If a car hits me, I get hurt. If I hit a car, I get hurt.

by emergenceekit

A fun article about bike commuting, public policy, health and correlated health costs. Many people in the comment section have pointed at European cities as an example for U.S. cities to learn from and mimic. I would argue that it’s much more complex than just mimicking European cities… To make bike commuting a viable option for more people in the states requires a change in landscapes – structurally, mentally and socio-economically – all of which are contextually specific to the history of the region, community and governing bodies.

I grew up in Seattle and have now lived in Stockholm, Sweden for the past 3 years. I have been a bike commuter in both cities for a total of approx. 6 years. Before switching to a bike I drove a car. So one could say, I carry many experienced perspectives for comparison.

When I owned a car, I was what we call a ‘fairweather’ biker. I only biked when it was nice outside (which left most of my bike use for the summers in Seattle). When I dropped the car, I made a 100% commitment to bike commuting and it changed everything – particularly my own perception to relationships of power between bikers and motorists, government influence and architectural patterns in cities that enable or deter modes of transportation.

Differences in Urban Architecture

“Damn the Motorcar! Cities should be built for lovers and friends.” – Lewis Mumford

Seattle was built on 6 (often considered incredibly steep) hills. Having to commute by bike up Madison ave. 4x a week, I was continually reminded of this painful steepness.  Cold and wet, tires frequently slipping because it was so steep, I would gasp for oxygen while SUVs plowing by me. Moments like these, choking down exhaust fumes, were often followed by self-inquiries as to what the hell I was doing on a bicycle. The experience wasn’t pleasant. Which leads me to my point –

Seattle developed (as most west coast cities did) with the car on a pedestal. To give an example, St.Paul MN even tore up its electric light rail to “make way for individual freedom” (a.k.a. roads for cars…). I believe there was a big car lobbying effort. In Seattle, planners are only now working on expanding a light rail commuting system (something the wealthy Eastside politicians are trying to block), as well as add more bike lanes.

European cities, like Stockholm, were built under different conditions – over a historically long period of time, with proximity under consideration and gasoline prices remaining high and heavily taxed. Stockholm, unlike Seattle, is flat, has an amazing light rail commuter system (built in the 1960s) and continues to expand commuter possibilities with its urban sprawl. They have bike lanes throughout the city and a bike sharing program where citizens and visitors can loan and pick up bikes throughout the city with ease.

Differences in National Transit Priorities 

As my Swedish wife put it, everybody owns a bike in Sweden. A Swedish bike may not be a new bike or a ‘good’ bike, but its functional, everybody owns one and everyone knows how to use it. The original memory that comes to mind was my first visit to Sweden and an old man biking by with his walking cane attached to the back of his bicycle.

Not everyone owns a car in Sweden. In fact, some of my Swedish friends don’t have drivers licenses because 1) it costs over $1000 for the test and that doesn’t include the very expensive driving lessons (that include lessons of learning how to drive on 3 different types of ice and snow) and 2) there’s no need for a license or car with such accessible public transit.

My wife’s perception of the U.S., after living and commuting in Seattle for 3 months, was different. Anybody who uses a bike in the U.S. owns a really nice bike and not everybody owns one. Granted, Seattle is different from other U.S. cities and this is just one observation from a 3 month long visitor. However, when the cost of a drivers license is $35, car are 1/3 the prices in Europe, gasoline is half its normal cost and there are only a handful of bike lanes, the use of a car seems much more inviting. The contextual conditions help to mold our actions.

Power

Becoming a bike commuter changed how I perceived cars, drivers of cars and roadways. As a car driver I was always most concerned with the time it took me to get from A to B. As a bike commute I am less concerned with commuter time – I know that I am going to get there – I am more concerned about my vulnerabilities during my commute (weather, visibility and bike lights, best route expending the least energy, not getting hit by cars).

As a bicyclist, I came to realized that I am always more vulnerable than a car driver. I must always be on the defense. Let’s put it this way, If a car hits me, I get hurt. If I hit a car, I get hurt. The probability of a car driver being physically wounded in an accident with a bicyclist is substantially less than a bicyclist being wounded. This sets a psychological standard that becomes increasingly more noticeable the more you commute by bike. It changes how you think and act.

Roadways and stop light systems are dominantly built for drivers of cars (even in Sweden). If you don’t own a car or cannot financially participate in owning or driving a car, you will always be on the lower end of the power relationship. That is, a car owner has the option and choice to travel on all landscapes (a road, bike path or pedestrian path). They just have to step outside of their car. A non-car owner does not have this option. She is limited in what roadways she is allowed to travel.

Conclusion

With all of this under consideration, I find myself siding with Mumford. As long as I don’t drive a car I can’t legally use the road (unless I’m choosing to break the law and walk in the middle of the street!). In a sense, I don’t have access to this urban space, unless I have access to money. Which leaves me with the thought, that Stuart Kauffman recently wrote about, “fairness trumps price” and these conditions are frankly unfair!

In conclusion of my comparison, I will admit, Sweden is much more conducive for biking than Seattle. Stockholm’s history, laws and city planning have shaped its context and thus the actions of its people (both bikers and drivers). With a higher number of bike commuters, Swedish car drivers mentally expect bicyclists to be on the roadways, which makes my commute substantially less vulnerable. This enables a feedback effect leading to more people choose to ride bikes because they know it’s a safe thing to do.

At the same time, I must admit, it’s not as fun as biking in Seattle… maybe because it makes me feel hardcore? Maybe because Stockholm’s not as challenging of a ride? Biking in Stockholm is kind of like driving really slowly on one lane road in a top-down car – you frequently wear your business suit, but are exposed to the elements and often stuck behind old ladies! Though, I won’t complain too much, it feels a lot more safe than the states.

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