Riding a bike for transportation isn’t easy. Well, let me rephrase that. It is easy, but our society makes it harder than it should be. Among the problems cyclists face are 80 years of mis-designed roads that are dangerous for people who walk or ride bikes, a legal system that too often enables drivers to get away with mayhem or murder of vulnerable road users with the tired excuse “I didn’t see him/her,” and lack of basic amenities such as secure bike parking, even in areas that are supposedly “bike-friendly.” Finally, there is the pervasive tendency of the driving public to reflexively, unselfconsciously, implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) blame cyclists for the danger caused by cars.
Our car culture has become very good at shifting the blame away from cars and drivers’ behavior. Bicyclists getting struck and killed by motorists? Make them wear helmets, hi-viz, spray their bikes with reflective paint. They still might get killed by a distracted driver, but ultimately anyone who rides a bike on the streets is asking for it, right? Whether motorists realize it or not (and for the most part, they don’t) this is the most infuriating kind of victim-blaming. It would be as if we sought “solutions” to gun violence by marketing bulletproof vests and kevlar helmets to everyone. “She got shot and killed? Doesn’t she know the streets are dangerous? Too bad she wasn’t wearing her bulletproof vest and kevlar helmet!”
Let me repeat. The overwhelming danger on our roads is not bicycles. The real danger is cars, or more specifically impatient, reckless, selfish, distracted, impaired, and/or careless drivers. After 70 years of designing roads primarily to maximize the speed and volume of automobiles on public roadways, we need to re-engineer our roads for multimodal commuting, safety, and environmental sustainability. Some people get this, and things are changing. People in cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen ride bikes everywhere. Hardly anyone wears a helmet and no one sprays themselves with paint. You know why? They’ve designed their streets for the safety of all road users.
In addition to redesigning our roads, to prioritize transit, bicycling, and walking instead of the private automobile, we need tougher laws for drivers who crash into, injure, or kill vulnerable road users. Those are slowly being implemented, too. Finally, we need a comprehensive education campaign on road safety, focused primarily on those operating dangerous heavy machinery in public spaces—cars and trucks.
Frankly, what we don’t need (or what is so far down the list as to be irrelevant) is bullshit products like “Volvo Life Paint,” the car company-sponsored reflective paint marketed for bicyclists. Listen, I think bicyclists need to take reasonable measures to be seen, including reflectors and front and rear lights. What we don’t need are motorists who see products like helmets and sparkly paint and think that absolves them of the need to change their behavior and support the re-engineering and re-prioritizing of our road spaces.
Instead of telling cyclists what to do, here’s a hint: slow down and pay attention while you’re driving. Drive as if you’re at the controls of a potentially deadly projectile.
I commute home by bike nearly every evening, in all conditions. I am a trained cycling safety instructor and have years of experience riding the streets. I also have a drivers’ license and a good driving record for over 30 years. I’ve thought a good deal about the risks and extensively studied the scholarly and popular literature on issues facing cyclists and the need to improve safety conditions. When I ride at night I wear reflective accents on my clothing and have two sets of lights (two in front and two in rear) on my bike and another set on my helmet. Despite this, I frequently encounter drivers who drive carelessly or dangerously around me. You’d be surprised at how my vantage point on the bike allows me to see drivers talking—and texting—on their phones while driving. If I am struck by a motorist (heaven forbid), it’s not going to be because I didn’t have Volvo’s effing sparkly paint on my bike.
We certainly can do more to educate cyclists and provide lights for night riding (as advocacy groups are doing all over the country), but that’s not the main problem.
The main problem, let me say once again, is cars. It’s a lack of safe infrastructure. It’s unsafe driving. It’s a car culture that sells cars on TV by overt appeals to fantasies of speed and danger. These are systemic problems that need to be confronted and changed sooner rather than later. A bullshit product like Volvo Life Paint takes our eye off the ball. It allows motorists to persist in the comforting (for them) fiction that the only thing that needs to change is cyclists’ behavior or appearance. It allows a company that manufactures machines of death and environmental destruction to market itself as the savior of cyclists. Car companies know that their business model is destructive of the environment and human life, they know that millennials are driving at lower rates than previous generations, that young people want to live in walkable, bikeable communities with access to transit. They’re desperate to appear “cool.”
Volvo Life Paint is not going to solve a road violence problem that is ultimately caused by cars and car-centric infrastructure. Just as VW’s “Clean Diesel” cars weren’t going to reduce air pollution.
Time to tell the car companies to take cynical marketing gimmicks like “Volvo Life Paint” and shove it where the sun don’t shine. Meanwhile, some of us are going to continue working for real change in our transportation system.