Wednesday, August 4, 2010

An argument for Critical Mass

As a cyclist and cycling booster, I have always been ambivalent about Critical Mass, the anarchic monthly group rides that so anger non-cycling commuters for snarling vehicular traffic and law-and-order types for their disregard for traffic control devices. I have never joined a Critical Mass ride, and I am a cyclist who hews pretty closely--though by no means perfectly--to the letter of the law. On the other hand, I see the advantages of flexing political muscle in a confrontational (if passive-aggressive) way by collectively asserting the rights of cyclists to use the roads.

A handful of events over the past few months have exposed Seattle-area municipalities for their hypocrisy when it comes to claims of being bike positive, and have pushed me to the belief that we need wider assertions of cycling right a la Critical Mass. To wit:

  • Frager Road in Tukwila has been closed to "improve" it from a two-lane country-road to a five-lane strip mall access device. The upgraded road will have, as Cascade notes, no bicycle facilities. While Frager Road is no paradise for cyclists, it's fairly lightly traveled, and really the only option in the west valley since the powers-that-be closed the Green River trail to accommodate the likelihood that the Army Corps of FAIL will have to flood the valley to save their dam. (The conveniently located multi-use path along the river might as well have been custom-built to support the resulting temporary levy. And by temporary? They say five years, but I'll believe that when I am pedaling down the freshly-laid asphalt along the salmon-choked waters.) Now that Frager is gone, the city of Tukwila recommends we use the Interurban Trail.
  • The Ballard Bridge is having its approaches painted. They will have to close the sidewalks, which are a significant hazard to cyclists in the first place, in one direction at a time direction to get the work done. The City of Seattle says you can walk your bike on the sidewalks, or walk your bike through the Ballard Locks, or go down to Fremont and cross that bridge.
  • The speed limit on the Cedar River Trail has been reduced to 10 miles per hour between Interstate 405 and 149th Avenue Southeast, because a pedestrian got killed in a collision with a cyclist earlier this year. The 83-year-old woman stepped in front of a pair of cyclists and got knocked on her head, tragically resulting in her death.

Each of these actions is anti-cycling in a way that would never be considered if the affected population were motorists.

Frager Road? Imagine if they closed SR 167 for 5 years and the West Valley Highway for 18 months and they told motorists to take I-5 in the interim. Ha!

The Ballard Bridge? Suppose they closed it and told all the drivers to go use the Fremont Bridge? Never happen, not during business days or commutes. Huge pains were taken while the Fremont Bridge approaches were re-built to minimize closures, restricting them to evenings and weekends. But there's no way they could possibly paint handrails on the Ballard Bridge on evenings or weekends!

The Cedar River Trail? I know that the typical reaction whenever a vulnerable road user is killed by an automobile is to immediately mitigate the problem by reducing the risks to which users are exposed. For instance, when a cyclist was killed by a driver at South 130th Street and Renton Avenue South, the City of Renton acted immediately to lower the speed limit along Renton Ave South from 30 to 20 miles per hour. Uh huh. As if.

As a nation we sacrifice fifty thousand lives every year in accidents involving automobiles and at every opportunity we move aggressively to make sure that they are operated with as little inconvenience as possible. Deep-bore tunnel? Sure! New, expanded floating bridge? Absolutely! Reduce vehicle capacity on local roads to improve safety and utility for all users? Only if you have a study in hand that says it won't make my trip to the 7-11 to get a Slurpee and some chips even a fraction of a minute longer, you fascists trying to shove your green initiative down my proud American motorist throat! And even then, I don't like it!

Thus my growing acceptance of Critical Mass. Faced with circumstances like these, more activism is called for on the part of cyclists. In each case, a perfectly reasonable response by cyclists would be to take to the roads, two abreast as far to the right in the right-most travel lane as is safe. In Tukwila, the right lanes of South 180th Street, the West Valley Highway, and South 196th Street stand ready to accomodate cyclists who choose to use them. On the way to and from Ballard, the right lane of the Ballard Bridge in each direction is a good alternative to the sidewalks (though I would hesitate to assert this particular right in the rain, given the nature of the bridge deck). And in Renton, the right lane of the Maple Vally Highway in each direction is an appropriate way to detour around the speed restrictions on the Cedar River Trail.

I'll be out there on the roads, and I hope others will join me. Frankly, I'd love to see a Critical Mass-ish ride take to each of these roads to make the point. But even in (careful) ones and twos, motorists will get the point. And when enough motorists get the point, mountains can be moved.

Or cyclists can be banned from arterials altogether. Then they'll see what civil disobedience is all about.

1 comment:

  1. Actually, we are only killing a mere 34,000 people per year as of 2008. So look on the bright side, it takes us 1.75 years to kill as many people on our roads as in the entire Vietnam war.

    As for the vile comments on various blogs against road diets, I'm with you. I've seen the effects of various road diets in Seattle over several decades. None has resulted in the choked traffic that these commenters predict. They do tend to bring vehicle speeds down which is what these radar-detector wielding yo-yos are so impatient about - They can't speed quite as much as they used to - safety of *all* road users be damned.