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Drive Less, Save more... Lives

Crash3 As it comes to a close, I'd like to bring up a subject that's come to the forefront for my family this summer. Not once but twice I've been in car-car collisions, one that involved my whole family.  Both times I was a passenger and not a driver.  Both times there was thousands of dollars of damage, but our health and lives were spared.  Both times, I saw it coming.  Some might think this was an advantage, but I sort of felt it was a curse.  You see, since I've started riding my bike to get around town more, I've become especially tuned in to what's going on around me.  

4718678460_57e37fe904_bAs of yesterday, the Bicycle Transportation Association's (BTA) Bike Commute Challenge has begun.  I'll be honest; I've been tracking my commute miles since last September, but this September I will definitely be coming up short.  Instead of biking the 25 mile round trip I will probably spend a short amount of time on the bike and most of it on the bus, getting out to Gresham and back.  I just can't make the trip in a reasonable amount of time, since I'm nearly 30 weeks pregnant (no lung capacity left!).  But I still feel the need to try and reduce car trips.  Is it because I want to drive less and save more?  Well, money may be part of the equation.  Reducing emissions is also important to me.  But in my mind, a much larger part is something you can't quite place a value on:  The lives of our children.  You can eliminate as much BPA from their immediate environments, avoid antibiotic and hormone injected foods, but the number one cause of death for children is not obesity or illness.  It's car crashes.

That's right, according to the CDC Car crashes are the number one cause of death for children and happen at an even higher rate for teens.  This came to my attention early last month when a fellow bicycle rider and parent pointed out this article: "Mom, are we there yet?"  Can you imagine it's safer to walk in NYC than in Portland?  OK, maybe you can, but it really is statistically apparent that fewer cars means fewer deaths by car.  Sure, there are risk factors you can influence, like using safety equipment (and using it properly:  See CDC website for more info).  You can buy a really "safe" car.  These things will improve your odds, if you're in a car.  But what if you are on foot, or on a bike? Only less automobile traffic will reduce the incidence of deaths from car crashes.

So when you think a trip by car is unavoidable, remember the potential price that we all pay in one way or another.  Is the risk truly acceptable?  Are we going to keep muttering "what a tragedy" every time someone dies from a car collision?  Or is it time to realize that we are extraordinarily lucky to have so many transportation infrastructure options here in Portland.  Is it time to learn to use the ones we have, and look into getting the ones we need?  Have you and your family re-evaluated how you get around these days?  Or is it just too overwhelming to even begin?  Even if it is overwhelming, what would it take to convince you to try?


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There's evidence suggesting that improved car safety equipment (seat belts, airbags, ABS, hands-free phones etc) do not reduce net casualties, instead shifting them from inside the armor to outside, because they lead to more "confident" driving at higher speeds.

My reluctance to try is, unfortunately, directly related to the indignant, Us vs. Them mentality that so many Portland cyclists have. Driving is stressful enough, but exposing my actual flesh (and that of my baby) to cutthroat, something-to-prove adrenaline junkies with no regard for traffic laws makes me uneasy (especially since being on a bike does not alleviate you from dealing with the same mentality from drivers, it only exacerbates it).

I'm trying really hard not to generalize or to lump all cyclists this way (and obviously, no one thinks that a mom toting small kids on a bike falls into this category), but I think I'd prefer to wait until everyone has had time to put down their weapons, metaphorically speaking. It might take a while, but I think I'll wait until we're a little closer to Copenhagen-level acceptance of bikes (and resultant bike safety) before I hop on board. The waters still feel a little too dangerous.

I try to walk more than I drive. Maybe it's the least safe option statistically, but it feels safer to me.

I'll admit that I cringe every time I go through Ladd's Addition; despite the repeated police stings and the obviously unbalanced nature of a few of its denizens (there was a guy shoving people off their bikes yesterday, I was told!), cyclists still blow through the stop signs seemingly without a care in the world. And throughout the city, I'm upset at a cyclist going through a red light (when there are no cars, but still) or ignoring a pedestrian waiting to cross as often as I am at a driver who goes 10 or 15 miles over the speed limit down a residential street where my family is walking, biking or jumping off rocks. And families who've had bike crashes -- involving, for instance, an enormously impatient driver taking a 'shortcut' that caused a skull fracture for a four-year-old -- give one pause.

But, someone has to be the first. And we're not even the first; a woman rode up to me at a stoplight one day this spring, where I sat waiting on my bike with Monroe and Truman. In a German-sounding accent, she said something like, "good for you!," and then added, "it's better now. I rode with my kids 10 years ago and people *screamed* at me." Every time I hear a story like hers, I feel teary-eyed grateful, and vow ever more fervently to ride.

The only way we're going to get to Copenhagen is to be dogged about this: I don't want to force anyone on their bike but I do want to do it, day in and day out, and every day one more person will see me on my bike and (I hope) think, "if she could do it, maybe I could, too."

Thanks for this post, Shetha, and I'm sorry about your accidents. Your commute is an inspiration, bus or no bus!

Heather, I know there are some scary people on both sides out there (and they freak me out sometimes, too) -- but I really think they're in the minority.

I'd also like to point out that if everyone waits for things to become safe, it will never happen.

I hate to burst a bubble, but we're never going to be like Copenhagen with the bikes. I've been to Copenhagen. In the areas where all the biking occurs, the buildings are mostly 19th and early 20th century, pre-mass-automobile era. They are apartments with no parking, and businesses with no parking. There are virtually no surface parking lots. To keep a car would be outlandishly expensive, and to buy one is literally twice as much as here due to taxes, and so is gas. It is also compact, and people riding their bikes are generally more along the scope of riding from the NW to PSU because they try to live near their work and they are riding in pretty nice work clothes. Grocery and other shopping is much different than here, for instance most apartments have a fridge that is about half the size of ours.

That said, I think the approach to adding bike lanes in Portland has added hazards to regular people who what to bicycle moderately. Aggressive bicycle advocates want (and still want) lanes on busy streets that feel unsafe to many people especially those towing children. I think this was a mistake. I feel very nervous driving down many roads with bikes, it just feels too crowded and they seem too vulnerable.

With my daughter's preschool in SE, my office in Vancouver, and exactly 36 minutes to get to work on time, there's no way for me to bike to work. I try to make up for it by doing everything on foot or bike on the weekends.

My husband was hit by a car when our son was three months old. It was awful. I won't freak people out with the gory details, but I will say that his helmet saved his life & he literally had a broken face that was very nicely put back together. We also got a decent sum of money as a consolation prize to cover medical bills and such.

I don't ride alone or with my child at all for a few reasons. One is that I feel really vulnerable in my life right now (financially and otherwise) and would only feel more vulnerable on my bike. The second is that while I know that what happened to my husband may not happen to me, he's and uber experienced rider & the worst imaginable happened. It was on a quiet street and the driver who hit him made an honest mistake.

I do think about getting a bike more and more these days. I'm still nervous though. Its been a rough couple of years since the accident and I need to recover a little bit more from the fallout. I live in NE near Alberta & prefer to walk to the grocery store, to coffee, etc. I'm just not ready to bike yet.

There was a time not so long ago when we only had one car that I could drive, and it was broken (we then got rid of the car I couldn't drive so we only had one car) so I rode my bike where I could and took the bus when I couldn't ride. I LOVED it! I would do it again in a heartbeat. I have a 7 mo. old now who I am not quite ready to ride with but I am already dreaming about next summer (that's my goal) and the super cute Little Nutty he will be wearing (his brother likes the watermelon)!

I just read an article that goes nicely with this one -- it cites a study that says riding a bus is actually the safest mode of transportation. Food for thought. http://daily.sightline.org/daily_score/archive/2010/08/26/wheels-on-the-bus

As a carfree mama, this is always on my mind. I notice how nervous my parents are that we bike with him, and sometimes I am nervous too. But when I really think about it, why are we all not just as nervous when we take our baby in a car? We all have this irrational sense of safety in a car that just isn't borne out by the facts. Luckily we can meet many of our needs within biking distance of our house, and our bakfiets (best wedding present ever!) has really made our lives more mobile. Also our son looooooves the bus and train (and bike, for that matter). In fact, his first and favorite word is "buh" (=bus). He is clearly thriving on our multimodal lifestyle.

I think it's false logic to say that biking is inherently safer than driving. Car crashes are the #1 killer of children because every child in America rides in a car, but while I don't have stats I would venture to say that as a percentage of total trips, biking is more dangerous especially when sharing the road with bikes. My brother died on a bike and he was not hit by a car. I still bike, but I do pay special attention to the route I am going to take to make sure it is the safest. My brother was a bike racer, wore a helmet, and commuted by bike. For a very long time after he died I would get angry at cyclists who were being careless, riding without a helmet, running stop signs and weaving in traffic. I'd wonder why he was dead when they got away with dangerous riding. But, I digress. I just hope that as a biker, you plan your routes, use safety equipment, and ride smart.

I guess if you're able bodied, have ample time, not too many burdens (several younger children, etc) or children of very different ages and requirements (a teen and a toddler) and live in a place that's relatively bike friendly with reliable business in your vicinity that are not too cost-prohibitive you could make the transition to a bike centric lifestyle. I've lived in cities where the layout was planned around public transportation and those seem to work better than Portland where the transportation seems to be an afterthought. For me to rely on public transportation, Portland would have to expand bus service routes and hours and instead they seem to be cutting back those very things. Unfortunate.

I can see the arguments for both sides. Obviously, each individual person will have their good reasons for why or why not to ride and when and when not to ride. I agree that waiting for it to get safer is not the solution, but rather to get more and more cyclists out on the road to increase numbers and frequency. I am just now starting to ride with a group to get fit, but I would like to start taking my son to pre-school in the trailer as well (from SE Laurelhurst to Concordia). For me, the only way to do this is with ample time to get him there and on the least busy streets that are designated bike routes. Google has now added a "by bike" link on their Maps application which highlights bike routes. There is also a site that is strictly designed for planning trips to travel by bike: bycycle.org. Hope we can all slowly work towards more trips by bike as we get more comfortable.

Overwhelming, but worth it. Here is our plan this year to avoid driving 2 cars to work (we live in the NE and work in Milwaukie). Night before, Ali gets breakfast organized, lunches packed, clothes picked out. Morning, someone runs the crazy dog at 5. 6 am, Ali wakes girls up to kiss them goodbye. Bikes 13.5 miles to work (hour and 8 min.) and arrives to work just on time. Noah gets girls ready and brings them in the car to school in NE and arrives to work in Milwaukie almost on time. After work, Ali bikes to Noah's work, puts her bike on rack, takes Noah's off, picks girls up in NE by 4:30. Noah bikes home. Crazy, but avoids two cars on the road, less gas usage and money, exercise checked off the list, and a sense of accomplishment. It can be done! If only the girls' preschool started later, we could do it completely on bike! Thanks Shetha for your thoughts.

Ali, your routine is admirable and inspiring.

When we first moved to Portland, my husband worked a mile from our apartment and he would drive most days. It was no more than a 20 minute walk, maybe more like 15 minutes. Still, we were in the car most of the time.

Over the years, seeing other families on the road on the various bike configurations, we have slowly become more bike reliant. We are very car-lite, now, but it didn't happen overnight. One thing that encourages us to keep riding is seeing other families on the road. We do, however, have very regular conflicts with riders with no passengers who think they can recklessly pass on the right or skim past us with an inch give room. *ugh*

My husband just turned in his employer-sponsored parking pass for a TriMet pass. We are enjoying renewed appreciation for the bus, but this is primarily because he/we do not bear the brunt of the fare increase (as the monthly pass is an employee benefit).

I know this post is not necessarily about TriMet, but I am very disappointed in the fare increase / service cuts. I used to be very proud that one could be so multi-modal in Portland, but the current TriMet situation makes it harder to choose transit and easier to choose the personal vehicle.

Colleen wrote:

I hate to burst a bubble, but we're never going to be like Copenhagen with the bikes. I've been to Copenhagen. In the areas where all the biking occurs, the buildings are mostly 19th and early 20th century, pre-mass-automobile era. They are apartments with no parking, and businesses with no parking. There are virtually no surface parking lots.

I spent 20 years going to Copenhagen frequently. What is easy to miss is that they have removed lots and lots of car parking, they have blocked many roads to cars. It was not always this way. There were many more cars and many fewer bikes 20 years ago.

Change can happen

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