace hitchhiking and camping and thereby develop a positive attitude towards the practices.  Whatever the reasons for Americans’ coldness toward these notions (Puritanical work ethic? bootstraps?), this is definitely a culturally embedded attitude that manifests in people’s transportation choices.

How many of you reading this have camped out in your car on a road trip?  Do you think there is anything wrong with car camping?  Should travelers using other (non-car) means have the same ability to freely stay overnight along their trips?

Transportation Series Index
Part 1: Freedom of Movement
Part 2: Coded in Law
Part 3: The Urban/Rural Divide
Part 4: The Source of Value
Part 5: Copenhagen
Part 6: E-bikes in America
Part 7: A Two-Day Trip?
Part 8: The Way Forward: Complete Streets
Part 9: Of Race and Socioeconomics
Part 10: The Power of Attitudes

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E-bikes in America

E-bikes are a good proxy for examining cultural attitudes towards transportation.  They’re available practically everywhere in the world, but have only significantly caught on in a few select markets.  China is the biggest e-bike market in the world by a wide margin, followed by Europe, and with India and the US just starting to develop real sales.

I started thinking about e-bikes in the US after reading this article looking at slow growth in the UK.  This line caught my attention: “The electric bike is largely suited to the over 50s rider with creaky knees and anyone who requires that little extra bit of push up a hill, whether it be down to disability, or simply bought as the first stepping stone in a regime to get in shape.”  I think the industry analysis has been largely the same in the US, and I think it’s completely wrong!  The reason the US e-bike market has been so slow to take off is that most of the e-bikes for sale here have been the sort of junk bikes aimed at this geriatric market.  Old folks are only one demand component; there is an entire, underserved segment that wants sleek, lightweight e-bikes because they make wonderful commuters!

The super-sleek specialized turbo

The market has changed significantly in just the past year.  Cannondale and Specialized, two of the biggest American bicycle makers, have both had e-bike models in their lineups for at least a year.  Specialized initially only offered the Turbo e-bike for sale in Europe, which says a lot about their assessment of the US market at that time.  The Turbo made it to US showrooms only a couple months agoCannondale’s E-Series bikes remain unavailable.

e-bike for rent in arlington, va

e-bike for rent in arlington, va

E-bike sightings seem to be much more common now, too.  It seems like almost every time I venture out in Arlington lately I can spot an e-bike locked to a rack on the sidewalk somewhere.

Despite all the benefits of e-bikes (low carbon footprint, cheap transportation) there is still strong opposition to them in the US.  New York City recently revamped a long-standing e-bike ban to specifically target food delivery services.  The press release from the City Council had this to say: “…e-bikes are unlicensed, unsafe and unwelcome in our city.  Electric bicycles are not bikes… they are deceptively fast because of their sudden acceleration, and that is why they are illegal.”  Umm, someone should tell the New York City Council about cars and their ‘sudden acceleration’.

Perhaps surprisingly, e-bike opposition also comes from other cyclists.  I have repeatedly heard the opinion voiced, usually by sports cyclists, that e-bikes are ‘cheating’.  Cheating at what exactly?  Cheating at commuting?  Are cars cheating?  It seems like a ridiculous notion and yet it seems to surface anytime the topic of e-bikes is brought up.

This leads to the main point of this discussion, which is the pervasive attitude in the US that bikes are sporting goods rather than vehicles for personal transportation.  Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize sums this attitude up well: “The problem in the U.S. is all about perception… Many commuters see cycling as a form of exercise, not convenient transportAmericans often perceive cyclists as extreme athletes.”  Here, Copenhagen serves as a perfect example of a more transportation-oriented approach to cycling.  The picture on the left is an electric trike used by the Danish postal service.  This, of course, has nothing to do with the mailman getting exercise and everything to do with efficient delivery of mail.

utilitarian bikes in copenhagen

utilitarian bikes in copenhagen

I snapped the picture on the right at the Copenhagen Zoo.  These cargo bikes are used by zoo personnel for carrying equipment around the zoo grounds.  Again, this is an application entirely unconcerned with exercise or fitness and is instead a simple and efficient solution to a specific transportation requirement.  Both of these would be absolutely revolutionary here in the US.  Why is that?  Because of entrenched attitudes that bicycles are toys.

There are, thankfully, signs of a slow but building shift in this sort of attitude.  It was only in 2009 that Specialized relaunched their Globe brand of commuting bikes, indicating an increasing demand for practical bikes.  Bikeshare has swept the nation since 2010.  E-bikes are feebly catching on.  Bikelanes and cycle tracks have sprung up in cities across the country almost entirely within the last 8-10 years.  Washington, DC had only 3 miles of bike lanes (warning: pdf) in 2000, and is now constructing a third segregated cycle track.  There is reason for optimism; attitudes seem to be shifting.  The challenge is to keep this ship turning along its present trajectory.

Transportation Series Index
Part 1: Freedom of Movement
Part 2: Coded in Law
Part 3: The Urban/Rural Divide
Part 4: The Source of Value
Part 5: Copenhagen
Part 6: E-bikes in America
Part 7: A Two-Day Trip?
Part 8: The Way Forward: Complete Streets
Part 9: Of Race and Socioeconomics
Part 10: The Power of Attitudes

Copenhagen

In last week’s post I mentioned BikeSnob’s visit to Amsterdam and London, and the differences he observed regarding transportation in those countries compared to the US.  I’d like to add a few of my own observations from a recent trip that I made to Copenhagen.

bike parking at central station

bike parking at central station

Copenhagen is the home of Copenhagenize and the Copenhagen Cycle Chic fashion blog, and the city is renowned equally with Amsterdam as a cycling paradise.  The picture above is one section of bicycle parking at Copenhagen’s Central Station.  Large areas of bicycle parking are available all over the city, at transit stations, naturally, but also just distributed around the city.

My visit was over the Christmas holiday, and the cold, damp weather proved not to be a hindrance to the local cyclists.  After the first snow I was amazed to see that the bike lanes were plowed immediately, just like the car lanes.  This is always a problem with bike lanes and trails in the US.  Many of the roads that I ride are covered in broken glass and debris, it’s difficult to get street sweeping of road shoulders, much less snow removal.  When roads are plowed the snow is often just piled up on the shoulder, making biking extremely dangerous.  After the derecho storm of last summer there were tree limbs and storm debris piled up on the road edges along parts of my regular biking route for over six months.  Seeing the bike lane maintenance in Copenhagen really brought this into sharp relief.

bike lane outside of parallel parking

bike lane (shaded blue) outside of parallel parking

Possibly the most important difference, though, is with the layout of the bike lanes themselves.  The picture above shows a Copenhagen bike lane (shaded blue) outside of the parallel parking spaces and physically separated by a curb.  The sidewalk on the far left of the picture is separated from the bike lane by yet another short curb.  The standard template in the US is to add bike lanes in between traffic lanes and parallel parked cars.  This leads to loads of problems (video at link is from Feb, that bill was defeated) with drivers opening their doors into cyclists.  My guess is that this template is used because it allows for adding a bike lane by simply painting a stripe.  Putting bike lanes outside the parking area would take more work, and therefore, more money.

There are several important benefits of the Copenhagen-style bike lanes: it means bicycles don’t have to interact with buses, taxis, and cars attempting to park.  Frequently when I bike on a road with a bus route I find myself doing an odd and unpleasant dance with city buses.  I pass the bus on the left when it stops to load or unload passengers, and then it passes me, and then I pass it again at the next stop, etc etc.  Far worse are taxis.  The driver sees a fare on the sidewalk and instantly pulls to the curb, right across the bike lane, without so much as a glance at their mirrors.  I’ve had more of these close calls than I care to count.  And cars pulling out of parallel spaces are particularly dangerous because I can’t tell if they’re trying to pull out or just attempting to realign in the parking space.  Of course they rarely use blinkers.  *All* of these problems are avoided by putting the bike lanes outside the parallel parking spaces rather than inside.  It’s such a seemingly obvious adjustment, and highlights how Copenhagen’s traffic planners really integrate cycling into the transportation infrastructure.  It’s a sharp contrast to the cycling infrastructure in the US that literally is an afterthought and totally feels like it.

ghfgh

Strøget from street level (left) and from above (right)

Walking in Copenhagen was similarly pleasant and surprising.  The Strøget is a pedestrian-only shopping district in the heart of the city that was closed off to cars in 1962 and has been a tremendous business success ever since.  The only pedestrian mall that I’m really familiar with in the US is the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, VA (Wikipedia informs me there are a great many others).  I love Charlottesville’s mall, but it’s tiny compared to the Strøget and doesn’t attract the same sort of high-end businesses.  Imagine closing off M St through Georgetown to car traffic (oh, to dream), that’s what the Strøget is like.

Copenhagen’s public transportation is excellent, too.  Trains provide links to nearby cities.  Streetcars have a special car with bike racks.  Buses are amazingly quiet.  On some buses the whole length of the passenger side between the front and middle doors is free of seats, leaving space for folks with luggage, grocery carts, or the large pram strollers popular with Danes.  For anywhere I wanted to go in Copenhagen I had multiple options for how to get there.

Any talk of expanding multi-modal transportation in the US seems to spark off “war on cars” diatribes.  But even in fully multi-modal Copenhagen, cars still exist everywhere in the city, and can even cross the Strøget on the numerous cross-streets through it.  Integrating pedestrians and cyclists into the transportation infrastructure doesn’t mean shutting cars out, in fact it makes driving better!  Every person walking, cycling, or riding a bus or train is reducing road congestion and making it more pleasant for drivers.  The DC metro area is ranked #1 for hours wasted sitting in congested traffic, and this is a region where cars are and always have been the nearly-exclusive transportation planning focus.  Car-only transportation models simply fail in dense metro areas.  Arlington County is a fantastic success story of deliberate planning incorporating multi-modal transit options to manage road congestion.  Yet outside of Arlington the Silver Line rail expansion has met continual resistance and the Purple Line remains a pipe dream.  The challenge is to bring about a change in the attitudes that cause people to ignore all of this and cling to their steering wheels.

Transportation Series Index
Part 1: Freedom of Movement
Part 2: Coded in Law
Part 3: The Urban/Rural Divide
Part 4: The Source of Value
Part 5: Copenhagen
Part 6: E-bikes in America
Part 7: A Two-Day Trip?
Part 8: The Way Forward: Complete Streets
Part 9: Of Race and Socioeconomics
Part 10: The Power of Attitudes

The Source of Value

I’d like to start off with a scenario that I have seen play out countless times in every town or city that I have lived in.  The perfect setting, if you’d like to try to see this for yourself, is a large-ish retail parking lot in a suburban area, but odds are you can find this happening anywhere.  Our protagonist has parked their car and is casually walking towards a store.  There are cars moving through the lane along the storefront and our pedestrian scurries across as quickly as possible despite being in an extra-large, clearly painted crosswalk.  It often seems absurd watching a middle-aged, out of shape adult in flip-flops doing an odd scurry/trot movement across this final stretch of pavement.

A SUPER-WIDE CROSSWALK

THAT’S NOT A CROSSWALK, THIS IS A CROSSWALK

It’s clearly a greater effort for the pedestrian to trot across the lane than for the driver to move their right foot a few inches to the brake pedal, so this exercise isn’t about minimizing inconvenience.  It doesn’t save an appreciable amount of time, either, maybe one full second?  But it does suggest something about attitudes: the pedestrian’s scurry is basically a display of deference, like a visual apology for being an unintentional interloper in someone else’s space.  Of course the reality is that they’re both just people going about the perfectly ordinary activity of going shopping.  They’re on an equal footing.  Watch the same two folks inside the store and neither will trot away from the cereal aisle so that the other can grab tomorrow’s breakfast without hindrance.  The point of this story is to look at how we assign value.  Are human beings the exclusive source of value, or do we elevate cars to an equal (or greater) position?

Valuing human beings above machines is one of the themes of BikeSnobNYC‘s latest book: Bike Snob Abroad.  The book covers a bit of autobiographical ground, from the author’s childhood bike-riding adventures in New York City to the birth of his first child.  It is the experience of cycling in NYC with his young son onboard in a child-seat (he calls biking with a child the “final frontier” of cycling) that leads to a family trip to Amsterdam, to see if a cycling paradise really exists.

A DUTCH BAKFIETS (CARGO BIKE) LIKE THE ONE BIKESNOB RODE IN AMSTERDAM

Chapter 8 is titled: “It’s Real, And It’s Spectacular”, although the point of this section is actually that in Amsterdam cycling is completely ordinary and mundane.  It is this casual acceptance that feels so spectacular to an American cyclist accustomed to the constant threat of violent death while cycling.  In a side-trip to London he did a radio interview, of which he writes: “I contemplated just how strange it was that I was on the radio… for the simple reason that I write about riding bikes.  It felt especially odd considering I had just come from Amsterdam, where the act of cycling was so completely ordinary.”  In the US, riding a bike for transportation is often seen as a de facto counter cultural statement.    BikeSnob describes an encounter with a driver in NYC stopping to ask him how he could possibly feel safe biking with his child while surrounded by “maniac” drivers.  This feeling of “outsiderness” is another recurring theme in the book.

Leaving London, BikeSnob observes, “I’d watch with amazement as vehicles of all kinds would come to a halt for pedestrians in zebra crossings, even in the throes of rush hour, and it was an indication to me that London still has not completely surrendered the notion that an unprotected and self-propelled human should take priority.”  My own experience corroborates his observations: only minutes before sitting down to write this blog I was nearly run down in a crosswalk, with the WALK signal, by a speeding minivan making a left turn.  There was a woman pushing a stroller in front of me (seriously, I’m not exaggerating the details) and the driver cut between us without ever slowing down.  And I currently live in the most pedestrian-friendly city I’ve ever lived in.  Returning home to NYC, BikeSnob concludes, “It was like our lives were a form of currency, and we were returning to a place where that currency had a far lower value.”

So how do we encourage more human-centric values here in America?  Petitioning for more humane laws of the road is a good start, but can prove to be a constant, slow battle with frequent setbacks.  Urban America may well be entering the early stages of a new era of multi-modal transportation; it is worth noting that cities like New York and Washington, DC had virtually no cycle infrastructure at all less than ten years ago.  Large-scale bikeshare is a very recent development, too, and growing rapidly.  But these changes are not yet firmly rooted, we still need to nurture this concept in order for it to grow.

Transportation Series Index
Part 1: Freedom of Movement
Part 2: Coded in Law
Part 3: The Urban/Rural Divide
Part 4: The Source of Value
Part 5: Copenhagen
Part 6: E-bikes in America
Part 7: A Two-Day Trip?
Part 8: The Way Forward: Complete Streets
Part 9: Of Race and Socioeconomics
Part 10: The Power of Attitudes

The Urban/Rural Divide

Now it’s time to approach the main topic of this blog series: attitudes!  This will, by nature, be a bit less of a scientific analysis than previous posts on policy and infrastructure, but I’ll try to keep anecdotes short and relevant.

In Part II, I mentioned the urban/rural divide, and I’d like to take a closer look at that idea now.  Anyone who has traveled around the US can attest that rural areas are most easily navigated by car.  There are several obvious reasons for this, including long distances between destinations and low travel density, which make buses or other transit systems less efficient and attractive.  These physical factors lead to a very high level of dependence on private automobiles.  The question I want to answer, though, is: is there a real difference in attitudes towards alternative (non-car) modes of transportation between rural and urban residents?  Answering this question may be a tall order, so let’s start small with a few examples.

Going back to the issue of the 2013 Virginia General Assembly, I decided to take a closer look at one of the three bike bills that failed to pass: SB 736, the “dooring” bill.  This bill died in committee on a tie vote.  The vote was highly partisan, but more interesting is what we see in the following maps showing the size of the district of each voting member of the transportation committee.  Each district is made to encompass approximately the same number of people (warning: pdf), so a smaller district on the map means it is more densely populated (urban), and a larger district means that the population is more spread out (rural).  The map on the left shows the yay votes, and at right is the nay votes. I used the mapping tool available here to generate these images.

Left: Yea votes, Right: Nay votes

Left: Yea votes, Right: Nay votes (click for larger image)

What immediately jumps out from this comparison is that the committee members who supported the dooring bill represent more urban districts and those who opposed it represent more rural districts.  Whether this accurately reflects the attitudes of constituents or merely the politicians that ostensibly represent them is, of course, a separate question.

The problem that arises is that an urban area with a greater mix of transportation modes may span several jurisdictions of cities, counties, and states.  In the DC metro area there are different traffic laws in Virginia, the District of Columbia, and Maryland.  Even within just the Virginia portion the metro area spans three counties and three cities.  If the city of Alexandria passed a no-dooring ordinance, how would residents of Fairfax County who occasionally drive in Alexandria know about it?  This is one reason why transportation-related bills naturally go to the state level; regulatory consistency promotes awareness and, by extension, adherence.  At the state level, however, rural residents and their representatives may not appreciate the need for these added regulations and vote them down.  Rural perceptions of cyclists often focus on leisure or sport riders, and are less likely to view bikes as a real form of transportation.  How relevant could a dooring bill be to a small town that doesn’t even use parallel parking?

On the other hand, maybe the urban/rural divide is too simplistic.  More subtle factors are definitely at play: rural areas have been losing young people to cities for years and the rate continues to increase.  Young people are known to be much less enamored of cars than older generations, so part of the difference in attitudes could simply be a reflection of broader generational changes.  At any rate, the urban/rural divide represents an important feature affecting transportation choices and will be worth revisiting in future posts.

Transportation Series Index
Part 1: Freedom of Movement
Part 2: Coded in Law
Part 3: The Urban/Rural Divide
Part 4: The Source of Value
Part 5: Copenhagen
Part 6: E-bikes in America
Part 7: A Two-Day Trip?
Part 8: The Way Forward: Complete Streets
Part 9: Of Race and Socioeconomics
Part 10: The Power of Attitudes

Coded in Law

After concluding in Part I that non-motorized road users have a theoretically equal legal and moral right to public roads alongside cars, it’s now time to look at how this actually plays out in reality.

Pedestrians are legally entitled to walk on the road when (and only when) there is no sidewalk available, which seems perfectly reasonable.  If there is no shoulder present then pedestrians must “yield” to cars (see 506d), presumably by getting off the road entirely.  For a rural road with no shoulder and any medium or greater flow of traffic, this constitutes a severe limitation on a pedestrian’s “right” to public roads.  Sidewalks can be vanishingly uncommon in America outside of city centers, which greatly reduces the usefulness of a huge portion of roads for travel by foot.  Here is a look at a semi-rural section of Virginia Highway 11 in the Shenandoah Valley.  I picked a point about 3 miles from the center of Staunton, VA (pop. 24,000) and about 2 miles from Verona, VA (pop. 4,000).  It is reasonable to think that a person might walk to either town along this road.  The lack of even a narrow shoulder is a particularly glaring omission considering that enough lane space was made available for a climbing lane.

Click for interactive view

Virginia Hwy 11 – Click for interactive map

The next picture is another example of road infrastructure lacking pedestrian facilities.  I took this picture on a residential street in Reston, VA, a suburb of the DC metro area.  There is a bus stop with a newspaper box visible directly ahead and the side path in the grass is well worn, showing regular use.  There are no sidewalks on either side of the road, despite having a sufficiently wide right-of-way to provide space for free street parking.  The presence of free street parking is a tremendous and typically unacknowledged subsidy to drivers.  In his book, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” Donald Shoup estimates the annual value of free parking at $127 billion.  Yet despite the huge cost of this free service for drivers, pedestrians are too often given little consideration.

a residential street in reston, va

a residential street in reston, va

Where sidewalks do exist, they sometimes may not be particularly useful due to bad design or poor maintenance.

bad sidewalk design and poor maintenance

a sidewalk on Wilson Blvd in Arlington, VA

Compared to pedestrians, cyclists have a much more active advocacy bloc and cycling is seeing a surge in popularity in metro areas across the US.  Legislative progress, however, remains slow.  The 2013 Virginia General Assembly saw three bills presented that would have encouraged cycling.  These included an anti-dooring bill, one aimed at drivers following too closely, and one mandating that drivers exercise due care.  All were defeated.  This was hardly unexpected: I attended a townhall early this year where legislators predicted that votes would split roughly along the urban/rural divide, which proved mostly accurate.  This highlights an important characteristic of regional attitudes towards transportation modes that will be the topic of a future post.

If the law seems less than supportive of vulnerable road users, drivers can be far less so.  A recent “sting” was conducted by Montgomery County police targeting drivers violating the right-of-way of pedestrians in crosswalks.  “Sting” is in quotes here because the operation was advertised in advance and officers wore brightly colored clothes, both efforts aimed at giving drivers every chance to avoid a ticket.  Crosswalks are the only road areas where pedestrians are given real protection by law, making the great number of violations that much more remarkable.  A similar “sting” was conducted in DC on Pennsylvania Ave targeting illegal U-turns across the centrally located bike lanes.  The extremely high rate of illegal U-turns continues unabated.

A final example of legal codes favoring motorized transportation regards bicycle theft.  In the US there is no standard form of vehicle insurance available for bicycles, despite the fact that a well-equipped bicycle can cost as much as a used car.  There is no legal requirement for bicycle manufacturers to standardize serial numbers, as car manufacturers do with VINs.  Some serial numbers are partially obscured by other parts, as in the picture below.  In the event that this bike is recovered by police they would have to remove the plastic cable guide in order to read the serial number.  A less concerned officer might simply move the bike to the auction pile.  All this makes reporting and replacing a stolen bicycle a difficult and expensive task.

serial number partially obscured

The laws discussed here help to reveal that the ideal of freedom of movement is often curtailed significantly for certain groups of road users.  Oftentimes these laws hew closely to broader public attitudes towards transportation.  The next post in this series will look at some of the more personal aspects of these broader trends.

Transportation Series Index
Part 1: Freedom of Movement
Part 2: Coded in Law
Part 3: The Urban/Rural Divide
Part 4: The Source of Value
Part 5: Copenhagen
Part 6: E-bikes in America
Part 7: A Two-Day Trip?
Part 8: The Way Forward: Complete Streets
Part 9: Of Race and Socioeconomics
Part 10: The Power of Attitudes

Freedom of Movement

I’m going to be writing a series of entries this summer focusing on cultural attitudes towards various transportation methods and how this impacts individual mobility.  I’ll save the U.S./Europe comparisons for a later post(s), because there is a wealth of information to extract there.  For this first entry I’d like to start with a basic assessment of the level of freedom of movement that our society considers to be a basic human right.

No license required.

No license required.

A good entry to this topic comes from this tweet posted during the 2013 Midwest Regional Bicycle Safety Summit (held only a few weeks after the National Bike Summit here in DC!) quoting Officer Danny McCullough of the Three Rivers Park District: “To drive on the road is a privilege – to bike on the road is a right.”

I’m sure this line caused more than a few quizzical stares, it seems wrong to American ears.  I can’t even count the times that drivers have shouted at me to “get that bike on the sidewalk!”  And yet it’s true: driving is a privilege.  Walking and biking, on the other hand, are unlicensed (though certainly not unregulated) activities.  While cyclists can be ticketed for breaking traffic laws, there are no legal statutes in this country that impose a suspension or revocation of “bicycling privileges” for any crime.  This is actually an important point and provides the first step in defining freedom of movement.

While this next point may seem a bit esoteric, I think it’s also important to address horses in this discussion.  In rural parts of Virginia and Maryland near the DC metro area horseback riding is a popular sport.  However, if you go just a few miles further south-east towards the Shenandoah Valley or north into Pennsylvania you’ll soon see the horse-drawn buggies of the region’s Mennonite and Amish communities sharing the roads with cars.  I love this regional feature because it’s such a poignant reminder that while cars may be the norm and horses seem like a relic of ancient history, there was never actually a point where riding horses on public roads became illegal.  Rather, it just faded (tremendously) in popularity.

Horses: moving people and goods since… umm… forever.

Equestrians in the state of Virginia face the same traffic regulations as cyclists: “follow all the same rules as cars,” and are similarly prohibited from controlled-access highways such as interstates.  Remember that turns can be indicated with hand/arm signals and there is no minimum speed limit except on certain controlled-access highways which are prohibited anyway.  I would *love* to see some of our local equestrians riding in the road, just as a “flexing your rights” exercise.  Getting back to the point: roads do not exist for cars.  Say it out loud, “Roads do not exist for cars!”  Roads exist for people because people like to move about freely.  Overwhelmingly, of course, people choose to move about in cars.  It is important to note, however, that motorists only provide 51% of funding for roads, despite causing 100% of wear-and-tear (ever seen a potholed cycle track?).

The beginning of an enduring relationship.

At this point we have established a reasonable idea of the boundaries of individual freedom of movement: a citizen is free to travel as they wish by any human or animal-powered conveyance within the boundaries of their home country (passport control is beyond the scope of this discussion).  That sounds fantastic!  I happen to live in a very large country with a plethora of exciting destinations and an extensive network of roads, maintained with my tax dollars, to guide me to them.

So I should be able to grab my trusty horse, bike, or boots and go exploring, right?  Of course we know it’s not quite that simple: our transportation infrastructure caters to one customer, the motorist.  Pedestrians and cyclists frequently face danger and difficulty getting around on our roads (and equestrians too!), and motorists are rarely punished for causing injury or death.  In a nation founded on ideals of “inalienable rights” it may seem stunning that the preferences of motorists are given such higher priority than the most basic rights of non-motorists.  The remaining posts in this series will seek to examine the attitudes embedded in our culture that have led to this condition.

Transportation Series Index
Part 1: Freedom of Movement
Part 2: Coded in Law
Part 3: The Urban/Rural Divide
Part 4: The Source of Value
Part 5: Copenhagen
Part 6: E-bikes in America
Part 7: A Two-Day Trip?
Part 8: The Way Forward: Complete Streets
Part 9: Of Race and Socioeconomics
Part 10: The Power of Attitudes

About me:

Civil Engineering student in Arlington, VA. Interested in watershed management and biking.

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