I SPEED UP FOR CYCLISTS: The late, great astronomer Galileo was excommunicated from The Church and tossed into jail for insisting the Earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around. For this, he will forever be revered as a martyr to science. Except Galileo got it wrong. The Earth revolves around me. At least it ought to. Provoking such self-infatuated exaltations was the discussion this week in front of the City Council about the vast outreach efforts about to unfold to take the public’s collective “temperature” when it comes to the role the bicycle should play in the city’s transportation future. Given that bicycles are involved, perhaps a rectal thermometer would be in order. And given the apoplectic howling from a tiny coterie of activists championing the primacy of the automobile, one might think such a measuring device had already been inserted.
When it comes to expanding opportunities for cycling, my quick-twitch, knee-jerk tendencies have been exposed and confessed long ago: Because I ride, so too should everybody else. But even I felt some discomfort with the gloppy lingo deployed by the L.A.-based consultants hired to lead this charge. Not content merely to hold public meetings and conduct polls — too prosaic and mundane, I guess — they will instead be blasting, flyering, and engaging in what was described as high-tech, high-touch road-show outreach. They’ll host “neighborhood summits” instead of all the humdrum forums we’re accustomed to. They’ll provide online interactive maps allowing respondents to point out specific stretches of street that could be made more bike-friendly. Such exchanges they’ve dubbed “share-abouts.” Despite this nomenclature — too artisanally cute and curated for its own good — some of this info could actually prove useful.
Most incensed by pretty much everything was Tom Becker, who singlehandedly makes up half the membership of Cars Are Basic. I suspect he also makes up the same fraction of a new group calling itself the Automotive Coalition. At the podium, Becker comes across as a human flamethrower set for maximum incineration, his hair a thatch of windswept prairie grass. About the nicest words he had for the outreach effort, the bike master plan, and city traffic planners engaged in it were “fraud,” “garbage,” and “nonsense.” I couldn’t tell whether to give Becker a big hug or call a medic. As usual, I did nothing. For 40 years, Becker contends, City Hall has been providing bike lanes and other feel-good accommodations for Santa Barbara’s pampered, entitled, and otherwise ungrateful cyclists. And for 40 years — he maintains — the cyclists have been staying away. To carve out any more road space for cyclists, he contends, will be a waste of resources and be accomplished only at great expense and inconvenience to motorists.
To the extent reliable numbers exist, however, they tell a starkly different story. Taken in their totality, these numbers strongly indicate that the number of people riding their bikes to and from work — as opposed to the spandex coffee-shop crowd — in the City of Santa Barbara has been increasing steadily and significantly over the past 15 years. What they clearly demonstrate — where cyclists are concerned — is that even if you don’t build it, they come anyway. The $64 million question, of course, is, If you did build it, how many more might come along for the ride? The trick of course is making riders feel safe. This can be accomplished only one way: by making them safe, factually and actually. Therein, naturally, lies the rub.
Let’s dispense with the numbers. According to the U.S. Census, 3.4 percent of all city residents commuted by bike in 2000. According to a supplemental Census report in 2012, that number had jumped to 6.9 percent. Because of the much smaller sample size of the latter report, there are reliability issues. To address these, number crunchers take the average of the five supplemental reports issued between 2008 and 2012. That result is that 5.8 percent of city residents commute by bike to work, a 71 percent increase. Compared to state and national averages — both roughly one percent — our numbers are great. Compared to what they could be, they’re pathetic. Why pathetic? Countywide, 134,000 commuters still drive to work alone. Of these, 43 percent have drive times of 15 minutes or less. If even a small chunk of these opted for the bipedal express, it might make a huge difference in terms of road congestion. Back in 1990, there were roughly 500 million motor vehicles on the planet. In 2011, we exceeded the one billion mark. You don’t need a PhD to understand that’s the wrong direction. It’s well and good to blame the nefarious Koch brothers for everything wrong on the planet, but Climate Weirdness begins at home.
The other dynamic is this: The safer roads get, the more people ride. And conversely the more people ride, the safer the roads get. Right now, Santa Barbara ranks fourth highest among the 102 California cities with populations between 60,000-100,000 in terms of bike collisions serious enough for police reports to be filed. No matter how you cut the number, that’s a dubious distinction. The good news is our bicycle death rate — 16 per million people, according to the CHP — is among the lowest in the state. The Cars Are King and Do-Nothing crowds contend these collision stats look far worse than they actually are. If the number of vehicle miles the growing number of Santa Barbara cyclists travel were factored into the equation, they point out, our relative ranking would be much lower. They are, of course, absolutely correct. But that distinction will be of cold comfort to the absolute number of cyclists getting hurt because basic bicycle infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with ridership or even changed appreciably in the past 40 years. Last I checked, broken bones and broken teeth don’t mend on any relative curve.
Don’t get me wrong; I like cars fine. They’re monstrous miracles. Maybe they’re miraculous monsters. Cars are a lot of amazing things. One thing they’re not is basic.