Vikram Patel: Iowa City: Bike-Friendly City as designated by The League of American Bicyclists. As one who considers himself a member of the Iowa City biking community, I am particularly proud of this distinction. In the years since Iowa City first received this status, we have seen numerous infrastructure changes, like new bike lanes and sharrows, and I’m sure that Iowa City will once again be rewarded as it applies for renewal this winter. This focus on adding infrastructure, though, seems to assume that we have already answered a much more fundamental question: What should be the relationship between drivers and bike riders? If that relationship is one of equal responsibility and right to the road, then we should have infrastructure that leads to shared use and ubiquitous application of traffic laws. If there is an imbalance in the responsibility for safety and ability to use the roads respectfully, then we should build infrastructure that would separate bikes and cars, as well as laws that restrict the ways in which they can interact.
I tend toward the side that believes that bikes and cars should share the rewards and consequences of mutual use of infrastructure. Bikes should be able to use the road wherever traffic laws would allow a car and should also be held to the same or similar standard of adherence to those traffic laws.
Matt Sowada: That is an intriguing way to frame the question: Is there an imbalance in the responsibility that cars and bikes share for safety and respect on the road? On one hand, I certainly enjoy biking and find it a safe and efficient way of getting around in certain circumstances. I by no means use my bicycle everyday, but I really enjoy using it to get to the farmers market or to a park on a nice day. I have never felt in the least bit of danger while traveling on low velocity, residential roads.
The same cannot be said for higher traffic, high velocity routes. It just seems like a fundamentally unsafe situation when thousands of pounds of metal and plastic are whizzing by, inches away from a nearly (sometimes entirely) unprotected human body at 45 m.p.h. It seems to me that bicycles are simply incapable of upholding a minimum standard of safety in those circumstances and should thus be banned from those roads.
VP: Matt, I think you would agree with me that laws and restrictions should only be created if there’s an imminent or existing problem that cannot or has not been addressed in another manner. If we look at Iowa City, I don’t think there are any roads that could be described as high velocity and heavily trafficked to the point of posing a danger to cyclists aside from I-80 and I-380. The vast majority of “busy” roads in Iowa City have a speed limit of 25-35 m.p.h. and “heavy traffic” on these roads means that there are 10 cars in a row, and they have to wait at a stoplight twice before making it through an intersection. Even if we expand this to Iowa as a whole and include state highways, the data still points to bicycle use being safe. Since 2005, there has been an annual average of five to six bicycle related fatalities, about 40 major bicycle related injuries and a little more than 400 reported bicycle related injuries in the entire state of Iowa. At worst, bicyclists who are riding in a lawful manner can be a rare inconvenience to drivers, but they are neither at risk nor create risk for anyone else.
The only major problems involved in regular bicycle-car interactions come from the rare bicyclists who openly flout traffic laws. Bicyclists who run stop signs, run traffic signals and erratically change lanes create an atmosphere of unpredictability. The unease that a driver gets when passing a bicycle doesn’t come from concerns about the bicycle’s speed, but from a sense that they don’t know whether or not the bicyclist will do something dangerous. Most bicyclists ride in a lawful and safe manner and if we can change our biking culture so that it does not tolerate those who ride dangerously, then perceptions about the safety of bicycles will come to match reality.
MS: I admit that those numbers prove that I was operating under a false premise. It appears that I was radically misjudging the risks incurred by biking on busier streets. I agree with you that legislation is an inappropriate tool to deal with a set of behaviors that are so unlikely to result in serious injury or death. I still disagree with your notion that “lawful” bicyclists are “rare inconveniences” in Iowa City, but that only strengthens your point. I see bikers all the time and the fact is they are practically never injured or killed. This indicates that despite my perception they are fully capable of peddling around safely. I was wrong.
That said I still feel fairly anxious when I have to share the road with a bicyclist on say, Riverside or the Coralville Strip. I suspect that you have correctly identified the source of my unease: the possibility that an unexpected maneuver on his or her part would cause an accident in which I would likely kill someone. This is an emotional reaction and apparently not entirely rational so I suppose that you could just tell me to get over it, but I suspect I’m not the only one who feels that way. Do you have any specific ideas on altering this “culture” to make it feel more predictable to motorists?
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VP: While I would prefer for these changes to be made through social pressure, I doubt it would be sufficient. The only viable solution I see would be through stricter enforcement of traffic laws, primarily on bicyclists. While this would make life a little less convenient for some bicyclists in the short term, it would have lasting effects that would create a safer and less contentious transportation environment for everyone involved.
Vikram Patel and Matt Sowada are the friendly adversaries behind the twice-weekly ethical debates series, American Reason. Listen on KRUI every Sunday from 4-5 p.m., and find an archive of the shows (as well as exclusive web-only content) online at LittleVillageMag.com.