May is National Bike Month, a good time to appreciate the innovations that put more sustainable transportation options on city streets.
But the pace of change will be limited until we fix a fundamental problem: Our streets, roads and highways are deadly. About 40,000 Americans die on them every year; that’s comparable to a jetliner carrying 150 people crashing every single weekday. Many more people are seriously injured.
There would be fewer auto deaths if more people used other forms of transportation. But, ironically, one reason that doesn’t happen is because people are afraid to bike.
A survey taken in Portland in 2011 found that 60 percent of respondents said they were interested in biking but too concerned about their safety to ride regularly.
The innovation we really need, then, is something that gets at that fundamental problem of danger. Fortunately, we already know how to achieve that.
Many cities worldwide have significantly reduced deaths and injuries from car crashes. In the Netherlands, for example, a popular movement against traffic deaths in the 1970s resulted in a national commitment to safer urban design. By 2011, traffic deaths in the Netherlands had dropped 81 percent.
Closer to home, New York City made huge safety advances by adapting its streets to provide better protection against the misjudgments of drivers. After the city installed 60 new plazas and more than 35 miles of protected bike lanes, the number of daily cyclists boomed, growing 68 percent from 2010 to 2014. And notably, the streets became safer for all users: traffic fatalities dropped to the lowest numbers ever recorded.
Reducing the fear of death will not, by itself, fill our streets with pedestrians and bicyclists. Walkability expert Jeff Speck has pointed out that it’s not enough for a walk to be safe; it also needs to be useful, comfortable and interesting. The same is true of biking, scooting and skating.
The corridors that now carry much of our car traffic are seldom comfortable or interesting places. To make them inviting for all, we must allow greater concentrations of homes and business within human-scale distances, with pleasant pathways along the corridors. And we must limit the speed of car traffic to levels associated with traditional streets.
These changes would markedly reduce the size of our collective carbon footprint and allow us all to live more healthily and happily. As journalist Charles Montgomery has noted, people using active transportation report feeling more joy, and less stress, rage and fear, than people using other modes.
As long as our streets remain dangerous and unappealing, advances like bike-sharing programs will remain peculiarities enjoyed by a hardy few. But if we rethink our streets and land use, we can create conditions that will draw vast numbers of people to move from place to place without cars. That will not only ease traffic; it will improve our health, and the health of the planet.
Chris Riley of Austin consults on land use and city code issues. He hasn’t owned a car since 2008.