Street Thoughts

by Movability Austin

Have you ever had a conversation where your brain just can’t let go of something that was said? I had one of those experiences this week. While having a beer the other day, a guy who rides the train or express bus most days said something to the effect of, “Bicycles … you know what I find really frustrating … when I do have to drive and a bicyclist is just causally riding in front of me. I don’t think I would mind so much if they were trying to keep a serious pace, but when they just amble along they shouldn’t be on the road.” Of course a discussion ensues.
I asked, “Do you see many cyclists ambling on the road, you do mean road and not a separated path right?” Being in the mix with traffic tends to make most cyclists speed up, whereas paths are great for more leisurely travel. “Yes,” he sees a lot of them and on busy streets, not neighborhood and back streets.
This is the snippet my brain just can’t let go of. Here is a more concise version of the ruminations.
How much of frustration and conflicts are a result of design?

The first advocates for paved roads where bicyclists. With few cars around, trolleys had tracks, people had boardwalks or stone/brick walkways and cyclists had dirt roads. Then came cars in large numbers and ever since most roads have been designed exclusively for them.
The Problem: We have designed a transportation system that equates good road design with getting the maximum number of cars through a given point as quickly as possible, with speed.
• Roads are designed assuming people will drive faster than the speed limit.
• A road’s success is measured using a “level of service” and that is based mostly on the speed drivers can actually go compared to authorized speeds. The higher the speed of traffic, the more successful the road.

Why is speed a problem? A car’s speed is directly linked to an increased risk of fatality and injury severity for pedestrians and cyclists involved in collisions as well as car only collisions. Would it surprise you to know that motor vehicle crashes  are the 11th leading cause of death in the US?  That crashes are still the number one killer for people 13 – 30 years old? Then there is the cost of crashes, the national price tag is $300 billion per year or more than $1000 for each American.

There is a movement towards Complete Streets in Austin and elsewhere to provide better design for all road users, no matter age or ability. A complete street design recognizes that people walking and cycling use the road differently than motorists and calls for more space on the road for pedestrians and cyclists to accommodate their travel safely. Complete Streets is also willing to slow vehicle travel speeds in order to improve safety for everyone. As these approaches are built into our streets and at intersections, some of the conflicts “by design” will lessen.

Here is an Austin example of just what a Complete Street looks like.

Dean Keaton before & after a redesign to accommodate for cyclists.

Watch this fascinating video for a bird’s eye view of conflicts at one intersection.

The automobile industry is projected to spend $30 billion in 2012 on advertising. A prized market segment (car owners 25-39) considers performance and horsepower a primary factor for purchasing a car. So, with all of the beautiful ads of cars speeding along empty roads, is it any wonder that many drivers have an expectation that they too should be able to move along as quickly as they wish and impediments to this expectation equal frustration?  After all that is why they spent so much money. Here is one such example.

Historically even transit and bicycling promotions have adopted the “conventional wisdom” that people will care most about speed. I can’t tell you how many times people on CAMPO’s transit working group have repeated the mantra, “transit has to be almost as quick as driving or people won’t use it.” A recent bicycle info-graphic used an MIT study finding that bicycles were faster than cars during rush hours traffic.

When Movability asks people why they do (or would) ride a bicycle or take a bus, there is the inevitable discussion about “how long it will take.” Time is, after all, each person’s most valuable non-renewable resource. As people begin using options, something interesting happens. People begin to find their own reasons. For some, bicycling may be a way to integrate exercise into a task they already have to do – commuting. For another, bicycling may be a way to appreciate the journey, the serendipitous discovery of things or just saying hello to people along the way. For someone using transit, it may be an opportunity to do work while traveling, relaxing and listening to music, reading, or simply people watching. The point, none of this is about speed.

I am beginning to understand that, perhaps, framing all transportation options around speed simply isn’t the best way to market their use. After all, every transportation option has its own unique advantages. Maybe we – Movability and our partners – should do a better job of helping people see those unique advantages. What do you think?



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