JRA with the Angry Asian: Enough already

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There’s no longer a need to debate whether more cyclists are being killed while out on the road; the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) just confirmed it — at least for the United States.

According to the data compiled by NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System, 6.3% more cyclists were killed in 2018 than in 2017 — the most in 28 years. There was also a 3.4% increase in pedestrian fatalities for the same time period. Put into hard numbers, that’s 51 more cyclists that were killed on US streets than the year before, and 208 more pedestrians. It seems safe to assume, too, that there’s also been an increase in “non-occupant” injuries resulting from car crashes that weren’t fatal.

Those numbers shouldn’t just give you chills; as a cyclist, they should rock you to your core, especially since overall road fatalities overall dropped 2.4%. In other words, while cars and trucks are doing a better job of protecting their occupants, more cyclists are dying as a result of people inside those better-engineered motor vehicles hitting vulnerable road users who unfortunately don’t enjoy those same boosts in safety.

I’m done listening to arguments and questions about whether road cycling really is more dangerous, or if we’re just hearing more about it. Yes, these pieces of information still leave many questions unanswered, such as whether that increase in rider fatalities goes along with a concurrent increase in overall ridership, how exactly these deaths occurred, the general experience level of cyclists who died, etc.

Yes, they’re all questions that perhaps should be answered.

It’s also all bullshit. The fault for this does not lie on the shoulders of dead cyclists and pedestrians.

If anything, road cycling has been going through a steady decline in recent years, not an uptick, and certainly not enough of one to explain the increase in road fatalities. In other words, there are fewer of us on the road, but yet more of us are dying while doing so. Worse yet, the higher number of deaths, combined with the lower number of riders, suggests that there’s a greater chance that we’ll get hit every time we head out on the road.

Even if you assume a slight increase in the number of cyclists on the road — say, for commuting — that still suggests a status quo situation at best.

Naturally, the question arises as to why this is happening. And naturally, the knee-jerk reaction is to pin the blame on “distracted driving” — a euphemism otherwise better known as a selfish asshole paying more attention to something on their phone instead of, you know, driving. I don’t have objective data to prove that assertion, of course, but I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of people reading this have more than enough firsthand anecdotal evidence to support that hypothesis.

The question, however, is what we do about it.

This. This is a problem. A big one.

I’m all for stacking the odds in your favor as much as possible, but the answer isn’t more blinky lights, or higher-resolution front- and rear-facing cameras, or everyone draping themselves in high-viz clothing – just like how the very US-centric problem of school shootings won’t be solved by outfitting our kids with bulletproof backpacks. Nor does our salvation lie in pie-in-the-sky vehicle-to-cyclist communication and warning systems, or autonomous cars that will supposedly drive themselves better than humans can (well, maybe, but that very much remains to be seen).

None of those address the core issue: that drivers just aren’t paying attention to their primary job when they’re behind the wheel.

Doing more for the collective good

A few weeks ago, I saw a car commercial on TV that really grabbed my attention. A “planet hugger” driving an old Subaru Outback stops at a traffic light while the theme song from The Flintstones plays in the background. Someone in a Chevy Bolt electric car pulls up alongside, and the music changes to the theme song from The Jetsons. A fleet of electric vehicles from other brands — Honda, BMW, Volkswagen, and Nissan — streak across the screen shortly thereafter, while a voiceover talks about all the benefits of electric cars, and points you to a fancy web site for further information.

It’s a spot designed to promote the idea of electric cars in general, not one make or model in particular.

And then at the end, you’re directed to a fancy web site that aims to educate the public on electric cars. Hidden in the small print is the fact that the ad was paid for entirely by Volkswagen.

This was a commercial that was paid for by a single car company that was pushing a category of cars, not one of its own models. Granted, it’s a category that holds a key to that company’s long-term future, but still, it’s a big departure from how things are normally done.

Now, think about the bike industry. How often do you see a bike company running a significant campaign of any sort that isn’t wholly self-serving?

The bike industry is really good at making better bikes, year after year after year. But it’s not very good at making cycling better.

PeopleForBikes is ostensibly the premier organization in the United States for cycling advocacy. According to its own mission statement, PeopleForBikes “aims to make riding better for everyone. By collaborating with millions of individual riders, businesses, community leaders, and elected officials, we’re uniting people to create a powerful, united voice for bicycling and its benefits.”

Among its varied projects are providing grants to help local communities improve cycling infrastructure, consultation work with municipalities on how to makes cities and towns more bicycle-friendly, government lobbying to promote pro-bike funding and legislation, and generally spreading the message on the benefits of cycling in general.

PeopleForBikes’ total budget for 2018 was just over US$12.7 million, split between the PeopleForBikes Coalition — an endemic bicycle industry trade association funded by companies such as Trek and Specialized — and the PeopleForBikes Foundation, which is funded by parties that primarily reside outside of the cycling industry, such as outdoor retailer REI, the Walton Family Foundation (yes, the Walmart folks), and New Belgium Foundation.

If you dig into PeopleForBikes’ annual financial report, you can see that non-endemic funding levels have grown substantially in recent years, up to just over US$9 million. However, endemic funding has gone down almost 20% from its peak in 2016, falling to just over $3.5 million.

That may sound like a lot of money to some, but the reality is that it’s a pittance compared to what an organization like PeopleForBikes is trying to achieve. Consider, too, that the cost to be an endemic industry partner is just 0.01% of annual revenue — a penny for every $100 — and yet that’s still apparently too much for some companies to justify.

Back in 2016, I sat down with PeopleForBikes president Tim Blumenthal. Specifically, I wanted to know how much more an organization like PeopleForBikes could do with double, or even triple, its current annual budget.

“Bicycling is very weak at the state level,” he told me then. “We’re getting better at the federal level, and we’re good in cities. State governments and state departments of transportation tend to focus on building state highways. Changing the mindset and culture of states is a really important job. If we could put even a million or two million dollars into that, that would make a big difference because there’s a lot of money and a lot of influence and a lot of capability at the state level.

“We also give a fair number of grants. All of our grant application cycles are triple-subscribed; in other words, we’ll get 10 applicants for every grant we can give, but three worthy candidates, and we have to say ‘no’ to two of them. It’s amazing how much even just $5,000 or $10,000 can put local projects over the top.

“We would do a lot more partnering with businesses, because downtown businesses have a tremendous influence on government policy. And then there’s the issue of measurement. There are lots of things we would like to measure, or even lobby the government to measure, that money would help.”

One might argue over how effective PeopleForBikes is, but it’s harder to debate that it’s still the closest thing we have in the United States to a single lobbying body, and so the fact that the bicycle industry itself has been reducing its funding for something like PeopleForBikes strikes me as outrageous. After all, no entity has more to gain from getting more people on bikes, and while doing so doesn’t necessarily provide a direct positive impact to any one company’s bottom line in the short term, it’s hard to argue that doing so would benefit the cycling industry as a whole.

A rising tide lifts all boats, as the saying goes, but the disparity in funding between endemic and non-endemic companies suggests to me that there’s more attention being paid to the personal mobility aspect of cycling (which has greater implications for the mainstream population) than the recreational or sporting side. It’s worth pointing out, too, how many of the big names coming on to the e-bike scene have roots in the automotive industry (Bosch, Continental, Brose, to name just three).

Technology is not the solution

I’m not necessarily saying that the way to reduce the number of cyclists dying on the roads is to to funnel more money to PeopleForBikes. Maybe it is; maybe it isn’t.

But this problem sure as hell isn’t one that’s going to be solved by improving the “product”. After all, what’s the point of developing a better road bike if no one wants to risk riding it on an actual road? It’s telling that the hottest products at Eurobike this year were related to riding inside.

As with all big problems, I suspect there will be no easy solutions. But it’d be nice to see some more effort put forth by the parties that have the most to lose.

Maybe it’s getting more grassroots programs in place at the driver’s education level? It seems plausible that it’s not going to be productive trying to convince veteran drivers that what they’re doing — and likely have been doing for years — is wrong. But by firmly instilling the idea in young (and more impressionable) student drivers at the get-go that texting-and-driving puts real people at risk, maybe there’s a fighting chance.

Or maybe it’s just an even more concerted lobbying and/or mainstream education effort aimed specifically at reducing phone use while driving? There’s already plenty of work underway in that department, but I’ll be damned if it’s doing much good. Barely a day goes by that I don’t see some idiot on their phone behind the wheel, veering back and forth in the middle of traffic — a time bomb waiting to go off.

Is the answer stiffer penalties, or more rigorous enforcement of regulations that are already on the books? Australia, for example, definitely doesn’t treat texting-and-driving lightly, with penalties that can nearly cost you your license on the first offense.

“Many countries see the use of mobile phones as one of the most dangerous activities you can do while in control of a car,” said CyclingTips Australian tech editor Dave Rome. “However, the U.S. seems ignorant to this.”

“You don’t even need to be texting,” added CyclingTips membership and events head Andy van Bergen. “Just having it on your lap counts.”

But is that even working in Australia? The answer isn’t so clear.

Alternatively, this is the social media age, so what about a public shaming campaign? Perhaps that’d be effective, but it’d also likely be unacceptably crude.

Or maybe technology is the answer.

The mobile phone industry seems largely responsible for enabling this sort of behavior to begin with, and perhaps they hold the keys for shutting it down. Stuff like Apple’s “Do Not Disturb While Driving” mode was a nice gesture when it was first introduced a couple of years ago, for example, but it’s clearly too easy to bypass, and the majority of users don’t seem to think it’s all that big a deal for them to be using their phones while driving.

Surely the insurance industry knows distracted driving is a major cause of crashes? Insurance companies already have voluntary devices available that track your driving habits to potentially secure you a lower premium. Perhaps those widgets should also detect if you’re using your phone while driving — followed by a suitably harsh rate increase as a result, given that we already know objectively that distracted driving is actually more dangerous than drunk driving.

And what about bringing back old technology, specifically manual transmissions? If one hand is on the wheel, and the other is on the shifter, where’s the phone go? Somewhere else. Sadly, only 2% of cars sold in the United States last year has one, and given ever-tightening regulations on fuel efficiency, this option isn’t likely.

Or perhaps the ultimate solution is just figuring out how to ditch cars in general.

Do something

Like I said, I don’t have the answers here. But I do know that the answer isn’t a more aero road bike, or a more compliant all-road bike, or a gravel bike that has 4mm more tire clearance, or a new tire with lower rolling resistance, or a better ventilated helmet, or … you name it. It also isn’t putting said product on the podium of the a Grand Tour — pick one, any one; it doesn’t matter — nabbing a win at Kanza, or getting a sponsored athlete into the rainbow stripes.

Just making a better product won’t override a potential buyer’s fear of using that product in its intended manner. When all is said and done, what good is making a better road bike if people are no longer willing to ride it on the road? And the bike industry wonders why road cycling is in decline?

As I already said, this is obviously a huge problem. Moreover, the problem has deep roots in cultural attitudes and societal norms, and problems of that nature are never solved by one big-and-quick thing. Rather, it’s far more likely to be remedied by lots of small and hard-fought changes over a long period of time.

Look, I get it.

Throwing money at advocacy is an unsure proposition with no certain return and no benefit specific to the party providing the money – an understandably hard sell when cash is tight and there’s ever-increasing attention paid to the bottom line. In comparison, it’s far more straightforward to back yet another WorldTour team, or pay for more wind tunnel time, or a more powerful computer for CFD work.

But at some point, the long game has to become the one that’s more important.

I’m a cynic at heart, but I don’t necessarily believe that the bike industry doesn’t want to figure this out; it may just be that it doesn’t know how. I do believe, however, that it’ll ultimately come down to money (as it arguably always does).

That electric car ad I mentioned earlier? Sorry, that wasn’t Volkswagen trying to save the environment out of the goodness of its collective heart. No, it’s part of a US and California court ruling after Volkswagen got caught trying to bamboozle the world in its appalling DieselGate scandal, specifically outlining that the company has to spend US$2 billion promoting electric cars.

I’d like to believe that the warm-and-fuzzy bicycle industry is more altruistic than that, but ultimately, it’ll probably only be when and if someone figures out a way to somehow make advocacy profitable (or when decreasing ridership really starts becoming problematic for business) that we’ll start seeing some real movement here. Hopefully, we won’t lose too many more people in the process before that happens.

In the meantime, if you’ve got any ideas here, I’m all ears. Now excuse me while I go not ride on the road.

JRA is an acronym well known to bike shop employees, usually applied to customers submitting warranty claims that are clearly invalid (“I was just riding along when my top tube dented!“). It’s in part an homage to James Huang’s long tenure as a shop mechanic, but also the title we’ve given to the collection of random musings that will regularly be published here on CyclingTips. Most — but not all — of them will tech-related, but either way, they’ll reflect what’s been on his mind and what he’s been thinking about when he’s just riding along.

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