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Bikes & cars: Fighting unjust double standards
There’s a persistent notion that even the smallest investments in bicycle or pedestrian infrastructure must be earned through good behavior

WHO WON this year’s Tour de France? I haven’t a clue.

My cycling heroes are not professional athletes. They are people who use their bicycles, not just as transportation, but as vehicles for empowerment and adventure.

Two of the bicycle people I most admire had terrible experiences last week and I am angry.

Carole Bontakoe was seriously injured on Aug. 14 during a robbery attempt on Hall Street near Forsyth Park. Anyone with knowledge of this incident should call the SCMPD tip line at (912) 525-3124 or CrimeStoppers at (912) 234-2020.

She managed to fight off the attacker using her bicycle, yet an internet commenter scolded her for riding a bike at night.

Later that week I got this text from the other cycling hero: “I just got hit by a car.”

She was struck by a driver who failed to yield at an intersection. He initially tried to leave the scene, but then — as if hitting her with his car weren’t enough —threatened her with additional physical violence.

If the report of the collision had been published on the Connect Savannah website or on Facebook, it would attract comments like this:

“The problem with bicyclest [sic] is the failure to adhere to the laws.”

Would it help if I mentioned she’s a nationally certified bicycle safety instructor?

“I have noticed that some of these bicyclists don’t know anything about sharing the streets with the motorists.”

Actually, the comments would likely be even worse. The two above were posted in response to my last column, a fairly innocuous report on how dedicating a small portion of Price Street for a bike lane made it safer for DRIVERS.

I know, I know — I shouldn’t read the comments.

Unfortunately, this type of thing is ubiquitous in public discussions about transportation planning and policies.

There’s a persistent notion that even the smallest investments in bicycle or pedestrian infrastructure must be earned through good behavior.

For instance, it’s nearly impossible to talk about our woefully deficient bike lane inventory without first listening to accounts of misdeeds perpetrated by people on bikes. Only after the airing of grievances is completed can the conversation continue.

Do people who ride bikes, as a demographic group, disobey traffic regulations more frequently than those of us who drive? Some are convinced of it, yet a study published earlier this year by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found, “About 87 percent of drivers engaged in at least one risky behavior while behind the wheel within the past month.”

Again, that’s 87 percent and, again, that’s from the American AUTOMOBILE Association, not some group of bicycle weirdoes.

Some people also fail to acknowledge that the consequences of risky bicycling and unsafe driving are drastically asymmetrical. The biggest, strongest people you can find on bikes won’t match the destructive capability of a person behind the wheel of even the smallest car.

Nonetheless it’s standard practice to demonize bicyclists and pedestrians and suggest they should meet some vague and therefore unattainable standard—while ignoring or at least accepting the deadly results of aggressive, distracted, and impaired driving.

Imagine if, as a prerequisite for approving motorized transportation projects, we were required to change the “culture of indifference for far too many drivers when it comes to road safety,” as described in the AAA report. Road and bridge construction would instantly grind to a halt.

Eight years ago this month, I stood before Savannah City Council to thank them for applying for Bicycle Friendly Community status. In response I was asked what I was doing about misbehavior by SCAD students on bikes.

From then on I regularly dispensed traffic safety guidance to people I met on the street. I learned that whether people travel by bike or by car, they don’t react well to unsolicited advice on how to operate their vehicles, no matter how politely it’s offered.

Some folks on bikes replied with unkind words. Some folks in cars threatened to run over me. My wife refused to ride with me unless I suspended my one-man safety campaign.

Today I regularly encounter the same insistence that something must be done about scofflaw cyclists and wayward walkers.

In discussions of the Bay Street pilot project, which seems at aimed reducing the number of car vs. car sideswipe crashes and will likely increase motor vehicle speeds, one elected official managed to assign blame to pedestrians. He favorably remembered the ham-fisted and harmful jaywalking crackdown launched in 2009 after a driver killed a visitor who was legally crossing a street. He suggested the Bay Street experiment should be coupled with a similar enforcement blitz targeting pedestrians.

Please understand I am not condoning unsafe behavior by bicyclists or pedestrians, nor am I dismissing the importance of education.

The Savannah Bicycle Campaign — with support from the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, the Downtown Neighborhood Association, and the City of Savannah’s Public Information Office — created a comprehensive safe cycling guide and map. We are distributing 15,000 copies throughout the community. We are also giving away 1,000 bike lights. We offer bicycle education classes for children and adults.

I am happy to discuss any suggestions for improving these efforts or ideas for new safety initiatives.

What I will not continue to do, however, is passively listen as the most vulnerable people on our streets are vilified, or let go unchallenged the suggestion that they should prove themselves worthy of safe passage in ways we as drivers are never required to do.

In doing so I have failed my local cycling heroes and the tens of thousands of other law-abiding citizens who must travel streets that are dangerous to them.

When people oppose investment in safe cycling and walking infrastructure, based on their belief that bicyclists and pedestrians don’t deserve it, they are denying innocent people the measures that are most effective in improving safety.

It’s not just unfair, it’s unjust.