I. The dream
Here is the narrative from the bicycle culture in Denver as we hear it: Bicyclists and scooter riders are trying to heal the planet by pulling fossil fuels out of the equation. They should be admired. Bicycles and scooters are put in harm’s way by resistant car or truck drivers who seem oblivious to bike lanes and to bicyclists and scooter riders generally. Their recent deaths in Denver are entirely unnecessary and tragic, and highlight the problem, best expressed by a message “Stop killing us” written on the pavement of one recent bicycle-car crash site. There should never be another case of a mother of two, or of anyone, losing their life to a dump-truck driver who, apparently, suddenly crossed into a bike lane and killed the 37-year old mother, July 24. There should never be another case of a scooter rider losing his life, as happened in a collision with an automobile on Aug 4.
We support the idea behind bicycling, even as non-environmental considerations, such as economy and health, dictate why some people do, or do not, use bicycles. The idea of cutting down on fossil fuels when feasible is good public policy.
II. The reality
The reality that we see on the streets of Denver, however, is different by 180 degrees from the narrative we hear, although we should all agree that the deaths of bicyclists and scooter riders are unnecessary and tragic. They should and can be preventable. This will never happen until the reality on the streets is acknowledged by all concerned — and “all concerned” is not only those who drive a vehicle but those who ride one, and those who make the laws that have made our streets more dangerous.
The reality we on the streets of Denver is the bicyclist who observes the rules of the road as constituting the rare exception that proves the pernicious rule. To illustrate: On South Marion Street Parkway, precisely where the mother of two was tragically killed by the dump-truck driver, we happened to have parked next to a stop sign — on Marion and Dakota, to be exact — for six days a week, for nearly six years straight, 2011-2017. We were there to visit a family member nearby. For some 1,500 days, we observed what happened at that stop sign, almost every single day, for nearly six years: Almost every bicyclist at maximum speed went right through the stop sign with nary a nod to the possibility of oncoming cross traffic; a “nod” being defined as a turn of the head or a reduction in speed. Sometimes these bicyclists were wearing helmets, sometimes not, but in either case the stop sign was completely ignored.
And so, years ago we began to take an interest in what happened elsewhere in the city, and we saw the same. In almost every instance, the traffic indicators were — and are — ignored by bicyclists. If we had to define the bicycle culture in this city, we would define it not only as car or truck drivers who are oblivious to bicyclists, but also as bicyclists and scooter riders who are oblivious to vehicles, and thus to their own safety.
But not only their own safety. A driver of a car or a truck who is distracted is a dangerous driver. To be sure, the types of potential distractions are many, such as cell phone use, texting, listening to the radio or simply thinking about a difficulty in one’s life. There is another potential distraction: a bicyclist or scooter rider who blatantly executes a dangerous maneuver, such as turning directly in front of a car stopped at a red light, or running the red light or stop sign at which the driver is stopped, or driving the wrong way in bike lines. A driver who flouts the rules of the road puts others at risk, and if such a driver harms or kills a bicyclist or scooter rider, the driver should face the full force of the law. But it is also true that a bicyclist and a scooter rider can put a driver at risk by distracting the driver with unsafe behavior.
III. City Council’s double standards
Yet, Colorado in 2018 and then the City Council in Denver adopted two distinct sets of traffic rules: one for drivers and one for bicyclists. The cyclists are never cited for such egregious and unsafe violations as veering directly in front of cars or trucks, driving the wrong way in bicycle lanes, and running stop signs and red lights. In fact, the City Council has voted to permit cyclists to run red lights and stop signs. Whatever the council’s logic for the narrow issue of a double standard for red lights and stop signs, the council has, de facto, fostered a culture of recklessness that clearly communicates to cyclists that any behavior is OK. Sad case in point: The scooter rider who was killed on Aug. 4 was traveling the wrong way in the bike lane. These are the facts on the road, literally, whatever the council’s intent.
The City Council, in voting a double standard for traffic enforcement, failed to acknowledge the overall conditions in the city that have coarsened driving behavior. The City Council, which has not acted to restrain density in the city, has acted as if there were no increase in traffic in Denver in the past eight years. Drivers are crowded and inconvenienced more and more by increased traffic congestion. So are cyclists and scooter riders. In this new reality for Denver, the responsibility of the City Council is to tighten safety, not to loosen it. The responsibility of the City Council is to connect the dots: to understand that when it fails in housing policy, this has negative implications for safety on the streets.
IV. Paint on tar is insufficient
Besides a culture of recklessness and a Denver municipal and police double standard on traffic safety, there is another critical issue that must be resolved if the streets are to become safe for bicyclists, scooter riders and vehicle drivers alike, as surely they should be. Put simply: a bike lane is not sufficient to guarantee safety, no matter how careful drivers, bicyclists and scooter riders might be. The massive disproportion between the size and weight of a vehicle, contrasted to a bicycle or a scooter, cannot be neutralized by a strip of paint on tar, for two reasons:
• A mere line on the street is insufficient protection between, on one side, a few thousands pounds of glass and steel, powered by an internal combustion engine or an electric one, and, on the other side, a couple of hundred pounds (at best) on two relatively flimsy wheels powered by human feet.
• All the conscientiousness in the world cannot guarantee against unpredictable changes in weather and traction on tar, or against a momentary flash of being “spaced out,” or against an unpredictable, even fleeting breakdown in vehicle performance. Now, should this happen when it is only four-wheel vehicles, or only two-wheel vehicles, on the road, the potential danger is minimal. But when these unpredictable circumstances happen and both four- and two-wheel vehicles are on the road, separated by a mere foot or so, with no physical barrier in between, the potential danger is maximal. Bike lanes are not enough to guarantee safety.
Whether that means that bicycle lanes need to be wider, or more limited in number, or consist of a low physical barrier and not just paint on tar, or some other variation on the current practice, we do not know. But the city’s plan merely to forge ahead with more and more bicycle lanes, without considering the distinct risks in their current number and configuration, is not the way to increase safety on Denver’s streets. For that, a multi-pronged approach is necessary:
V. The ways forward
• The City Council must reverse it double standard and require drivers, cyclists and scooter riders to obey the same laws on the road.
• The Denver Police Dept. must then make it clear in word and in enforcement that there is one set of safety rules for all who use the public thoroughfares — for drivers, bicyclists and scooter riders;
• the rethinking of the current bicycle lanes so as to configure their nature and number for maximal safety for all drivers in and out of the lane;
• the end of bike lanes that suddenly end;
• lower speed limits within the city;
• the licensing of bicycles, the same as the licensing of vehicles, a practice that once was in place in Denver but went out of use decades ago. The need to secure a license is not only a way to trace a potential traffic violator but, even more important, is a strong message that the owners of any device that rides on the road are responsible for maintaining the safety of their modes of transportation, and that these modes carry risks, not just benefits;
• the acknowledgement by bicyclists of the equal applicability of the safety laws of the road.
In the aftermath of the tragic death of the mother of two, one bicyclist leading a demonstration was quoted in the Denver Post as saying that his ideal of bicycling is when bicyclists need no more “look over their shoulders.” Yet, to look over one’s shoulder is a basic law of the road for drivers, to protect against dangerous lane changes. By saying that this should not need to be a law for bicyclists is to articulate the inequality on the road that many bicyclists, by their behavior, expect to be acknowledged by drivers of vehicles and by the police. This is wrong. Safety is for both drivers and bicyclists. The need to “look over the shoulder” is a basic law because neither drivers nor bicycles can be safe without it. The idea that safety will come to Denver’s streets when drivers acknowledge that bicyclists need not observe the same safety rules as everyone else is spurious, and must end.
In the aftermath of the death of the scooter rider on Aug. 4, physicians in emergency rooms were quoted as saying that they treat scooter riders every single day, often with major wounds, broken bones, brain damage or minor scrapes. This is entirely preventable. Scooters, at least as currently constructed, do not belong on the road. Denver’s “experiment” with scooters has failed.
To make Denver’s streets safer, the responsibility falls on all those who use the streets and who are legally and politically empowered to supervise them. The City Council has failed us. The rush into “experiments” that virtually guarantee funerals is not responsible.
Bikes work in Amsterdam and Copenhagen and other cities. Obviously, the City Council has not studied what works there, and what the differences are here. It’s high time.
Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News