Wordplay: Language a New Focus of Bicycle Advocacy

A few months ago I posted a short piece reflecting on my disassociation with cyclist and instead identifying myself as an urbanite. I was inspired to think intentionally about the cyclist label after a discussion with my classmates in Cascade Bicycle Club’s Advocacy Leadership Institute. Tom Fucoloro, author of the Seattle Bike Blog, sparked our minds by challenging the sensibility of using labels such as driver, cyclist, and pedestrian. Makes sense to me – after all, I am all of these things at various times and it seems foolish to define myself by how I get around.

Now, Seattle Neighborhood Greenways is in the spotlight for a blog article it wrote about using better language to break down perceived barriers between people using different modes of transportation. Clearly SNG is finding success; the idea of breaking barriers through more appropriate language not only appeared in my class but also in my neighborhood group. I find my daily language changing and noticed fewer people around me identifying themselves as cyclists. After all, we are all just people, right?

Check out SNG’s quick-guide to positive language:

Language guidelines from Seattle Neighborhood Greenways

Language guidelines from Seattle Neighborhood Greenways

More on this:

Let’s Talk About Safe Streets | Seattle Neighborhood Greenways: http://seattlegreenways.org/blog/2015/01/06/lets-talk-safe-streets/

HOW SMART LANGUAGE HELPED END SEATTLE’S PARALYZING BIKELASH | People For Bikes (with comments by Tom Fucoloro of the Seattle Bike Blog): http://www.peopleforbikes.org/blog/entry/how-smart-language-helped-end-seattles-paralyzing-bikelash

Seattle Bike Blog: http://www.seattlebikeblog.com/2015/02/09/im-not-a-cyclist-supporting-safer-streets-is-obvious-once-you-ditch-vehicle-language/

Language, Vehicle Size, and Bicycle Advocacy | IsolateCyclist: http://www.isolatecyclist.com/2013/12/09/language-vehicle-size-and-bicycle-advocacy/

Accidents Vs. Collisions | Living Streets Alliance: http://www.livingstreetsalliance.org/2013/03/accidents-vs-crashes/

Murder Machines: Why Cars Will Kill 30,000 Americans This Year | Collectors Weekly

A typical busy street scene on Sixth Avenue in New York City shows how pedestrians ruled the roadways before automobiles arrived, circa 1903. Via Shorpy by way of Collectors Weekly

Last week I wrote about my run in with an angry driver and how cyclists often discuss how they consistently are in danger of being hit, injured, or worse. I asked “How often do you go home at the end of the day and discuss how your life has been put in danger?” And I answered every day. My message was clear: Slow Down for Life. Presently, Vision Zero campaigns around the world are working to decrease traffic fatalities to an unbelievable number” zero. The video I shared shows how ridiculous  people think that idea is. Yet there was a time when streets were ruled by people, not automobiles. Drivers were held responsible and it was assumed that people would be in the street so drivers and transit slowed to a pedantic pace. Last year Collectors Weekly published an article about just that. Murder Machines: Why Cars Will Kill 30,000 Americans This Year explores the history of traffic fatalities and looks at a time when the rules and assumptions of the road were very different:

In 2012, automobile collisions killed more than 34,000 Americans, but unlike our response to foreign wars, the AIDS crisis, or terrorist attacks—all of which inflict fewer fatalities than cars—there’s no widespread public protest or giant memorial to the dead. We fret about drugs and gun safety, but don’t teach children to treat cars as the loaded weapons they are.

“The people who really get it today, in 2014, know that the battle isn’t to change rules or put in signs or paint things on the pavement,” Norton continues. “The real battle is for people’s minds, and this mental model of what a street is for. There’s a wonderful slogan used by some bicyclists that says, ‘We are traffic.’ It reveals the fact that at some point, we decided that somebody on a bike or on foot is not traffic, but an obstruction to traffic. And if you look around, you’ll see a hundred other ways in which that message gets across. That’s the main obstacle for people who imagine alternatives—and it’s very much something in the mind.”

Note: there is a video at the end of the article that is somehow both hilarious and terrifying. Be sure to check it out.

Respectfully Sir, My Life Matters

It’s not a war on cars. It is a war for my life. It is a war for his life, her life, and their lives. It is a fight to make streets safer for everyone, not just cyclists. It is campaign to choose safety over speed. Slow Down for Life.

Ask yourself this:

How often do you go home at the end of the day and discuss how your life has been put in danger? 

Chances are the answer to that question will depend on your main mode of transportation. People in several thousand pound metal bubbles probably don’t think about it all that much. After all, being hit while driving a car can be quite painless, especially in settings where speed limits tend to be low. But that is not the case for pedestrians and cyclists. When you are not in a car you don’t have that extra protection keeping you safe in the event of a crash. You are vulnerable In fact, in the state of Washington you pedestrians, cyclists, and other vulnerable travelers are legally classified as a vulnerable user. And vulnerable you are – just look at your chances of survival if hit by a vehicle moving at speed:

An graphic from one of SDOT's presentations on the Rainier Ave Safety Project. SDOT commonly uses this graphic to convey the importance of slowing vehicles.

A graphic from one of SDOT’s presentations on the Rainier Ave Safety Project. SDOT commonly uses this graphic to convey the importance of slowing vehicles.

Now, before you think “he is just a whining cyclist” remember that I ride everyday, walk quite a bit, and currently drive commercially as a courier for a blood center. Before that I drove for a food bank. Before that I switched off biking and driving on a cross-country trek. And dispersed in there I drive when I need to. As I said before, I do not consider myself a cyclist. I am simply an urbanite, and my bike is the most sensible mode of transportation for my daily needs. This is not about cyclists. This is about life.

So let me ask again:

How often do you go home at the end of the day and discuss how your life has been put in danger?

Do you know what my answer is?

Every day. Every single day I speak with another person who walks or bikes and we share our struggle to gain respect and stay safe on the road. Why must we do this? Why do our lives not matter? When will I be able to go home and not worry that my life is at risk because I am trying to live a healthy, sustainable lifestyle?

Case in point: Yesterday I rode home from work along Lake Washington Boulevard southbound from the southern edge of the Arboretum to Colman Park just south of I-90. For the most part I was respected, and people passed me safely. But as I was passing Leschi Park that all changed when two vehicles came up behind me. The first passed safely; the second came far too close. As his passenger door came level with me he began cutting back over, pulling his right rear within a foot of me. Instinctively I reached out and banged the side of his car yelling “HELLO, I AM HERE!” I know banging on people’s cars does not make them happy – car brain usually makes them unreasonably angry. But I will protect myself.

Unfortunately, in this case car brain had completely devoured the man’s mind to the point where his sympathy for the life of another human being disappeared. He not only slammed on his brakes and veered in from of me, causing me to swerve into the grass, but also continued to aggressively swerve, accelerate, and brake to keep me off-road until he was able to pin me at the next cross street. Thankfully, the shoulder turned smoothly into grass without curb or ditch – any obstacle surely would have thrown me on my face. As I come to a stop he rolls down his window.

“Don’t you hit my fucking truck you little asshole! Why the fuck did you hit my truck?”

Naturally, no amount of explanation calmed him or made him realize the dangerous position he put me in. My pleas for respect under limited and shrinking road space, feeling trapped between his truck and the grass, and being forced to ride over a very bad patch of pavement fell on deaf ears. He finished with a threat to flatten my face with his fist (as if he had not already tried this with his truck) and sped off throwing exhaust and gravel in my face.

Fortunately, the ordeal left me only angered but not injured. Later that night at Rainier Valley Greenways 18 community members sat together and discussed precisely what I want drivers to understand: we feel endangered and our lives matter. Please, choose safety over speed. Slow down for life.


Vision Zero in Nevada

This video from Vision Zero Nevada has been floating around cyberspace and I appreciate the transformation a little perspective adds as the questions change. See national traffic data, the international Vision Zero campaign, and Vision Zero Seattle (it’s coming!).

Slow Down for Life.

P.S.

Unfortunately, I was not planning on riding that day and so did not have my camera that I have been using to document all of my rides. If I was recording his face would be plastered all over the internet right now and his dangerous actions would contribute to my future video highlighting my biking experience. I will be more vigilant with recording and next time the aggressive driver won’t be so lucky.

Active Transportation: Try It Before You Buy It

Back in November I examined how millennials are the key to sustainable transportation. Uber, Lyft, Car2Go, and ZipCar are taking off. Mass transit continues to see increasing ridership. Active transportation – typically walking and biking but also including skateboarding, rollerblading, etc. – is also increasing. Choosing to walk or bike to work is not like other lifestyle changes. It takes a significant effort. Time and energy must be invested. Screen time will be sacrificed. If a person is fully committed, active transportation means lifestyle change. It means re-imagining what appropriate travel times and distances are. It may affect a person’s social life, although perhaps not always in the expected way. With so much effort and change, how do we convince millennials active transportation is worth the effort?

Grant on a Rivendell Bicycle.

Grant on a Rivendell Bicycle.

I was thinking about this shortly before sitting down to catch up on my Adventure Cycling magazine subscription. In the Oct./Nov 2014 issue Adevnture Cycling interviews Grant Peterson of Rivendell Bicycle Works, a small bike manufacturing company. Grant says he founded Rivendell on the concept of “unracing” or “riding your bike free of the influences of pro racing”:

“To the unracer, a cross-town commute counts as much as a romp on the trails or a tour down the coast,” he writes. “There’s no hierarchy or score card. You don’t get unracer points for being car free, or for pedaling your family across town at night in a sleet storm to go shopping. If it’s miserable or treacherous out and you have a car, drive it. Unracing is practical, not a religion.”

It sounds like Grant and I are on the same page. The answer to increasing active transportation is simple: tell people they do not have to commit. These days most people can access limitless information which means they can always find out about products and services before even trying them. Millennials are especially interested in trying before buying in many aspects of life. They research products and the competition. They move around for a few years, trying out different jobs, cities, and lifestyles. Hell, the try it before you buy it mentality applies to a whole lot of lifestyle choices…think about it. For the generation growing up with Google, having all the options is part of life. We like to taste everything before we make a choice. So why do we demand people jump all-in to active transportation? Commitment is key.

At the UW Riding in the Rain event a few months ago Andy Clarke spoke to precisely this issue when he lovingly poked fun at the whole Bike to Work challenge. “Why do we force people to commit to their longest, hardest trip for a month?” Clarke asked. Why not ‘Bike to the Store’ or ‘Bike to a Meet A Friend’ or anything that does not require a big change? He even joked that some Bike to Work events are organized for Thursdays – why not Friday? “I guess it does not count if you get to bike in your casual attire” he quipped. “It really does not make sense.”

As if committing to a long ride was not enough, Cascade Bicycle Club Executive Director Elizabeth Kiker warned of the danger of the intense cycling culture. “Cyclists need to stop with all this scary tribe stuff. Sometimes it is like you have to take a blood oath.” If you don’t ride in the rain, don’t have the right bike, or don’t wear the right clothing you are doing it wrong. You’re treated like an outsider.And don’t get us started on if you have an electric bike…

I happen to agree, which is why I asked the question that led to those responses:

“I [an obvious millennial]work part-time for Pronto Cycle Share and what I always do is try to sell people on the fact that they can give it a try. I love handing out free 24 hour passes. We [millennials] are the product of the information age – we can Google anything and research all the options before committing. And it’s not just products – we move around, get a taste for different cities – I am the perfect example. We love to try before we buy. Knowing this, how can we leverage the ‘try before you buy’ mentality for for sustainable transportation?”

The panel gave a variety of answers about student transportation, bikeshare, infrastructure, and more. One suggestion I enjoyed for its simplicity and truth:

Introduce bikes to a friend. Ask them to ride with you. Offer to teach them.

Walking in an urban environment can appear time-consuming and stressful. Biking can be scary and difficult. I know plenty of people who occasionally go to parks specifically to walk or bike. And I know even more who use to walk or bike at some point in the life, but no longer do. Most people did as children. If we could all do it once, we can do it again. To all my walking, cycling, rollerblading, skateboarding, scootering, or otherwise actively moving readers: I challenge you to introduce a new friend, colleague, or family member to your favorite mode of transportation. Help them learn and feel comfortable. It might start as a ride around a local park or a walk to the store. Do it enough and who knows – maybe in a year or two they will be teaching one of their friends. And THAT is how change happens, our way. The people’s way.

Links:

Rainier Ave Safety Project – Final Meeting Tomorrow, 11/18

You’ve seen the news: Rainier Ave and MLK Way are dangerous. The entire Rainier Valley is dealing with tragedy and loss in the wake of major “accidents.” Vehicles have gone through shops. 10 people were hospitalized after one collision. A 7-year old girl was sent to the hospital after a September hit-and-run and is still recovering.

People in the Rainier Valley have demanded change for years; plans to apply a road diet to Rainier date back to the 70s. SDOT traffic engineer Dongho Chang is confident it can be implemented successfully, and SDOT is finally moving forward, promising implementation by Spring 2015. Last week they engaged the community to discuss a greenway from Mt. Baker to Rainier Beach. This week SDOT Director Scott Kubly promised a hundred passionate community members that “We’re going to do a safety project. We need to make Rainier Ave safer.”

SDOT’s last feedback session will be 11/18 at the Ethiopian Cultural Center (8323 Rainier Ave S) from 4:30 to 6:30PM. Come tell SDOT we want safer streets. Tell them we want a road diet. No, tell them we need it. Together we must demand change. The lives of our friends, family, and children are at stake. Every day lost in another roll of the dice. Who will be the next victim?

More Coverage from KUOW.

EDIT (2014.11.21): My volunteer group’s letter to the editer, above, was just published in the South Seattle Emerald.

Millennials: The Key to Sustainable Transportation

Today’s young people simply are not as obsessed with cars as previous generations. In the last 25 years car new vehicle purchases fell about 11 percent among adults ages 21-34. Even more shocking, the number of teenagers with licenses decreased by over a quarter from 1998 to 2008. Miles driven are down too. So, why are millennials forgoing personal automobiles? The better question may be why not?

LifestyleMillennials are flocking to urbanized areas where public transportation, biking, and walking are generally viable modes of transportation. This influx affects the demand for jobs, housing, services, and connectivity. Real estate developers are catering to (and profiting from) a new demand for modern, hip housing in lively neighborhoods with easy access to work, shopping, and nightlife. More and more neighborhoods are becoming increasingly walkable. With increasing population densities comes increased traffic congestion – driving short trips just does not make sense. And that does not even consider the cost of owning a car in urban cores. Here in Seattle monthly parking can run up to $250 in the most expensive lots and parking on the street is not cheaper either.

Options. New businesses like Car2Go and ZipCar add convenience to transportation by providing young people with access to cars when they need personal transportation, but do it without the extra costs of insurance, parking, and maintenance. Bikeshare systems are popping up in cities and towns around the country. Taxi’s still roam the streets but new companies like Lyft and Uber offer stiff competition.

Technology. All of these new transportation hinge on one key component: the smart phone. Don’t know the cab number? Just open your Uber App and a car will pick you up in minutes. Miss the bus? Pull up your Car2Go app and find the nearest available car. Think the sun deserves a nice bike ride? Open Spotcycle and see if bikeshare bikes are available near you.With access to limitless information and a slew of convenience options just seconds away, millennials care more about their phones than other physical possessions. And with so many communication options millennials can stay in touch with their friends without ever needing to leave the house.

Previously, urbanization also meant suburbanization as people flocked to cities for employment but desired to live in quieter suburbs where their children could get a quality education. demand for suburban housing also meant demand for roads. When the roads became congested we widened them to alleviated traffic but this only lead to more congestion through induced demand. Now, however, young people are increasingly looking to live within city limits where they have unparalleled access to amenities and culture. Millennials are delaying parenthood longer than any prior generation so quality schools are less important. Driving is a hassle and it takes away from valuable screen time (I this was more true but clearly many people drive and use cell phones).

Personal automobiles no longer meet the needs of increasingly connected young adults. The key to sustainable urban transportation is recognizing that millennials’ lifestyle preferences, need for options, and affinity for technology drive development. Next week I will examine the “try it before you buy it” approach to active transportation that can be the key to hooking new millennials.

Links: