Monday, June 10, 2013

Editorial: Share the Road (Part 2)

As someone who spreads his transportation time between a car, a motorcycle, a bicycle, and his own two feet, I have become increasingly sensitive to the idea of sharing the road. Our current society places the greatest value on motor vehicle transportation, cars in particular, but that does not mean we that drivers should assume they have exclusive rights to the roads. Motorists, motorcyclists, bicyclists, and pedestrians are all a part of the transportation make-up of every major city and should all be given due respect and consideration. Unlike many European cities, which have taken measures to dramatically improve the interaction between the various groups using the roads, many US cities are only just starting this process and tempers often flare as compromises are made to meet everyone's needs.

However, every group has to take responsibility for making the road conditions better for all road users.

In this two-part editorial, I want to look at ways to help everyone be better road users and to help drive improved conditions that will hopefully help reduce incidences of road rage, accidents, and make the roads a more pleasant place for everyone.

Today, we will look at motorcyclists and car drivers, considered the top of the US road usage hierarchy. To read about pedestrians and bicyclists, see Part 1 of this editorial.

Motorcyclists are also often given a bad reputation, caricatured as either scofflaw sport bike riders with no disregard for the authorities or ignorant obnoxious Harley riders who are little more than weekend warriors out for the cruise to the local biker bar. However, motorcyclists can play a major part in reducing traffic congestion and parking challenges in major cities due to their significantly smaller physical footprints when compared with cars. Providing motorcyclists with sensible options for locking up their bikes and storing their riding gear would address two of the biggest concerns of riders and also help encourage more people to utilize it as a means of transportation in place of cars.

Lane-splitting can improve use of space and reduce
congestion by taking advantage of the smaller footprint
of the motorcycle (Image courtesy of SFGate.com)
Of course, with motorcycles, one of the most controversial topics, although potentially one of the most beneficial, is to offer the option of lane splitting/lane sharing or filtering. Essentially, this would allow motorcycles, which generally accelerate faster than cars, to filter to the front of traffic stopped at a traffic signal and, in some instances, allow motorcycles to move between slow moving cars in heavy traffic. The possible benefits are that this reduces some congestion by not forcing the motorcycles to take up additional space within existing traffic lanes, optimizes the utilization of space on public roadways, and offers motorcycles some additional safety by allowing them to stay in motion, taking advantage of the fact that moving objects tend to get our attention more than stationary ones. Motorcyclists, of course, should also be careful not to abuse these privileges by darting in and out of traffic, splitting between fast moving cars, and generally riding in a reckless fashion that can endanger the property and lives of everyone around them.

Situational awareness is key to improving safety and
reducing road rage (Image coutesy of Agilitize.co.uk)
And at last, we get to the top of the hierarchy, at least in the US, car drivers. Often times, car drivers feel that anyone not in a car is little more than a nuisance, but the reality of the situation is that everyone not in a car is actually doing every person in a car a tremendous favor by helping to reduce road congestion. Everyone taking public transit instead of driving themselves is potentially taking a car off the roads and helping to make our air a little cleaner to breathe in addition to making the roads a little more livable. However, that is not to say that car drivers themselves are not without fault when it comes to sharing the road with each other. The number of possible distractions available to drivers from the technology built into their vehicles is already quite large these days and is only further worsened by the presence of mobile phones in most drivers' hands today. These distractions contribute to the already alarming trend of lack of situational awareness behind the wheel that is often a major contributing factor in many accidents and road rage incidents these days. Greater awareness of what is going on around them and acting appropriately to facilitate better traffic flow would go a long way towards making car drivers better road users.

But changing the road users is only half of the solution; the other half is to improve way our urban roadways are designed. Currently, roads are designed to favor the flow of cars at the expense of all other forms of traffic and thus create, or at the very least contribute to, the increasingly dangerous situations for anyone not protected by the full metal cage of an automobile. With the lack of good pedestrian walkways and bicycle lanes, those modes of transportation are often discouraged in crowded urban centers when they should instead be encouraged in order to reduce congestion and crowding. While I am certainly guilty of favoring my motorized forms of transportation more than I should, I do recognize that there is great value to be recognized, especially on our crowded city streets, from shifting more traffic away from cars and instead making everything more accessible via walking, bicycling, or public transportation. However, in order to make this shift, car drivers in particular must be willing to participate in the collaborative efforts to shift our country's transportation policy in that direction. Think of it this way: for every person who gives up their car during the daily commute to walk, ride a bike, or take public transportation, there is one less person and at least one less car on the road to compete with in traffic, add to the pollution of our air, and get mad at, adding to your blood pressure.

In Copenhagen, Denmark, they have already started to put these measures into place, with raised bike lanes that exist between pedestrian sidewalks and the roadway used by cars. All three layers of roadway are set at different heights to distinguish them and to provide a physical barrier to keep the three types of traffic separated. Additionally, motorcycles are allowed to filter in slow moving traffic to optimize the space between cars that would otherwise be wasted. This arrangement has served Copenhagen well and studies done on the effectiveness of these cycleways have shown improvements in traffic incidents involving bicyclists with both pedestrians and motorized vehicles. Several US cities have started to look at testing this method and are already starting to see results in safety and traffic reduction.

So in the end, sharing the road is about more than just a change in how we behave towards each other when we use the roads we already have. It is also about changing our mentality and approach to the infrastructure we put in place on those roads. Taking some of our sprawling urban centers and making them more accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists will help alleviate traffic, notch down the flared tempers a bit, reduce our consumption of finite fossil fuel resources, and reduce pollution. Hopefully, it will also make our communities more enjoyable to live in. Being able to step out of our homes and get access to all of our basic necessities without using a car would be a great start. Being able to get anywhere within the continental US with the same kind of ease would be even better. But for now, I would settle for not having to waste hours of my life each year sitting in traffic.