September 23, 2012

I Made a Town Meeting Gasp

I'm not the kind that plays for attention. In the background is where I feel comfortable; my husband and children say I even wear mouse-coloured clothes. My mouth is not fast, or loud. But yesterday I stood up at a town meeting and made the room gasp.

The meeting was about how to get sustainable transportation in our town. There were maybe 80 people. There were presentations about how much traffic was coming from where, there was talk of edge-of-town parking lots, public transit, and bicycle routes. And of the necessity to have broad participation among the residents. I agree with all that, especially the last bit.

And I learned a new word: "sharrows". These are bicycle symbols with double arrowheads, painted onto the asphalt of streets to indicate that someone official thinks that yes, bicycles really are allowed there, and please share the road with them. Sharrows are pretty. And some bikers, and some drivers, have told me that they do make a difference.

I cringed when I first saw the sharrows on my town's streets. They were seemingly placed at random; there were no lane markings, like in the photo taken in Manhattan. They looked pretty forlorn. Besides, I just don't think drivers should be encouraged to roll over bicycles - not even in effigy.

I've tried biking the sharrows. They didn't make me feel safer. Within minutes I was back on the sidewalk.

So at the town meeting I gathered my courage and made myself stand up, introduce myself, and say, "Let me offer you a vision: I see myself and my family riding our bikes all over this town -- without this." And I held up my bike helmet.

A gasp went through the room.

Through the ringing in my ears - remember, the attention makes me nervous - I heard someone say, in disbelief, "No helmet?"

Suppressing a sweat-inducing feeling that I've been recognised as a freak, a weirdo and a bad mom who would let her children bike without their helmets, I took a deep breath, and said, "No helmet. The reason I wear my helmet is that it's not safe out there on a bike. If we made it safe: if we had real bike paths, physically separated from the cars and from the pedestrians, we wouldn't actually need the helmet."

I blabbered some more about the need for clear rules of the road that everybody knows, and about Europeans and their children not wearing helmets on their bikes, and then I was politely cut off - for lack of time, you see.

I didn't have time to explain that without helmets, you would get a lot more moms, and our children, out on bikes, and generally ladies and gentlemen who are prettier than me and who don't see themselves putting on a helmet. The only thing worse than helmet hair is hat hair: I get that.

Certainly I didn't say how I felt about the sharrows; after all, a few town residents had worked extremely hard to get even that concession.

The truth is, I think relying on the sharrows to keep bikers safe is like doing birth control by meditating before sex. Sure, it makes you mindful. But with cars it's like with sperm: if you really want to keep them out, you need a physical barrier. In the case of cars, the barrier can be as cheap as a row of concrete logs laid end-to-end on the street, 5 or 6 feet out from the sidewalk. (You would no longer need the parking spaces).

But it's okay that I didn't get to say all that: I had made an impression at that meeting, and I went home happy. I don't expect bike paths to appear in my town next week. Not even next year. But I've planted a seed, and the ground seems to be reasonably fertile. I followed up with an Email full of bike-path ideas for the committee.


What I learned from my two minutes of public speaking:

Even though I'm just a mom, nothing official in my town, it was necessary for my voice to be heard. If I didn't pipe up, how would anyone know that I support bike paths in town?

It would have been more effective if I had brought some bike-riding friends willing to say the same thing. Our group voice counts for a lot more than the sum of the individual voices.

It's okay to be ambitious with your visions. In reality, there will be compromises, anyway. The important thing, for me, is that we get bike paths. If helmets are still required, I will be happy to ride those paths with my helmet on.



  1. Good for you for speaking up. The biggest reason I haven't bought a bike is that I see bikers in near-misses with cars on average once or twice a week. The Silicon Valley is NOT a bike-friendly place, and drivers are not used to watching for, much less watching out for, bikers. If you haven't read it already, Taras Grescoe has a great book about transportation without cars in cities around the world called Straphanger.

    1. Whoa! I'm still editing! :-)
      I hear you about the scary: we all, drivers, bikers, peds, need a set of well-defined rules of the road, and we all need to know them.
      In the Netherlands (why re-invent the wheel?) they changed the law so that in a bike-car accident, the car driver is at fault until proven otherwise. It has changed the whole biking experience, which was already pretty good before this law came into effect. Drivers are CAREFUL.
      I'll look up Grescoe's book, that sounds interesting!

  2. Oh I'm so proud of you!! I know it's hard to get up and speak, especially without a whole bunch of support standing with you and cheering. But you are so right ... if we don't speak, there isn't a chance that anyone will hear us ... and we need to be heard! I'd be real happy if the current bicycle/driving laws would be enforced ... but they aren't. And people on both sides do the wrong thing. So, for the time being, it really isn't safe to ride a bike on streets that allow cars. I'd LOVE a no-auto zone ... like one that included whole cities. Wouldn't that be cool ... cars only for between city driving but within the city, bicycles and pedestrians only. Ahhhh!

    1. I totally agree with you on the laws: a huge part of the problem is that, even where laws exist, very few bikers and drivers seem to know them. It will probably take a generation for that to happen.

      Even a car-free day (once a month or so) is a revelation - and will inspire more people to get out on their bikes. It will be easier to share the road afterwards.

  3. The point of sharrows is to make people in cars more aware that there might be bikes out on the road. Sharrows, bike boxes, bike lanes, etc., are all tools to help increase visibility and I'm worried that you seem to be mocking them. When communities are not used to cyclists, these are important steps in evolving towards a more bikeable city.

    And helmets. Helmets don't protect you from cars, they protect your head from the pavement, and that can come from many situations that don't involve cars. Hitting something on the road. A patch of ice. Going down a hill too fast. Crossing railroad tracks. I can't understand where there would ever be a situation to promote not wearing helmets.

    Riding on the sidewalks is something that should only be done as a last resort - we have to respect pedestrians, which I see few cyclists on sidewalks doing. In many cities it's actually illegal to ride on sidewalks.

    And I would disagree STRONGLY that it is not safe to ride on streets with cars. I've been doing it for years as have tens of thousands and thousands of others in many cities around the world. It takes time for everyone to get used to it but bike lanes on the streets are very effective and cars are not the enemy. And I'm saying this as someone who hasn't owned a car in almost five years. Cars are much nicer to me than other cyclists, to be honest.

    I love the idea of car-free streets, which is why we have Sunday Parkways here in Portland. But we also have to be realistic, and find ways to coexist and give cyclists, drivers, and pedestrians the tools to get used to being around each other. It can be done and has been done.

    1. Hi EcoGrrl, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I am not against sharrows as such. They do increase awareness. They are a good interim (and cheap) solution - but they are not enough, ultimately. I don't want towns to get complacent and stop at sharrows and lanes. In the Netherlands, which had bike lanes everywhere, tens of thousands of people died in traffic every year in the '60s because more and more cars occupied the road; so many of those fatalities were children that it was referred to as "child murder". After proper bike paths were installed, separated from car lanes, the fatality rates dropped precipitously.

      When you're trying to jump-start a bike culture, the bike paths actually serve as much to keep bikers in as to keep cars out. If there is a well-defined place for bikers (not the sidewalk, I agree with you on that!), they're less likely to swerve in front of cars where they have no business.

      Once you have more than a critical number of bikers on the road, sharing the road will be much easier, and comes naturally. But until that point is reached, bike paths are the safe way. Sure, it's safe to share the road in Europe (we bike there helmet-free), and in a few places in the US - but not every town is as far evolved as Portland, with its huge cyclist population, road education in the grade schools, etc. The rest of us need all the help we can get.

      About helmets: a few years ago they tried to make them required in Denmark; bicycle ridership dropped enormously. People mumble about a raised perceived risk of biking. I say it's all about helmet hair.

  4. Living in Belgium at present and I have lived in the US, UK, Australia and parts of Africa. Brussels is interesting; many one way streets, but with exceptions for bikes. It is extremely common to see mums, kids, commuters of all types facign oncoming traffic and cycling along their sharrows. It is all good and does nto seem to be much of a risk. Australia by contrast is the land of rules; compulsory helmets, massive ($200+) fines for jaywalking, riding on paveements, blowing a red, etc. Result; much lower cycling mode choice than should be expected given the wide streets, lack of hills, and pleasant weather in cities like Melbourne (4m people) and Adelaide (1m plus). The joy is taken out of it when you have to watch out for rule infringements and wear a helment in up to 110 degree heat. I much prefer the chaos of Belgium, where you also have to look out for trams and cobblestones, but the authorities leave you alone and you can make your own choices about routes etc.


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