In biology, indicator species are used to determine the health of a given ecological region, with their presence (or absence) indicating either good or poor conditions.
In the world of bicycle advocacy and planning, women are often considered the indicator species, as described in this Scientific American article about getting more cyclists on the roads:
Women are considered an “indicator species” for bike-friendly cities for several reasons. First, studies across disciplines as disparate as criminology and child rearing have shown that women are more averse to risk than men. In the cycling arena, that risk aversion translates into increased demand for safe bike infrastructure as a prerequisite for riding. Women also do most of the child care and household shopping, which means these bike routes need to be organized around practical urban destinations to make a difference.
At present in the U.S., women are far less likely than men to use bikes for transportation, and thus a city’s percentage of female bicyclists is used as one measure of a city’s “bike friendliness.”
While some female cyclists object to being referred to as an indicator species, I see it as an opportunity.
Here’s the thing. I am that indicator species, part of the demographic being catered to by bicycle advocacy groups. Not only am I a female cyclist, I am a parent.
I cycled throughout my pregnancy . . .
. . . and I regularly use a bicycle for trips with my son.
Perhaps that qualifies me as not just an indicator, but as an über-indicator.
And this member of the indicator species is very frustrated. I’m frustrated with bike advocates and planners who continue to implement dangerous-by-design bicycle “improvements” that marginalize cyclists and contribute to the myth that cyclists and motorists belong in separate spaces, when the spaces for cyclists (be it bike lane, buffered bike lane, or cycle track) invariably increase crash risk at intersections — the place where cyclists are in the most danger of car-bike collisions.
I am a member of the indicator species, and I object!
I’m tired of heading out on my bike to discover a formerly great route now made unfriendly and dangerous by the these roadway “improvements,” as I wrote in an unpublished post after encountering yet another tragedy of good intentions (above photo: street that formerly had a lane of traffic in each direction, plus a center turn lane, allowing cyclists to take the lane and motorists to pass in the turn lane — shown now with center turn lane eliminated and bike lanes added along a [narrow] buffer to between the bike lanes and parked cars):
Bike/ped organizations are assuming that the paint will lure new bicycle commuters, thus increasing their “counts,” while taking for granted that the cyclists who have already been riding, who are already committed to this form of transportation, who have been educated about how to safely coexist with traffic . . . that these cyclists will continue riding, despite roadway “solutions” that actually make things MORE dangerous for cyclists. Maybe we will, but maybe we won’t. Maybe you will make the roads so unpleasant, so littered with dangerous paint, that we will throw in our hats. We, who have been the face of cycling for years, we, who are even now encouraging others to try bike commuting for the first time, we, who support your bottom line goals of getting more people on bicycles, just not the way you are going about it.
I’m tired of those who choose to ignore the growing body of evidence showing the dangers of a variety of bicycle facilities.¹
The best-designed bike lanes and cycle tracks do not prevent tragedy:
- Portland, OR, May 2012 — Cyclist dies after being right-hooked by a tractor trailer while riding in a bike lane downtown. It’s worth scrolling down and looking at the intersection pictures.
- Copenhagen, September 28, 2013 — Cyclist dies after being right-hooked by a bus while riding in a cycle track.
These are but two examples (of far too many), both from supposed “meccas” of bicycling. All the special paint or buffers in the world cannot change the fact that the safest place for a cyclist to operate is in the lane as part of traffic.
Now, I understand that this is an uncomfortable place for many cyclists to ride (though hardly more uncomfortable than either of the bike lanes pictured below). I know the surveys and polls show that you will get more cyclists on the streets if you install bike lanes (or other facilities). This is great in terms of sheer numbers, and more cyclists on the roads makes everything safer for other cyclists, attracts more cyclists, etc.
However, bikes lanes (buffered or not) are basically a gauntlet of potential dangers, even for an experienced, educated cyclist. By installing more bike lanes to attract newbie/novice bicyclists, cities across the country are creating dangerous places (made more dangerous by the [false] perception of safety) for the most inexperienced riders out there.
Somewhat ironically, I have been in the “bike lane advocate” camp. From 2009-2012, I managed a grant focused on increasing active transportation: I met with mayors, city administrators and city council members and worked to implement Complete Streets policies (we succeeded). The grant was geared toward policy change and community education and involvement (including starting a bike-to-school program). We had very limited funds for infrastructure improvements, so while we were not making changes, bike lanes, along with sidewalks for pedestrian access, were certainly something I frequently mentioned as an important part of creating a “complete street.”
I think it’s important to note where I come from, because I did not always hold my current views. I, like many other cycling advocates and city leaders and planners across the country, saw a compelling case for bike lanes in terms of increasing cycling numbers.
In April/June 2011, I took CyclingSavvy. Thankfully, I was open-minded enough to hear and process the information in the course and conclude that some of my previously held beliefs were simply incorrect. It is a shame that others refuse to attend the class outright, or attend with closed minds, going back to their jobs, or their soapboxes, and maintaining the status quo — directly or indirectly promoting a culture of fear, vulnerability, and separation.
So what’s the answer? Are all “bike facilities” bad? The short answer is “no.” The long answer?
I recently had an opportunity to respond to a Bike St. Louis survey about the next phase of their bicycle planning . Here is the feedback I provided:
Regarding the types of on-road bike facilities listed above [bike lanes, buffered bike lanes, and cycle tracks], I selected “I prefer no facility” because I feel/would feel very uncomfortable using any of the bike facilities (I have ridden in a cycle track in Washington, DC).
While cycle tracks offer some level of protection from being side-swiped, they present the same dangers at intersections and driveways as bike lanes, perhaps worse due to poor visibility caused by parked cars, less relevance to motorists, and the increased perception of safety that leaves cyclists exposed to the dangers of collisions at intersections, already the place where most car-bike collisions occur.
The most recent cyclist death in Copenhagen (not to mention quite a few right-hook deaths in U.S. cities over the past 2-3 years) clearly illustrates the problem with facilities such as bike lanes and cycle tracks.
I strongly encourage GRG and the City of St. Louis to focus on solutions that include sharrows and signage (including “Bikes May Use Full Lane and way-finding for cyclists), neighborhood greenways (i.e., convenient routes for cyclists that minimize stop signs and utilize other traffic-calming measures including speed humps and streets that are limited-access for motorists), as well as supporting and promoting high-quality, comprehensive bicycle education programs. In my experience, many roadways have plenty of capacity for motorists and cyclists to co-exist, IF the cyclists are well-educated in operating their bicycle as part of traffic.
The good news is that there are ways we can spend money, there are improvements we can make, on both infrastructure and education, that will encourage more people (including other members of the indicator species) to use bicycles without compromising safety.
*Manchester bike lane photos courtesy of Karen at Commute St. Louis