What Will it Take to Make Roads Safer for Cyclists?
The short answer: You.
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It’s safer than ever to drive a car on roads in the United States, but more dangerous than ever to ride a bike. Across the nation, cyclist fatalities have increased by 25 percent in the last 10 years, despite an overall decrease in traffic fatalities. This is largely because cycling safety is often an afterthought as infrastructure is built to accommodate large amounts of fast-moving traffic–and it shows.
“Cyclists are dying at an unprecedented rate, and we can no longer afford to look away,” says cycling safety activist Triny Willerton of #itcouldbeme. “We are in the midst of a crisis.”
Willerton founded the #itcouldbeme movement in 2018 after a pickup truck hit her while riding in Boulder, Colorado. When the driver was caught, Willerton assumed there would be automatic and severe consequences for leaving her to die on the side of the road; she was shocked to learn that wasn’t the case. The experience spurred her to get involved in advocacy for safer streets for cyclists and harsher penalties for unsafe drivers.
Willerton’s path is that of many cycling safety advocates; most don’t get involved preemptively, but instead in response to a traumatic experience. “Unfortunately, I think that the catalyst for participation and change is often times one’s own personal tragedy,” says Rachael Maney, National Director of Bike Law. “We, as a society, tend to feel that it–whatever the tragedy or injustice may be–won’t happen to us, and until it does, there’s more talk than action.”
Though stories of injury and loss are powerful at court cases and legislative sessions, they’re clearly not enough to enact cycling safety change–if they were, protected bike lanes and enforced penalties for irresponsible drivers would be the norm, not the exception. Yet many cyclists are content to stay out of the fray, believing they don’t have the capacity to enact change in their community. That couldn’t be further from the truth, says Willerton: “We have a social responsibility, as we are directly affected and mindful of the problem. Uniting our voices will give us the power to create this very much needed change.”
Maney agrees, saying a cohesive front from a 50-million strong community of cyclists can be a powerful force: “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but I believe that if we marshal our resources and work together cooperatively and cohesively we will see significant improvements in all areas of safe cycling in our lifetimes.”
Advocating for safer streets doesn’t have to be an all-encompassing endeavor. “I think we’re all really busy, and there are only 24 hours in a day,” says Maney. “[There are] a variety of things people can do to advocate for change; things that fit within the parameters of their daily lives.”
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Cyclist Safety: 10 Simple Ways to Advocate for Safer Streets
Ride predictably and lawfully.
Though most cyclists obey the laws of traffic (like stopping at lights and riding with, not against, traffic), bad behavior by any cyclist reflects badly upon all cyclists, which can lead to hostility from drivers, police, and lawmakers.
Educate others on how to ride predictably and lawfully.
Maney points out that not all riders have access to the same instruction and support about the rules of the road. “If we spent more of our own personal time reaching out to others in fellowship with the purpose of sharing what we know, I believe ridership would increase. And ridership is the single greatest predictor of bike safety.”
Use social media to humanize cyclists.
#itcouldbeme uses the power of storytelling to show cyclists as more than just “spandex cowboys” slowing down traffic. “Cyclists can display and share things that give them an identity to provoke empathy in drivers. I strongly believe in the use of videos to re-humanize cyclists. I have constant feedback from cyclists telling me how some family members who are not cyclists have changed their perception of cyclists after watching their personal video.”
Don’t get sucked into an us-versus them mentality.
“The interesting thing is that we are all in this together…we all want to get from one place to the next efficiently and safely regardless of the number of wheels–0, 2, 3, 4, 18–that get us there,” says Maney. “For those folks out there who believe that cyclists are second-class citizens simply because they ride a bicycle, I’d like them to know that we bicyclists likely have more in common with them than we may have with one another.”
Call out biased media depictions of collisions.
A 2019 study of news reports on fatal bike collisions uncovered patterns of phrasing and word usage that subtly, but consistently, put blame on the bicyclist instead of the driver of the car (“a cyclist was hit by a car” versus “a car hit a cyclist”). Most media reports also framed cycling deaths as random and unconnected, instead of preventable events caused by predictable factors like negligent motorists or poor road design.
Learn about your community and its needs.
“Every location and community is different. So often we see significant differences from one municipality to the next within the same state,” says Maney. Learn about roads currently in the engineering and planning stages, and reach out to request inclusive infrastructure for bikes.
Join a group.
Start by reaching out to a bike advocacy organization in your state. There, you can stay abreast of a variety of opportunities to be involved, from fundraising bike rides to ways to support bills for safer roads.
Take opportunities to show, not tell.
Strategies like the Red Cup Project, which used red Solo cups to physically demonstrate how easily drivers cross into bike lanes, can be an effective strategy to call attention to unsafe infrastructure.
Show up when there are opportunities to be heard.
Call your local policy makers, city planners, and politicians. At USA.gov, users can obtain contact information for their elected officials at the federal, state, and local levels.
“The more people that ride bikes, the more legitimate our demands for inclusive infrastructure and equitable consideration,” says Maney. “It truly takes a village but I’m very hopeful because we’re living in the Golden Age of bicycling and giving up just isn’t our style.”