(This is the first post in a new series.)

In the fall of 2000, in broad daylight, I pedaled straight into the tail of a stationary Jeep Cherokee. The SUV, parked in a cycling lane, complained noisily: its alarm wailed. I dusted off my bike shorts (and ego) and checked the damage. The truck was unscathed, of course. My knee was lightly bruised where it had hit the ground. My two-wheeler—my baby blue Trek roadster, beloved companion for a decade, magic carpet over thousands of urban miles—was totaled, its frame buckled at the headset joint.

Bone-headed move, I told myself. How embarrassing!

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  • I had been slowly climbing a rise on the Dexter Bikeway, Seattle’s main north-to-south commuting route. The sheer familiarity apparently lulled me into inattention. My eyes were on the scenery, not the road. So I barely saw the 1.5-ton obstacle in my path, and my brakes didn’t stop me in time. I felt as foolish as if I had walked into an oversized stop sign. (The Jeep was, in fact, bright red.)

    But looking back now, after fourteen car-less months, I see the event through different eyes.

    I see my own reaction—blaming myself exclusively—as a symptom of a North American condition: Car-head. Unintentionally and even unknowingly, we see the world as if through a windshield. We evaluate our surroundings as if from the driver’s seat (obstacles to speed? places to park?). We consider “automobile” almost a synonym for “transportation.”  And we consider such thinking utterly normal. This Car-head mindset, this set of auto-oriented assumptions and perspectives, is so deeply enmeshed with our life experience that we are little aware of it. It’s so universal that we certainly shouldn’t be blamed for holding it. But it’s there and it’s powerful and it has consequences in our actions and, more important, in our communities’ decisions. Bicycle Neglect—a theme I’m going to explore in several posts starting with this one—is one of these consequence.

    What am I talking about? I pedaled straight into a truck! I’m an idiot. I should have been watching where I was going. All true, but also all Car-head thinking. What it ignores is the culpability of the owner of that SUV. He, or she, was parked in a bike lane. Parked in a bike lane (like the trucks shown in this photo on Seattle’s Northlake—photo copyright and used by permission of Rebecca Slivka, www.bicyclewatchdog.org)!

    Trucks in bike lane 250wIn Cascadia, as across North America, parking in a bike lane seems a minor infraction—discourteous, perhaps, but forgivable. What’s the big deal? Cyclists can just go around.

    Such thinking is a symptom of Car-head. If you doubt me, consider the case inverted. Imagine that I had temporarily left my bike in the middle of Interstate 5. Imagine that Mr. Jeep Cherokee, admiring the scenery, had carelessly impaled his undercarriage on my naked front fork, severing control of his brakes. Imagine that Mr. Cherokee had then smashed into a retaining wall with enough force to bend his truck’s frame, rendering it totaled (in the insurance sense of repairs costing more than replacement). Imagine that Mr. Cherokee, cushioned by an air bag, escaped with only a bump on his knee.

    Now, would he have felt foolish and blamed himself, as I did? After all, just like me, he could have gone around if he’d just paid attention.

    I think not. I think he and the law and most North Americans would have blamed me squarely for totaling his car and endangering his life.

    But why? The two cases are similar. True, riding into a parked car on a bike is rarely fatal, while accidents on the freeway sometimes are. But both involve illegally parking a vehicle in plain view in the right of way of a major commuting route. Both involve at least modest risk of severe injury: slamming into a parked car can easily hurt a cyclist. I knew a man who suffered a brain injury from a collision with another cyclist—a far less massive mass than a Jeep. As bad, after striking a parked car, you might simply fall over into the street, still strapped into your toe-clips (as I did), where you could get run over (as I did not).

    The point of this unpleasant hypothetical is not to dream up worst-case scenarios. It’s to illustrate that parking in a bike lane ought to trigger at least a tremor of outrage.

    The reason it does not is that, at some level, we do not consider bicycles real vehicles, and we do not consider bicycle lanes real roads. How could we, when we’ve been assimilated to the Car-head?

    Car-headed as we are in North America, we don’t enforce traffic laws in ways that hold drivers accountable for the risks they impose on cyclists and pedestrians. You can, no doubt, think of examples of this yourself, but I’ll mention two: one extreme, one homespun. In 1999, Charlie Komanoff of the group Right of Way published Killed by Automobile, the first comprehensive analysis of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in New York City. Charlie reviewed four years’ worth of police reports concerning hundreds of deaths. The reports showed that drivers were legally culpable some 74 percent of the time. They also showed that only one-fourth of those motorists were even cited for traffic violation. I repeat, most drivers whose illegal actions killed people didn’t get so much as a ticket.

    In Beaverton, Oregon, at least, mindsets appear to be on the same wavelength with New York: Police car in bike lane flickr 280wcheck out this photo of a cruiser parked in a bike lane. (Kudos to Bike-junkie for this shot, posted on flickr.com.)

    The presumption in New York and Beaverton, as elsewhere on this continent, seems to be that public roads are for cars, not bikers or pedestrians. You can test this yourself—my homespun example—by stepping up to any street corner in the Northwest. By law, every street corner has a cross walk (unless it’s specifically marked otherwise). The cross walk is there whether it’s painted on the asphalt or not. And any pedestrian standing in or at the entry to such a crosswalk has the first right to proceed (unless the intersection is regulated by a traffic light, in which case pedestrians must wait for the signal). As a pedestrian, all you should have to do to cross any street in Cascadia is go to the corner and stand at the curb. To a driver, the sight of you there should be, legally, the same as a red light. Drivers should halt immediately and wait until you’re on the opposite curb. If they don’t, any police officer who witnesses the act should write them a fine.

    Instead, stopping for pedestrians is considered courteous, polite—not obligatory, not something to do or face punishment. Consequently, to cross many Cascadian streets is to run a gauntlet, and tickets for not stopping at crosswalks are rare.

    Right around now, you may be thinking that I have strayed far from my story about bending my bike by hitting a Jeep Cherokee. I haven’t. I’m talking about the Car-head: the belief that roads are actually for drivers, not walkers or cyclists. The lack of crosswalk enforcement—and the absence of outrage over that lack—is a manifestation of the same condition that prevents outrage over parking in bike lanes.

    In Germany and the Netherlands, countries that take bicycles seriously (and where big shares of trips are taken on two wh
    eels), the failure to stop for pedestrians waiting to use crosswalks is a serious offense—one for which tickets are routinely issued.

    In fact, in northern Europe, legislators have actually outlawed Car-head—or, at least, the behavior it inspires. They’ve turned walkers and bikers into sacred cows, at least in traffic regulations. They’ve deprogrammed Car-head by assigning greater responsibility for collisions to drivers than to walkers and cyclists. If you’re driving in Germany, for example, and you fail to anticipate a bone-headed move by a cyclist, you will likely still be fined for recklessness. bike lane on car flickr 200wIn the Netherlands and Belgium, if you drive into a biker or walker, your insurance will pay the damages, no matter who was at fault, as documented here by Rutgers professor John Pucher and his colleague (pdf). (In fact, your only legal defense is to prove that the human-powered traveler deliberately caused the crash.) In these countries, bikes actually have priority over cars.

    (Kind of like this whimsical photo by sfbike posted on flickr.)

    If I’d slammed into a Jeep parked in a Dutch bike lane, Herr SUV (or his insurer) would have bought me my current bike: a navy blue touring beast that’s less racy than its predecessor but handles better loaded. (It also has superb, responsive brakes.) But Cascadia is no Holland, not yet. Bicycle Neglect remains the rule, though Car-head may be receding, as I’ll write about next time.