Even the smallest person can change the course of the future

For good and for ill.

I am no expert, but my read on this story is:

One man liked to go fast on his bike.  He considered himself an expert cyclist.  He was worried if they built a separate dedicated bike lane, it might fill with slow, incompetent cyclists and he would be required to use it, suffering a lifetime of slow imperfect cycling misery.

So he devoted his life to blocking all possibility of separated bike lanes, anywhere in the US.  (With the spillover effect of blocking them in Canada too.)

And he did it in a very intelligent way: not simply as a single advocate, but by building up a system of engineering design standards.

There is a magic to engineering standards: no one ever asks where they came from or whether they’re applicable to the current location, because they are The Standard.

This is how US Interstate Highway Standards, designed to ensure new highways were forgiving to very many bored drivers going very fast through the middle of nowhere, ended up applied to the existing centres of cities, where they make no sense.  Standards designed for a situation where the only obstacles are highway edges and other cars were applied to dense urban fabrics full of pedestrians and cyclists and transit.

In Ottawa, Greber proposed a street-level boulevard east-west across the city, the Queensway, but because the city wanted sweet sweet provincial money and the MTO will only build to The Standard of the highway, we got an elevated highway cutting downtown in two instead.  Despite the fact that having a highway in a dense urban environment is, you know, stupid.

So to get back to the topic, this guy was playing a zero-sum game.  If he was to Win The Road for his style of fast cycling, he decided everyone else had to lose.  And so they did.

There are other approaches that can be taken.

One is to realise that the city is not the same as a highway in the middle of a forest, and to design The Standard (for cars, for cyclists, for pedestrians and for transit) accordingly.  Another is to recognize that every situation is not a black and white zero-sum game.  In fact, this vehicular cycling guy could have been a hero of cycling, if he had only advocated for the rights of cyclists to use roads and played no role in the discussion of separated bike lanes.  It could have been a win for cyclists who like to go fast on the road, and a win for cyclists who prefer to ride in protected lanes.  Win-win.

Instead, thanks in part to this guy, we have dead girls and fat children.  Talk about spending 40 years changing the course of the future for the worse.

The good news is there are people like Jan Gehl, who spent 40 years changing the course of the future for the better in their corner of the world.  As Taras Grescoe said about Gehl in Straphanger

I can see how, as a lifetime achievement, making your hometown demonstrably safer, healthier, and more attractive…has a lot to recommend it.

Which role are you going to choose?

One thought on “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future

  1. I haven’t really thought too much about changing alot of other people’s minds on redesigning cities for walkability, bikeability, etc.

    But I gave up my driver’s license in my early 20’s since I was uncomfortable driving. So have been car-free for past 30 years, cycling regularily for past 20 yrs. for commuting, fitness, touring, etc. So the role I choose is be healthy, save some money for other stuff (instead of a car) and see life differently from a bike saddle. It’s a great view!

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