Technological Distractions

A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion put on by the Urban Land Institute on transportation in the Inland Empire. It centered heavily on the changing landscape regionally that is being brought on by demographic shifts and consumer preferences. Suffice it to say that not many more single-family homes should be built for awhile.

Of course, the main focus was the changing shift in how people move themselves around. Not surprisingly, biking and walking as possible solutions to transport problems were given only passing mention. During the Q&A with the panelists, I sought to further clarify info about biking and walking and got decent feedback. Part of SCAG’s initiatives do focus on increasing the bike/walk mode share from the presently paltry levels to be slightly less paltry.

But my hackles were raised a little by the suggestion of one of the panelists that the bike industry needs to be “doing its part” to develop “smart bikes”. The argument was that since cars are getting smarter and will soon be able to communicate with each other, then bikes on the road should also expect to communicate with the cars, with an insinuation that they had no part in future transportation if they can’t “play fair”. I find that to be a glaring error and I hope planners don’t lap this up like they have John Forester’s outrageous claims.

We’ve all been anxiously awaiting the self-driving car for decades. At the current rate of development, cars will soon be able to communicate with each other and share information in real time about positions, speed, intended path, etc. to reduce collisions. Currently, newer cars are also already employing systems that can recognize a bike/ped in the path of the car and assist the driver in avoiding hitting them. The implications of this continue to be debated, but requiring bikes to also communicate with cars isn’t the solution to accommodate the unique needs of bicycle riders and certainly shouldn’t be touted as an alternative to actually building safe infrastructure (which is overwhelmingly done via separation).

Using the above video as an example, I’m not sure how the situation would’ve been much different had the bike been able to communicate with the car. The rider recognized the road hazard and swerved to avoid it. While a smart bike certainly could’ve beamed the deviation information to the car, the car should’ve already detected it anyway and applied the brakes. The video shows what is likely a low-speed environment similar to a fietsstraat (bicycle boulevard), so absolute separation isn’t expected here anyway. However, on an open road, relying on intervehicular communication and detection techonology alone cannot be allowed to replace the need for fully separate facilities.

The reasons are two-fold. First a bike cannot quite operate like a car, even if equipped with gizmos and gadgetry. Despite the advent of electronic braking and the proliferation of electric-assist or full electric bikes along with more flashy improvements, bikes must still often deviate from their paths for road hazards that a car needn’t worry about in an unpredictable fashion. On high-quality, separated cycle paths, this is hardly an issue (in part because such hazards are far fewer to begin with). A deviation there wouldn’t put them in the path of a car, just perhaps in front of another rider. Deviating on a 55 MPH arterial puts them in the path of someone driving 70.

Secondly, a bike is not going fast in the grand scheme of things. Most riders in countries with large segments of the population traveling by bike ride in the vicinity of 12 MPH. While many American bike commuters profess to travel at 20 MPH, that’s still relatively slow compared to a car. One of the advantages of autonomous and fully automatic, self-driving cars would be that they can operate more efficiently at higher speeds than allowed in the current environment due to elimination of human error. At the moment, Texas has a stretch of highway with an 85 MPH limit and many other states have 80 MPH as the top limit. (It’s officially 70 MPH here in CA, but we all know that CHP will fly past you on I-5 when you’re cruising at 90.) Autonomous cars could conceivably drive in close proximity at double that speed, but sticking a bunch of bikes in the car’s pathway, whether or not they’re communicating with the car, will still drastically reduce the speed of the cars, perhaps all the way down to bike speed.

So while “smart” bikes would certainly be interesting additions, let’s not continue to ignore the means of actually making roads safer for riders and other non-motorized users. They can’t be expected to mix with streams of fast traffic and slowing the traffic to their speed is foolish. Removing interactions as much as possible is still by far the best option available for actually encouraging bicycle use among the masses. After all, most would ride if they felt safe, while hundreds more stick to sidewalks or salmon bike lanes because it feels safer even though it’s the exact opposite. Technology is great, but a far greater ROI is available at much lower cost with some relatively simple planning.

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