There is some physical law of conservation at play on the city streets. The space there cannot be created or destroyed, and the number of total users, drivers, bus riders, cyclists, scooterists, ebikers, etc. remains very nearly the same. Over the last decades, we’ve seen the roadways carved up and reapportioned, but it’s the same amount of asphalt as before. We’ve taken some from cars and given it to bikes, which this audience no doubt feels is good and right and fair, but in the end, we are all still there, wrestling over the territory.
Into the new space created when bike lanes were either sprayed or sharrowed or maybe even sequestered, unexpected new users have rushed. Once the room was made, the options for personal mobility – the catchall that captures, bikes and scooters and skateboards and the electric versions of all of those things – proliferated beyond, perhaps, the scope of the urban planners’ initial vision.
On the one hand, it’s tempting to feel excitement about the coming end of the Age of Internal Combustion, on the other hand, we find ourselves once again in a Wild West of road usage, different folks using different modes at different speeds on a roadway that contemplates only a few of the actual possibilities.
Our cycling infrastructure (it’s not really ours, and it’s not really meant exclusively for bikes) was probably insufficient for purpose before, and now it’s overflowing with new users who are not clear on how to navigate in that space. I try to remain a realist, and so I never expect everyone to follow all the rules and maintain good order everywhere they go. We’re a chaotic species, self-centered, short-sighted. I expect some level of mayhem. Heck, I even welcome it. So this is not me complaining that these people shouldn’t be out in the world.
But we might be reaching a breaking point in some places. I was talking with a friend in So Cal last week and he said there has been a sharp rise in bike/car accidents there with so many kids out on fast eBikes. I haven’t seen hard numbers yet, but based on what I’m seeing in my own town, bad outcomes wouldn’t surprise me.
So what are we, bike riders, doing about any of this?
I think we have to be really careful about castigating certain constituencies, just because we ride bikes and/or might have been there first. We all have to share that space, and within each constituency there are those who are doing a good job of considering everyone else and their own safety, and there are some who would lead their own kids into oncoming traffic.
So what I want to advocate today isn’t an us vs. them crusade, but a plea to everyone to try to influence the situation positively. Back in the olden times, when Lance ruled the peloton and a wave of middle-aged folks in Lycra took to the road and the paceline, we slowly and gently educated each other in the ways of the thing. We taught new riders how to draft and take their pulls, not to overlap wheels, etc.
We probably need to lead new road users by example.
It’s all too easy to say things like, “electric scooters should be banned from the sidewalk or the bike lane or wherever.” But that’s neither fair nor realistic. There is a vacuum of leadership in personal mobility and also a cultural lag that attends all new technology, the time it takes for us to catch up, ethically, practically, etc. with new ways of doing things. Given this lack of leadership and the paucity of infrastructure accorded to us still, I’m just asking the bike riders reading these words to try to avoid engaging in the culture war that seems like it might be coming to a bike lane near you soon.