Social Justice

Alabama not so bike friendly

In a May 3 article run by the Montgomery Advertiser, the local newspaper where I live, the headline read: “Alabama among least bike-friendly.” The article explains:

States were evaluated based on legislation and enforcement, policies and programs, infrastructure and funding, education and encouragement, and evaluation and planning.

This didn’t surprise me at all about my home state. I’ve enjoyed riding a bike since I was a kid, and as long as I can remember everybody here has understood the rule of road to be rooted in the common-sense idea that cars are bigger than bicycles. The logic goes like this: Cars always have right-of-way because, if a car and a bike collide, the person on the bike will “lose,” so the bicyclist would be wise to remember that. It’s not very generous or very enlightened, but it’s commonly understood down here.

I have tried riding my bicycle to the school where I teach, instead of driving, since it’s barely two miles away. But just about all of the roadways I would have to use prohibit it; I have taken my life in my hands by attempting this option. The best way to travel from my house to the school entails crossing two interstate frontage roads right next to the on- and off-ramps.

Yet, accessible bike route might be coming where I live:

Locally, the Montgomery Metropolitan Planning and Organization devised a 2012 Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan to help establish bicycle and pedestrian transportation priorities for portions of Autauga, Elmore and Montgomery counties.

The source for the study that the Advertiser is citing comes from the League of American Bicyclists. Alabama is among the worst states in their report, both overall and in individual areas. (To look over their lists, click here.) In their current list of bike-friendly communities, only the city of Auburn made the list, with a Bronze distinction.

Reasons for these practical-minded civil-engineering changes may coincide directly with other generational shifts in attitude. I saw on a news report last week that the practice of driving a car is down 34% among current 16 – 34 year olds compared to older generations. The younger generations seem to prefer bicycles and public transportation to owning their own cars. Which, frankly, I think is great!

Yet, the increase in bicycling isn’t all peaches and cream. On May 16, NPR News online ran “Biking to Work: Healthful Until You Hit A Pothole.” This news blog explains that biking to work can have lots of health benefits, compared to a sedentary lifestyle, but that doesn’t make it all good with no downside. The article says:

In 2011, 677 bicyclists died in collisions with motor vehicles. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, bicycle travel accounts for 2 percent of traffic deaths and just 1 percent of trips.

That would be right in line with the Alabama attitude about bikes and cars. But there’s good news, too:

Several studies have tried to weigh the risk of injury and death in weighing the health aspects of bike commuting. A 2011 study of a bikeshare program in Barcelona found that the increased life expectancy due to better health substantially outweighed the accident risk. Biking’s health benefits also outweighed harms caused by exposure to pollution. The further the bicyclists traveled and the more days they biked, the greater the health benefits.

So if you don’t die, you’ll live a little longer!

I’m looking forward to my city’s bicycling possibilities improving. I’ve got my Schwinn cruiser that I ride when my kids and I go, and I’m more than ready to leave my little Echo in the driveway every morning! The options in Montgomery are already getting better, but the improvements are still spare and far-apart, which makes them not really useful yet. It’s going to take some time . . .

Truthfully, what bicyclists really need down here is that attitudinal shift brought up in the Montgomery Advertiser— we need people in cars not to run bicyclists off the road and hurt or kill us when we’re just trying to get where we’re going! I can say with all honesty this: in the periods when I have tried riding my bike to work, I didn’t stop out of laziness or because of inconvenience; each time, I stopped because somebody in a car scared the hell out of me! Now, I have two kids to pick up every day, and that adds another dimension to the matter, because I wouldn’t dare try to have them bike to and from school and home with me.

Another dimension of this issue that I want to see addressed by an improvement in bicycling routes goes beyond hobbyists and exercising. Montgomery, Alabama and a lot of cities like it basically require getting where we’re going by automotive transportation, and for people who don’t have cars, that fact is a cyclical hardship: I don’t have a job so I can’t get a car, but I need to have a car to get to a job. A pretty good bicycle can be obtained for under $150, and bikes require no gasoline, no oil changes, etc. What is missing from many cities is bike routes that people can use to get anywhere in the city, in order to be able to work (or attend school) anywhere in the city. I appreciate that bicycle enthusiasts want better paths for their recreation, but there’s also another larger issue that needs to be addressed. Yet, politically speaking, if the clout and work of more-affluent hobbyists gets the job done to fill a need of less-affluent job-seekers, so be it.

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