The recent negative attention drawn to the issue of how bicyclists are faring in the grand experiment of roadway desegregation by a violent confrontation between agents of Critical Mass-a radical bicycling organization--and a motorist on Seattle's Capitol Hill is bound to be watered down in the weeks to come.
Despite the fact that similar flare-ups involving cyclists have been taking place with increasingly regularity in cities like Portland to the south, this clash will eventually morph to be characterized as a clash between a fringe group and a road-rage prone driver who had an axe to grind.
In reality, the run-in between cyclists and motorists represents the tip of a much larger problem that has yet to be directly addressed.
The impulse to minimize the incident will, of course, circumvent a pressing need to examine how the issue of shared roadways will be dealt with in a region that actively pursues an agenda to place more bicycles on its roads. It ignores the feelings of many motorists about how bicyclists conduct themselves on roads, and how the funding for their road use is paid for.
Fact: There are more bicyclists on our roads. This is due partially in response to rising gas costs, partially in response to environmental concerns, perhaps even for reasons of personal health and fitness.
Fact: The number of injury accidents between motorists and bikes in increasing.
In King County, there were 542 injury accidents in 2007, 70 of which resulted in serious injury or death. This compares to 51 seriously injurious or fatal accidents in 2006, 46 such accidents in 2005, and 42 in 2004. That is a 66% increase between 2004 and 2007, or 22% average increase per year.
Which brave elected official is going to be the first to recognize that in order to make shared roadways both safe and fair, some kind of comprehensive lawmaking is required to cover three basic areas: licensing, funding, and laws regarding "rules of the road"? Will it be Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, Chairman Ron Sims, or will Dino Rossi be the first to make this sleeper issue a cause for debate?
All over the region, space on many streets has been taken for bike-only travel, but the taxes to create and maintain those roads are collected primarily from motorists to fund these lanes. Even for those who subscribe to the idea that we should all leave our cars at home (as does Mayor Nickels) have to admit that if we actually did that, the tax base for creating and/or maintaining space for bikes to ride on would disappear.
By requiring every bicycle on the road to purchase and display a license, we could direct funds to defray the costs of serving the population of riders. It would provide a way of making cyclists accountable for their actions on the roadway, as motorists already are. With a number hanging under your seat, obeying the law becomes less optional.
Additionally, cyclists would also be required to carry a street permit of some kind to certify that they had taken a written examination qualifying their knowledge of road rules. Currently, cycling clubs conduct their own education, but only on a voluntary basis and with no objective testing.
Certainly with the savings a cyclist experiences in not having to pay for gasoline, the cost of licensing their mode of transport and themselves is a minimal trade-off. And, of course, anyone choosing to abstain from street travel could be exempt from licensing.
Finally, a comprehensive overhaul of the laws governing use of our roads is essential. The problems and concerns of shared roadways are simply not addressed by current law. Are cyclists allowed to move in the space between cars? On a 35 mph city street, with traffic backing up behind a single cyclist moving at 20mph, does the cyclist have the responsibility to allow motor traffic to pass? Do motorists have the responsibility of watching for bicycles passing on the passenger-side of their vehicle, particularly when making a right turn?
We need laws in clear, plain English, with programs to educate all road users. Time and energy spent on this now is an investment in creating some harmony that is desperately needed.
Furthermore, the law enforcement agencies should no longer be handcuffed by the perverse principles of political correctness. When a bicyclist breaks the law they should be cited. Just because they are engaging in an activity that the elite in our region are supportive of should not mean that they exist outside of the law. Public safety is too important.
(For those who believe that bicyclists already receive citations for road violations, I encourage you to ask the King County Sheriff's Office or Seattle Police Department to furnish details of the number of such citations written out last year. I assure you that the report will not exceed the megabyte limits of your email account.)
Perhaps most importantly, the growing tension over bicyclists on our roads ties directly to a heightened feeling of alienation among those citizens who need--or, for heaven's sake, want--to use their cars. At a time when the need for communities to join in efforts to find solutions to problems of transportation and use of resources, alienating those people is a very poor way to encourage cooperation.
When the government begins to serve the interests of all the people, only then can we all begin to feel that the solutions are for us, not them.