One Bicycling Accident Too Many

South Florida's mean streets should be remade for bikes and walkers, not cars.

Posted Nov 01, 2013

When I started this blog, it was with the understanding that I would write about more than dogs, wolves and assorted other canids, as well as the humans who worship some of them while persecuting others. To that end, I had planned in August to report on the deep brain stimulation (DBS) I was  to undergo in an effort to slow the regression of the Parkinson’s disease that has been my constant companion for more than a dozen years. The procedure and thus the blog posts were delayed until December and so more on that anon. This time I will talk about conveyances, vehicles, focusing on bicycles, which I love, and cars, including trucks, which I would consign to the museum of bad ideas made worse.  Because dogs run through all aspects of our lives, a few may appear here as well.

I write because two days ago I heard of yet another gruesome accident involving a car and a bicyclist friend who was attentively riding along when a car blindsided him, fracturing his pelvis at the hip. A conservative estimate suggests that half the people I met during five years of riding in Miami-Dade County in the early 1990s have been involved in serious to fatal accidents, including me. 

On the morning of September 13, 1990, I was strapped to a board and taken by helicopter to the shock-trauma unit at Jackson Memorial Hospital, the public-teaching hospital staffed by the University of Miami School of Medicine. The suspicion was that I was wrecked inside and out after a young man cutting a corner early in the morning drove straight into me. He was doing close to 40 mph when he hit me head on.  I was vaulted out of my bike onto the roof of the car and then to the road where I lay on my back in pain and rage.  I was lucky that my pelvis was fractured above the hip. I also had a concussion that went undiagnosed for four days before a neurologist was finally called and took charge. I had double vision for six weeks and to this day, people ask did the accident cause my Parkinson’s. I don’t know; I do know if I had not been wearing a helmet, which was crushed, I would be dead.  Staff at Jackson had x-rayed or CT scanned every part of me except my brain for reasons that remain mysterious.

Too many pedestrians and cyclists are dying in Miami-Dade and neighboring counties—more than a third of all accidents involving bicyclists in South Florida are serious to fatal, which is a huge percentage compared with other parts of the country.

They are killed or maimed in a place that despite its fierce and sudden rains and stupefying humidity half the year is ideal for riding and walking (especially if there’s a place to take a shower at the destination).

Following recovery from my accident, I flew out to Pasadena to interview Paul MacCready, arguably one of the greatest engineers in history, for an article for The Atlantic Monthly  (January 1995; the story does not seem available on line) examining alternatives to the internal combustion engine-driven car.  MacCready had designed for General Motors the Impact, the prototype of EV1 electric car, still considered the best ever made, that GM not only never brought to market but also obliterated by destroying cars it had distributed. He had also mastered human-powered flight and human-powered land speed records.  With Chester R. Kyle he had founded the Human Powered Vehicle Association, the place to look for human-powered boats, submarines, bicycles, bike trucks; and human-powered planes.

Our talk at the Cal Tech faculty club was of pedal power. MacCready was promoting subcars for personal transportation for those who could not or would not travel without auxiliary power to get over hills or fight the wind.  These conveyances were effectively fancy mopeds—bikes with small electric motors.  He also praised the genius of people inventing new vehicles and parts, like drive trains, to meet every need and fancy.

The widespread acceptance of pedal power could transform our cities and relationship to our surroundings and lighten the load our fossil fuel habit is putting on the climate but only if the infrastructure is changed. In Copenhagen, for example, bicycling has grown at such a pace that bike traffic exceeds the capacity of bike lanes during rush hour commutes, making them increasingly hazardous in the minds of people who took up biking to avoid motorists acting like jerks, if not in reality. This paradoxical situation has provided great fodder for the British and American media intent on demonstrating, it appears, that bike riders score no better than car drivers in the rudeness sweepstakes.

That behavior is probably more a function of Danish cultural and social mores and stretched thin bicycling infrastructure than the inevitable result of adopting the bike as primary mode of travel.  In Amsterdam and other Dutch cities trips by bikes surpass those by cars, and more than 30 percent of commuters ride bike any given day; in Germany, 20 percent of commuters take bikes.  The champion among American cities is Portland at around 5.6 percent with the next closest cities at 3 percent.  Miami, like other sprawling new Sunbelt metropolises has seen bicycle commuting decline to less than 1 percent. The largest increases in bicycling have come from cities founded in the 18th and 19th centuries, which grew under the influence other non-motorized forms of travel.

Yet Miami and environs are beautiful places to ride, and the region could with imagination and courage be turned into a veritable cycling mecca, a flat, wind-whipped landscape where riders could prepare for any condition: the steady effort needed to fight a 25 mph and above head wind for 20 or more unprotected miles helps prepare riders for the rigors of mountain climbing and the rhythmic grind of the time trial, as Andrew Tallansky, a local, showed while finishing in tenth place in this year’s Tour de France, his first.

Why then, in a place that should be a mecca, do bicyclists routinely face injury, death, ridicule, and harassment, which is especially a problem for women riders?  How is it that even policies and programs intended to help bicyclists end up doing the opposite? Studies from around the world show that as bike ridership increases, bicycling fatalities go down, not least because car drivers have to drive more slowly and cautiously than is their habit in urban areas. I should say in most urban areas because Miami not only gets it backwards but at least some among its transportation experts think it should be that way.

My own city of Miami Beach painted miles of bikeway on the driver side of parking lanes, virtually guaranteeing that doors will be flung open into bicyclists.  Millions of dollars are spent on bike paths that are separated from roads but force the mixing of runners, walkers, rollerbladers, and cyclists along a narrow stripe of asphalt.  These are the wrong way to design bikeways.        

It has often been argued and seldom even partly refuted that the fossil fuel car-based suburbanization of the post World War II years, extended now to full blown ex-urbanization, has nearly brought us and the planet we live on to ruin.  We have altered the climate to a degree that we now expect vast and disruptive, even catastrophic changes in sea levels, as well as in terrestrial and marine ecosystems and weather patterns.  The car has alienated  us from each other and ourselves, from work, from our cities and the natural world—what little of it has not been scarified by roads. 

I came across a set of statistics that describes the atrocity of the car better than most. In 1969, around 54 percent of school children walked or rode bikes. The result is a generation of overweight, aphysical, sickly children, who have lost the habit of play and exercise.

Consider how integrated life would be if we spent our days travelling by bike or walking.  We might no longer have to balkanize our time exercising by prescribed measure at a specified time in an effort to compensate for a lifetime of sitting on our butts  at work. We might begin to reintegrate into our communities in surprising ways. Certainly, we would pay more attention to particulars, as the Situationists well knew. The derive as developed by Guy Debord and his fellow Situationists in Paris in the heady days of 1968 was a slow motion experience of the microclimates of a city, a place.

Debord doubtless would have looked with bewilderment, outrage, betrayal and despair on the luxury leather house of Hermes invocation of the Situationists in announcing their new $11,000 carbon fiber urban bikes. 

The Hermes bikes—there were his and hers models—have vanished from the online catalog, perhaps removed for shame that even in aesthetic terms they do not warrant the price.

The cycle truck  by Ahearne Cycles inPortland, Oregon, is a beautiful work horse

The cycle truck by Ahearne Cycles in Portland, Oregon, sports a functional beauty.

Dedicated people have been working on this problem for years.  Now, with the heavy metal infrastructure collapsing, it is time to make the type of commitment to bicycle and mass intercity travel that went into the federal interstate highway system following World War II that remade American society.  The Netherlands, Denmark, and are among the countries far in advance of us in building bicycle infrastructures that show why the white lines and narrow asphalt strips that so often are American bike routes repel rather than attract riders.  This bicycle roundabout is suspended over a busy traffic roundabout in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, a work of engineering art that reminds us of what can happen when designers are encouraged to use their imaginations in solving basic problems in unique ways.  IPV Delft, The design firm responsible for this creation, calls it a “floating saucer.”

Investment in infrastructure for bikes is good for local economies, good for the environment, and good for private and public health.