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Complete Streets…and all that

Complete Streets…and all that

Complete Streets. A movement. A philosophy. A way of looking at the state of things and creating new avenues of change.

Hmm…avenues of change. Figuratively, or literally?


Complete Streets (figuratively)

What does it even mean? Well, to understand that, we need to go back…way back. History of transportation in 25 words or less: People walked. They started riding on animals and making carts. Bikes and roads came along. Then motor vehicles pushed everyone else off the road.

I did it, with one word to spare. The reality is that as each new mode came along, people were forced further and further off the road. Complete Streets is about changing the trajectory. We have historically looked at “throughput,” a term engineers and planners use to mean “how can we ‘improve’ the road so that we can get more cars through here faster?” In America, over time, the road became almost exclusively for motor vehicles. Pedestrians and other road users were shunted over to the edges, and only tolerated rather than acknowledged as legitimate users of the roadways.

And now, we’re taking another look. It’s far too late, but voices are beginning to be heard. There are simply too man y people dying on our roadways every year. We “accept” 30,000 to 40,000 lives lost every year as the cost of doing business. Thirty to forty THOUSAND mothers, fathers, children, sons, daughters lose their lives because we need to get to the shopping center, or across town, or to visit our relatives a few states away faster…

Complete Streets (literally)

So what are we doing? Taking another look at streets. Why are they designed the way that are? Does that street really need to have 3 17- foot lanes in each direction? Does the median need to be 100 feet wide? Using that example, we observe that the speed limit of 35mph is ignored by virtually all motorists. And why wouldn’t it be? The road is begging them to go faster! Would they go fast if the lanes were 10 feet wide, with a narrow median? Studies have shown that the answer is no. Yet, there is very little difference in throughput when lanes are narrowed down…

Hmm. So narrower roads do not really affect how many cars will pass, but slows them down in the process…Sounds like there may be an opportunity there. How about giving some of that space back to other road users, maybe? Like people on bicycles, people on foot…you know, the ones who were using roads before there were cars. It’d be greener, too. And it would take some of the motor vehicles off the road!

That’s one example of how Complete Streets can impact the trajectory. The idea is to look at all roadways, particularly when road changes/improvements are planned. In the design/redesign, think about all road users: how can we make this safe for anyone who needs to use this road, regardless of the mode of transportation? Is a separate bike lane needed? How about green space? What should the speed limit be?

Retrofitting is obviously harder than designing from scratch. But that’s the real world. We have to look at all of the existing roadways and figure out how we do a better job so that the cost of business comes down – WAY down. We CAN’T just keep killing people and saying its ok.

Insurance! Insurance?

Insurance! Insurance?

“Why don’t bicyclists have to purchase insurance like motorists do?”


That’s a question I heard very recently at a class I conducted. The questioner couched it in terms suggesting that if bicyclists want the same rights as motorists, they should be responsible in the same way for covering the damage they cause.

Umm…the damage they cause?

Let’s go back to the basics of insurance coverage. What is it, really? It’s really a bet. I heard your brain explode just then…but that’s just what it is. The contract between you and your auto insurer is no more than a glorified bet. You’re betting that you will be involved in a crash. Your insurer is betting you won’t. They’re willing to take the bet, because for the most part, people aren’t involved in vehicle crashes. So they take the bet (and your money), knowing that the odds are in their favor. The damage to property they must pay is far less than the funds they collect in premiums (bets).

So let’s talk about that property damage. The damage in a collision depends partially on the mass of the two colliding objects. It also depends on the speed of the objects at the moment of the collision; higher speed equals more damage. 

Let’s apply that to the subject at hand. A small sedan weighs just about one and a half tons. The impact of a 1.5 ton object hitting anything is going to cause significant damage to whatever it hits. Of course, there would be even more damage from the average (two-and-a-half ton) SUV when it hits something. Now when those two objects collide with each other, the damage is enormous. Liability insurance covers the property damage that results.

Let’s apply that same thinking to the bicycle and its driver. A road bike may weigh as little as 14-15 lbs. The heaviest bikes (e-bikes) may weigh as much as 80 lbs. What’s the comparison to the impact of a motor vehicle? It’s easy to see that even the heaviest bike could not cause anywhere near the amount of damage as even the smallest sedan. But when those two collide with each other, what’s the outcome? 

Because of the weight differential, there can be, at most, minimal damage to the motor vehicle. And the driver of that vehicle probably suffered no injury at all, since cars are designed to protect the occupants, who are already shielded inside a substantial metal box. How about the bicyclist? Having collided with a 1.5-2.5 ton object, much more damage is to be expected to person and property. Aside from the simple weight differential the bicyclist does not have a sturdy metal frame around him/herself.

Let’s not forget the speed differential. The motorist will typically be moving at two to five times faster than the bicyclist. The likelihood of serious injury or death rises quickly as speed at impact increases. But regardless of speed, the damage will certainly be greater to the bicyclist and the bicycle than to the motorist and the motor vehicle.

The questioner then continued to deflect from the (obvious) problem with his argument, saying, “Well what if the motorist swerves to avoid a bicyclist and hits another car?” The answer is, of course, that’s 100% on the motorist. From the question, it’s clear that the motorist was not paying enough attention to the environment at the time. If he/she were, other solutions might have been apparent.

Yes, there are cases in which a bicyclist collides with a pedestrian or with another bicyclist, but those are rare. When they occur, there is typically little damage to persons or property. Could there be serious damage or injury? Yes, but that’s unusual. In those cases, of course, the courts are available for adjudication. And oh, by the way, many homeowner/renter/condo insurance policies would cover damage anyway. So the whole argument is without basis.

We come to this: as a motorist, you bet the insurance companies that you’ll cause substantial damage with your vehicle. They take the bet since you probably won’t. If you do, they’ll pay out, but still make lots of money in the end. As a bicyclist, it’s unlikely you’ll ever cause any significant damage, so you don’t initiate the bet.

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