On my way home the other day I was stopped at some pedestrian lights at an intersection where a shared path crosses a reasonably busy four lane road. The road has no median, and the speed limit is 60kph.
I watched as a girl approached from my right, then stopped in the middle of this busy road in order to turn 90º onto the bike path. The is no turning lane here precisely because you can’t turn right at that spot from the road, and as there is no median, there is nowhere to hide from the motorists that will inevitably recoil at the idea of slowing down for a cyclist and squeeze past you at speed. Granted, this was a bad idea. She was stopped in between traffic flowing past her in both directions, and appeared to realize that this was indeed a bad place to be and at the first opportunity, crossed back to the kerb and waited with me for the light to turn for the crossing.
That got me thinking about mortality in regards to cycling, or cyclists. Then I thought about how the drivers in all of the cars around me probably rarely, if ever, think about their own mortality behind the wheel, nor do I when I am walking, taking the train, descending a set of stairs, climbing a ladder, or doing anything else that has a similar, or even greater, level of risk (except flying – it does occur to me now and then that it is possible that the plane could go down in a ball of flames into shark-filled waters, even though, statistically, it’s one of the safest modes of transportation there is…).
So it strikes me that cycling, then, seems to be unique among the many methods of getting from A to B, and even many non-locomotive actions, in terms of how much one’s personal safety is perceived to be at risk. Disproportionately, one might say.
Why cycling? What is it about being on a bike in traffic that reminds us of our mortality so vividly and regularly? And why more than similarly risky activities? I am comfortable saying that it is only natural, because, let’s face it, having many two tonne metal flying around you with many being piloted by more than a few dim-witted, distracted, aggressive, or just bad drivers, clearly has a high level of perceived danger.
Cycling in traffic seems scary. With experience that is less so, but there are so many potential disasters waiting to happen that even with the years of experience riding in traffic that I have, and therefore as much control as I may feel I have over my situation, there are still many situations that have me reflecting on the fine string on which my mortality hangs. The level of control that gives you piece of mind while cycling has as much to do with control over our own actions as it does with the control we don’t have over the actions of others.
It’s all about experience, which means that it’s all about control. You are not scared descending a set of stairs in normal circumstances, but if those same stairs were 100 feet in the air and were exposed to strong winds, you would be thinking about your mortality the entire time. If you had to do it while wearing roller skates, you just wouldn’t do it.
On the normal stairs, you believe you are in control, because you know how to go down stairs. You’ve done it a million times. You don’t think about falling down them. You don’t have to think about any external influences that could cause you to falter.
That’s why climbing a normal ladder or using a hammer or having a shower don’t seem be actions that call to mind our own mortality – if you screw up, it’s your own fault, sure, but it almost never occurs to us that many more people die from choking on their dinner than from cycling. Not only does everyone keep eating, but they go on enjoying it a great deal. Humans naturally tend to mitigate the potential for personal injury or death by altering their actions to keep them within the perceived level of their own ability to remain safe. You hammer a nail while looking at it, because if you didn’t, you would hit your fingers.
So skill and experience are crucial for riding a bike on public roads, but the problem we still need to address is that skill and experience only come with practice. People who are new to cycling are not going to have that to rely on for some time, and without skill and experience to protect them from many of the potential dangers on the road, they will be unlikely to even try.
That’s why we need to isolate cycling from the most dangerous element on our roads – motorists – as much as possible. We need to be installing segregated cycling infrastructure in as many places as possible, and putting in suitably wide and, ideally, buffered cycle lanes where this is not. We need to lower speed limits, increase the penalties for dangerous driving so it reflects the level of danger relative to other modes of transportation, and do more work generally to encourage safe, healthy, active, cost-effective, and clean forms of transportation.
Clearly it’s natural and extremely helpful to be aware of the danger contained within our surroundings, so of course it’s helpful to be aware of your mortality as it is an effective antidote for risky behaviour, but it’s definitely a bad thing when it keeps people from even thinking about using a bike for transportation, or even recreationally.
Is some of that fear manufactured? Almost certainly. It would be impossible to quantify this, but on some level, much like jaywalking was invented in the early 20th century by the motoring industry in order to keep people out of the way of their shiny new products, the natural level of risk that accompanies cycling on public roads is amplified by our media and the industries that have an interest in fishing for clicks, keeping roads for cars and people dependent on them, or selling products that are band-aid solutions to help keep cyclists “safe”.
Whatever the case, cycling sits in a rather unique position among activities, facing the reality that it carries a much higher perceived level of danger than all other modes of transportation to the point where most people in the non-Copenhagan part of the world will not even consider it, preferring to keep strong reminders about their mortality at slightly more than arms reach.
So what’s my point here? …I’m not sure. These aren’t new ideas and I don’t have a solution for them that isn’t “build better cycling and walking infrastructure and start demanding cities that are built for people instead of cars.” Real simple. Actually, technically it is, but socially – that’s the real problem.
Or, just decide to ride your bike. It’s actually not as bad as it seems. You may be reminded of your mortality more often than you were before, but at least until your time is up, you’ll be happier, fitter, less stressed, on-time, and healthier than ever before!
Header image: source