What We Are Doing Now Isn’t Working

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016 in Kalamazoo was a proverbial plane crash in the world of bicycling. The tragic loss of numerous lives in the blink of an eye shook the country and made people question their own safety when riding a bike. But soon our collective attention will switch to a new headline and I fear that nothing will change to avoid the next bicyclist fatality. The people who died were avid cyclists, and for those of us who can easily picture our own faces up at the top of the news article next to theirs, it is our duty to do what we can to make our roads safer for all bicyclists so this does not happen again.

Two days after the crash, I was in Kalamazoo to facilitate a meeting devoted to improving pedestrian and bicycle safety in the region. It is a standing meeting convened by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) to open lines of communication between those who build and manage our roadways with advocates and community stakeholders. One of meeting regulars knew someone who lost her life in that crash, she was also a key player in a project that we had discussed at our last meeting. We of course spent time discussing the crash, but that was not the only bad news discussed that day. At the end of the meeting we looked at the recently released crash data from 2015 for MDOT’s Southwest Region, and the picture that data showed was as troubling as the crash two days prior. We went from one fatal bicycle crash in 2014 to five fatal bicycle crashes in 2015.

The crash that happened in Kalamazoo has been described as an anomaly. We simply do not see crashes like this where so many people lose their life at once. But it was not an anomaly in that the person driving the motor vehicle killed the person riding the bike. That is always the case, but when it happens one life at a time, it does not make it past the local news. There is a reason we register vehicles, license drivers and require automobile insurance, the consequences of using motor vehicles irresponsibly are often fatal.

I have looked at data over the past twelve years in Michigan and yet to find a case where a person walking or a person riding a bicycle caused the death of a person driving a motor vehicle. Granted that is an obvious point, but let that sink in for a moment. The mobility of people who drive comes at the expense of the lives of people who walk and ride their bike. Many of the people who walk and bike do so out of necessity due to their age, financial circumstance, physical or cognitive abilities. And that, I think we can all agree, is simply not acceptable. No one should die simply because they don’t drive a car.

So what do we do? First, we ALL make a commitment to seeing everyone else on the road as people regardless of how they are getting around and we work to understand each other and share our roads safety. We can do that today – we have recently put together what we think are the key things to know for people who walk, bike and drive on WalkBike.Info/Central.

Second, as a society, we agree to prioritize the safety of the most vulnerable users in the design, funding and enforcement of our roadways. Currently, pedestrians and bicyclists are given the scraps of road rights-of-way and funding. We have made great strides in automobile safety, it is now time to focus our attention to the other users of the roadway.

Third, and I have become convinced that this is key, we embrace self-driving cars and smart car technology. We humans have not proven ourselves worthy to operate motor vehicles safely. Think I’m wrong? Tell that to the family and friends of the 38,000 people each year that die on our nation’s roads, 15% of which are pedestrians and bicyclists. In Michigan, 17% of the fatal and incapacitating injuries are people who were walking or riding a bike. In some Michigan cities, people on foot and bike account for 30 to 40% of the total number of traffic fatalities. And remember this, a smart car would not have let an impaired driver get behind the wheel and plow through a pack of bicyclists killing five of them.

We can make it safe for all people to use our roadways, but nothing will change unless we decide it is finally time and make the commitments necessary to bring about real change. History has taught us that great tragedy can be a catalyst for positive change. And change is necessary, for what we are doing now, just isn’t working.

–  Norm

I Need a New Schtick

In some ways I am envious of the design professional who travels the country with a simple message. The insights are usually pretty good, sometimes even profound.  Most are worth listening to and integrating into one’s own practice. But too often they are sold like snake oil – a salve that cures all ills. I never found things that simple. I have a hard time walking around a place and pointing at something and saying with full conviction – this just needs a whatwhosit and everything will be just ducky. Oh I’ll admit that I have been guilty of that on occasion, but really, I find the iterative approach much more useful. Explore the place, look at the data, consider how it fits into the larger network, listen to what people say and then try to come up with something. That process is typically repeated a few times until something really clicks. But “It’s Complicated and Takes Time,” my current pitch, just isn’t that appealing. People are wired to seek out simple solutions to complex problems.

This got me thinking, perhaps there is a simple solution after all. For a moment, consider the wayward path of the design professions in the last half of the 20th century. Landscape Architects (my profession) became obsessed with pure design. Our trade magazine featured beautiful photos of great looking places. In reality, a lot of those places really sucked when you actually used them. Architects were all about stunning, convention defying object pieces that looked like they just landed. Context went out the window and doors, well they got hard to find. Planners got rid of the old, messy and inconvenient; it was replaced with order and an imposed ideal social structure. Sometimes they pulled this off on a grand scale. And Engineers, they became masters of moving objects as quickly and efficiently as possible. Fantastically complex models were developed that predicted the future and created entertaining graphics showing little dots moving around a grid. What we all forgot was people.

Now this is of course a gross simplification, but admit it, your brain provided you with plenty of images to complement what I just described. The design professions have gotten much better about thinking about people. And there is a growing recognition that we need to get out of our silos and talk to each other (as well as many other professionals). So my schtick? People First Planscape Archineering. OK, I agree, the people first bit is not all that original – been said before. And cross discipline coordination, yep been discussed ad nauseam. So I guess I’m back where I started, I need a new schtick. But for now I’ll keep with People First Planscape Archineering, which by the way, is kind of complicated and takes time.

– Norm

The Relatively Short Life of Modern Transportation Networks

Many years ago doing research on the history of a trail project, I was struck by the fleeting nature of this country’s canal and railroad transportation networks.  Enormous amounts of capital and effort were put towards establishing networks that lasted less than one hundred years.  Granted, elements still continue today, but they are a shadow of their former selves. Right now we are fifty some years into developing our national highway system.  It makes you wonder what it will look like fifty some years down the road.

On the other hand, the longevity and functionality of the pedestrian systems of our older cities are beginning to look like a pretty solid long-lasting transportation investment.

– Norm

The Dead-end One-way Alley

Most days, I bike down a dead-end one-way alley, literally.  It is located about two blocks from our office.   The one-way signs point in, but the end is blocked off save a small path only navigable by pedestrians or bicyclists.  It is one of those little absurdities of an ever changing built environment.  Makes you realize that not everything has been quite figured out just yet.

It is also in my mind an analogy of our transportation system as a whole.   We follow the arrow and keep driving, oblivious to what lies ahead.  This blog is about helping us get out the other end.

– Norm