Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Beyond Safety: Why Women Need Separated Bike Lanes More Than Men Do

Pleasant biking in Brooklyn (photo: Jim Henderson)
In the United States, a country where few people bike for transportation, one fourth of bicyclists are women. In Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, where people bicycle 15, 20 and 30 times more than Americans (almost always for transportation) half or more of all bicyclists are female.

Why is this? Do women “perceive” safety differently than men? Is bicycling in the US much safer than women think, and if they just knew the facts they would be out there with the guys, no problem? Or are US women abnormally timid and fearful, fragile flowers that must be locked up in cars because they can’t handle any kind of exertion or risk? Or do American women have a more accurate read on safety and are wisely unwilling to spill their blood chasing an adrenaline rush like thrill-seeking men? To all these questions, I say safety is not the be all and end all of bicycling. Lack of safety may prevent bicycling, but safety alone doesn't cause bicycling. We need to think bigger and broader.

My dream  (photo: Zachary Shahan)
Statistics show that physically-separated bike lanes that crisscross the lands of bicycle-friendly nations are indeed safer for bicyclists. Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands have bicycle accident rates a fourth to a tenth of ours. (Statistics also show that the more people bike, the more the bike accident rate drops. Success breeds success.) However, if we really want women to cycle as an everyday occurrence in the US, we need to look beyond perceived safety and consider just how pleasant a woman’s experience of bicycling in her community truly is. Is biking without fear of cars hitting you important? Darn tootin’! But there are significant reasons other than safety that make biking on separated lanes a happy, enjoyable experience for women.

Typical    (photo: Streetsblog)
Let’s consider you’re riding down a standard bicycle lane in the US, one that is adjacent to traffic separated only by a painted line. You’re riding on the outer half of the lane so you don’t get “doored” if a car door swings out at you. This puts your left elbow pretty much at the edge of the bike lane. And let’s pretend there aren’t three cars double-parked in your bike lane every block forcing you out into traffic multiple times a minute.

As you ride along in your paint-created bike lane, a 10,000 lb truck passes within 8 inches of your elbow at 35mph. It doesn't hit you, merely roars by in its loud, smelly, large way. Was that particular experience unsafe? Well, no, not exactly. After all, you're fine. Was the experience unpleasant and stressful? To this question, women are going to say yes with much more frequency than men. Is this because women are big babies, and just need to gain confidence, buck up, and they'll be fine?

At your elbow.
Let's consider the sheer sensory perception differences between men and women. On average, women have better peripheral vision and men have better distance vision. When riding a bike (as opposed to driving a car) one's peripheral vision is wide-open. This means that a woman will notice the 10,000 lb truck much earlier and receive a huge negative sensory impact of its looming presence all the time it's next to her. A man might not even notice the truck until it's nearly past him. On average, it's more unpleasant and stressful for a woman to ride next to large, fast-moving objects than for a man because she perceives them sooner and more clearly. It's not timidity and it's not her imagination.

On average, women hear multiple audio sounds simultaneously, while men, especially if focused, can more easily tune out audio sources. (Wives, this is why your husband, engrossed in his computer, literally does not hear the child crying.) So if a man is concentrating on something, he may not hear the truck roaring from behind or only be vaguely conscious of it. On average a woman is likely to perceive the roar much earlier and, unable to tune it out, experience a much more unpleasant sensory overload. It's not timidity and it's not her imagination.

Breathe in
On average, women have a better sense of smell than men. On average, the nasty, stinky exhaust fumes from trucks and cars truly are more revolting to a woman than a man. It's not timidity and it's not her imagination. (And then there’s the issue of car exhaust that, at close proximity, is worse for the lungs than secondhand smoke, though as far as I know, it’s equally bad for both men and women.)

There is a reason most vehicular cyclists (bicyclists who claim bike lanes are harmful and prefer to ride with traffic) are men. On average men don't see, hear or smell the traffic the way women do, so they just don't find it as physically stressful or unpleasant. This is is not, by any means, to say there is no variation in men, or that all men find traffic pleasant. But do we really expect women to put on blinders, nose plugs and earplugs to deaden their senses enough to make bicycling tolerable? 

Things to see along the way
The irony is that biking away from car traffic is usually an extremely pleasant sensory experience. On a bike away from traffic, you can see the light filtering through the trees, you can smell flowers in bloom, you can watch the crescent moon rise in the late afternoon sky. You can hear and see birds, you can smile at a child holding her mother’s hand as she toddles down the sidewalk, you can notice the new annuals a neighbor planted in his yard. And you can experience all of this while getting your very necessary 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day in an easy joyful way. (If you live up a hill, you can still do this very pleasantly with an electric-assist bike.)

Because of the significant health benefits, because of the far less damage to the environment, because of the far lower costs of accidents, road repair, and other infrastructure, every person who walks or bikes instead of taking a car saves taxpayers money. (The city of Copenhagen reckons bicyclists save the city 42 cents per mile biked.)

Statistics show the more people drive in cars, the more obese they are. Studies show walking or biking 30 minutes a day prevents diabetes, heart disease and many forms of cancer. And it improves cognitive function as well as reduces brain atrophy, mental decline and risk of Alzheimer’s. Studies show the fitter you are in your fifties, the more years of good health you’ll have between the ages of 65 and 85. Children who walk or bike to school are able to concentrate better and have higher test scores than those who are driven. 

There’s more. Children exposed to high levels of car exhaust score more poorly on intelligence tests and are more prone to depression, anxiety and attention problems than children who grow up in cleaner air. Children born to mothers living near a major road or freeway are twice as likely to have autism. And it turns out the exhaust from leaded gasoline from the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s very likely created the violent crime wave in US cities of the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. (My gosh, with China’s air pollution levels, in fifteen years that country is going up in flames.)

The US spends far more money on health care than any other nation on the planet and gets worse results than countries that spend half as much. Imported oil is a third of our trade deficit. Countries with high rates of walking and bicycling use half as much oil per person as we do. Driving or being driven everywhere is quite literally killing and bankrupting us. Short term it’s making us sick, stupid, and poor.

School transport
Why do we treat bicycles as slow cars and make them duke it out in noisy, smelly traffic? Why do we design our communities to make driving as convenient, pleasant and cheap as possible while making biking and walking miserable? Shouldn’t it be the reverse, shouldn’t the cheapest, healthiest, most non-destructive forms of transport be encouraged? Shouldn’t it always be easier to walk 10 minutes to the store than drive the same half mile? Shouldn’t it be easier and completely safe for a child to bike 10 minutes to school than their parents drive them (for fear another parent in a car will smush them?)

A quarter of all trips Americans currently take are one mile or less. Half of all trips are under three miles. Americans currently drive 70% of all trips under a mile and 90% of trips one to three miles. It takes 20 minutes to walk a mile and less than 20 minutes to bike three miles.  Again, the human body needs 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day to be healthy. Not uber-fit. Just healthy.

Now I acknowledge that a pleasant biking experience isn't everything--convenience and connectivity of bike lanes are also important. (Perhaps a future post.) But safety alone is definitely not enough.

To weep for (Copenhagenize.com)
Let pedestrians have the sidewalk. Let bicycles have a protected lane separate from traffic stress-free and secure enough for an eight-year-old to ride in. And let cars and trucks have their travel space where they won’t do pedestrians and bicyclists harm. Populations that walk and bike in large numbers are healthy. If we want Americans to bike in large numbers, we have to make biking pleasant and enjoyable to both women and men. For the benefit of all.

1 comment:

  1. I do think traffic calming can go a long way to increase female bicycle use to levels closer to those of men. Toronto has relatively few bike lanes, much less separated bike lanes. The highest bicycle use is in the inner city, especially the older, denser neighbourhoods closer to downtown.

    Much of the bicycle use in those neighbourhoods is on 4 lane streets, with 2 lanes for parallel parking, and 1 lane in each direction. The parking lane is relatively wide so you can kind of try biking at the edge to avoid getting doored but you still have to be vigilant about that. There are a few bike lanes, a few low-traffic streets and a very limited number of protected bike lanes.

    In the city as a whole, which includes many suburban areas, bike mode share is 1.3 with a ratio of men to women bicyclists of about 2:1. For just the suburban areas mode share is 0.5 with a ratio of at least 4:1 men to women. In the urban core it's about 3% mode share and 1.6:1 men to women, and in the 3 districts with the highest mode share just west of downtown there's a 5.9% mode share and 1.2:1 ratio of men to women.

    I think the relatively narrow roads with only 2 lanes of moving traffic in most cases, along with the complexity of dense urban environments (streetcars, on-street parking, many intersections, jay-walking) helps with traffic calming. In my experience, traffic on streets like Queen, Dundas or Harbord is usually moving at 20mph, at most 25mph. I'm often biking at only 10mph, at most 15mph so that I have a better chance of braking if necessary. Just traffic calming isn't enough on streets like Queen where it's still not quite calm enough for most to feel comfortable taking the lane, but it's a start and seems to already have a significant impact on reducing the gender gap.