Today is World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims. It breaks my heart that there even is such a day, but that is what cars have done to this world. While car crashes are a leading cause of death in the United States among people aged 1-54, it is not just a U.S. problem. According to the CDC, 1.35 million people are killed every year on roads around the world. That amounts to 3,700 people killed every day. More than half of those killed are pedestrians, motorcyclists, and cyclists. In the United States, the leading cause of death for children and adolescents is car crashes.
And yet we think nothing about getting into a car everyday, more than once a day. We think of cars as safe. We think we are safe and careful drivers. We think cars and car culture are not the problem. We blame the pedestrian who stepped off the curb without looking, the motorcyclist not wearing a helmet, the bicyclist wearing dark clothes at sunset. Or, if we do blame the driver, they were drunk, or texting, and that is no us.
But it is us. Every time we get in a car we shut ourselves off from the world. We limit our field of vision and we can no longer hear what is going on around us. We drive too fast. We get frustrated and impatient and angry and do stupid things. We go through intersections when there are people in the crosswalk or cyclists (and cars) still passing through. We don’t want to wait at the red light so slam down the gas to race through the yellow/red light. We expect to see only cars on the road so we fail to see motorcycles, bikes, scooters, skateboarders, pedestrians, children, animals, and if we do see them they sure as hell better get out of our way because roads are for cars dammit!
2020 saw a surge in fatal car crashes. The theory is that with less traffic people were driving faster. The faster you drive, the more likely a crash is to be fatal. I’m not sure that works out as a good reason though because 2021 is set to be even worse.
According to a weekly newsletter I get from the city of Minneapolis, as of November 16, 443 people have died in traffic crashes across Minnesota, including 16 on streets in Minneapolis. The irony is Minneapolis has a Vision Zero Plan, and has been lowering speed limits—20 mph on residential streets and 25 mph on city streets (very few people actually comply)—and installing traffic calming measures all around town. Yet, of the three potential re-designs for a major, high traffic street only one of them is truly pedestrian friendly and includes protected bike lanes and a dedicated bus lane. I had a thing or two to say during the public comment period, and to my city council member. Minneapolis, and a good many other cities like it, have vision zero goals but continue to prioritize cars. As long as cars are a priority, vision zero will fail.
James and I own a car and I am 100% against cars. I want streets and cities and transportation to be redesigned in such a way to make personal car ownership obsolete, or so onerous that most people will find not having a personal car more convenient than having one. I know not everyone can bike to work like I can. But everyone should be able to take a fast bus, rail, or trolley ride to where they need to go at an affordable price. It takes James about 20 minutes to drive across town to work, a bus ride would take over an hour and at lest one transfer. That needs to be fixed!
I am in a car so infrequently these days, about once every two weeks to go grocery shopping with James, that when I get in one it is extremely stressful and I breathe a sigh of relief when we make it safely to our destination. Cycling on busy city streets is also extremely stressful and I have almost been hit by inattentive or aggressive drivers a number of times, not to mention yelled at just for daring to ride on the road. In spite of that, I feel safer on my bike than in a car. Across the entire state on Minnesota, of the 411 traffic fatalities through October 2021, only 9 were bicyclists. The odds are in my favor. Plus, I am pretty sure I will never kill anyone with my bike.
My dream is to not need to own a car at all. I really want to bike to our food co-op for groceries. It’s about a 7-mile trip one-way. But because we only go every two weeks and sometimes come home with 30-pound bags of flour—something that does not fit in a backpack or pannier—we have not even tried to work out the logistics. I’d love a cargo bike, but we have no garage and already have four bikes in the house (three of them mine—road bike, gravel/commute bike, winter commute bike) I have no idea where we’d store a huge cargo bike. Which makes me think about possibly getting a bike trailer because they sort of fold up and I could probably make room for it in the garden shed.
Roads were not originally designed for cars, they were made for cyclists. But times have changed and cities and suburbs and our lives have been designed to require a car. Cars have ruined our cities and our lives. Along with killing over a million people a year, they pollute the air we breathe, and on average emit 4.6 metric tons of CO2 every year. Want to make your city a better place to live? Start advocating against cars and for other forms of transportation.
There is a new book out that I am waiting my turn for at the library called Confessions of a Recovering Engineer by Charles Marohn. If you’d like to get a taste of what the book is about, you can read the essay of the same title that led to the book.
You can also learn a lot about cars and transportation from the podcast The War on Cars. The podcasters are bike advocates in New York City, but their shows are about more than cycling in New York.
And if you are looking for a fantastic documentary, I recommend Motherload. It’s about cargo bikes and focuses on a mother who gave up her car for a cargo bike. It turns out there are a good many parents doing the same. Their stories are inspiring and infuriating—they are yelled at by people driving cars for putting their children in danger!
James and I often wonder why cars are allowed so much torque they can go from zero to 60 mph in three seconds, and why they are designed to drive at speeds over 100 mph. I see people everyday driving alone in gigantic trucks and SUVs on city streets. Why? As a cyclist, I find these are the most aggressive drivers too—they, more than other drivers, yell at me, pass too close, gun their motors at me as they race past, cut me off at intersections, and they tend to generally find my presence on the road to be offensive. But it’s proven that when roads are made safer for cyclists, they are safer for everyone.
So as we remember road traffic victims, let’s also remember that it doesn’t have to be this way. People don’t have to die in car crashes. The solution is not seatbelts or air bags, protected bike lanes or helmets. The solution is better city and road design that de-prioritizes and limits cars while prioritizing other forms of transportation.