At Strong Towns, we spend a lot of time on dollars-and-cents logic, illustrating how designing our cities around high-speed car travel is bankrupting us. But it’s important not to lose sight of the other very real, human stakes of these design decisions as well. And sometimes those stakes are literally life or death.
Of all the articles we published in 2018, some of the most lively discussion was generated by this piece by Aubrey Byron, whom we brought on as a staff writer for the second half of the year. Aubrey is a mild-mannered writer by day, and a fearless cycling evangelist with St. Louis-based nonprofit The Monthly Cycle by (also) day. But maybe not always as fearless as she lets on.
In this candid essay, “Why We Need to Talk About Car Aggression,” Aubrey admits to something that everyone who’s ridden a bike in their town can relate to: it can be really scary. Yet those who love bicycling, or who rely on it to get around, may be hesitant to turn off their brave faces for fear of scaring others out of hopping on a bike. But that just goes to show the importance of having honest conversations about the costs—all the costs—of auto orientation. Become a Strong Towns member and help us continue to foster these difficult and crucial conversations.
I ride my bike typically everyday. Beyond riding, I am an advocate for cycling. At Strong Towns, I write about infrastructure with a focus geared toward pedestrians and cyclists. In my spare time, I help run a nonprofit geared toward fostering inclusivity for women and nonbinary cyclists in my town. I teach flat fix classes and lead rides all intended to make riders more comfortable in their skin, on their bike, and on the road.
Our group, The Monthly Cycle, promotes a say-anything, member-only Facebook group for riders to ask questions and plan their own ride meet ups. It’s a great place to discuss gear, bike buying options, favorite shops. Yet despite this inclusive, supportive space that I’ve helped to create, there is still one subject I don’t broach. It is that sometimes riding a bike in a city built for automobiles isn’t fun—it’s scary.
I don’t post about close calls in the group. I don’t discuss angry run-ins with my friends who don’t bike. For years, I have actively censored this part of my lifestyle to build a sense of inclusiveness and avoid any chance of scaring new riders off the road. I’ve downplayed interactions to make them seem more manageable. To my friends that don’t bike, I strive to project the take-the-lane attitude of someone who never cowers in the face of a car.
There’s just one problem with this image: it’s not true.
Not only have I censored my own feelings on the subject in the past, but I’ve been actively annoyed with people who boast about the risks of cycling. Typically, it’s taken up by people who don’t bike at all but not always. People whom I know and respect have written eloquently on the subject, and all I can imagine is a reader already on the fence about cycling: the person with a helmet in one hand and car keys in the other. In my mind, when they read or hear articles or stories like that, that person goes for the keys.
But what I’ve recently realized is perhaps by not being honest with the people I’ve hoped to encourage, I’ve actually done them a disservice. I’ve helped create the unrealistic idea that cycling is all rainbows and roses. And perhaps those interactions—when they do happen, because they will—become more disorienting and discouraging than if we had all been a little more honest about riding in the first place.
Let me back up for just a second here, in case there are any people of my previous mindset, one I haven’t completely abandoned. While there is limited data to compare, there is evidence to show that for long term health, a bike is much safer than driving a car. It’s also incredibly rewarding, both physically and mentally. But crashes do happen, and when they do, they tend to be severe.
Now while I may know that I may be safer on my bike than flying around in a deadly, high-speed machine, that knowledge doesn’t keep the tension out of my shoulders as cars pass at accelerated speeds that are far too high for the neighborhood I live in. And lately, anecdotally in my life, there has been an unexplainable, alarming increase in cyclists being hit by cars. Not only are these tragic circumstances, but I think that when they happen to the best and strongest of us, it gives the rest a collective pause.
Don’t get me wrong—I love every part of my self-propelled lifestyle. Well, except maybe the one.
So I’m ready to talk about incidents on my bike— about those close calls and run ins. Some of which may or may not have involved my racing my heart out to the next light just to give them an earful.
But here’s the problem with how we’ve been discussing this in my town and in my circle: it’s always focused on me. What I was doing. Which road I was on. Was it rush hour? It’s the discussion any cyclist has had a million times.
Even though less than 15% of crashes are estimated to be the result of rider error, and a far greater percentage are the fault of drivers, we focus on the bike. Even though we know traveling at high speeds in mixed-traffic areas can have fatal repercussions, we overlook the obvious. The below graphic illustrates the importance of one crucial number: speed.
As a woman, I hear the usual treatment of the car in this conversation and it sounds eerily familiar. “What can you do?” “They’ll never change.” In my head I hear, “Boys will be boys.”
But I’m at Strong Towns because I believe we can change our car culture. I think we can have this open, honest dialogue about the need to #SlowTheCars. And I think I owe it to myself and my fellow riders to remind my auto-oriented friends and family that decisions made behind the wheel of a two-ton vehicle can severely affect people they love and the loved ones of others.
Let’s talk about how to increase our cycling infrastructure and why it’s an economical safe bet. Let’s talk about how we can get more people safely on bikes in our cities and towns. Let’s reject the default presumption that cars always belong on the streets, while bicyclists are constantly expected to justify their right to be there.
Let’s talk honestly about riding a bike and advocate for it. Because we can do both. But when we do it, let’s make sure we also talk about cars.