Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Hit and Run

In which I get Smacked in the Head and Dream of Malcolm Gladwell and Al Qaeda

I started this a couple weeks ago. I violates the central Baiku principles of brevity and simplicity, and on a couple occasions I fear skates dangerously close to old-white-guy-manifesto territory. But whatever - I got it out of my system.

Saturday I got out for a longer ride. I had planned on hooking up with some team members for a jaunt out to Sauvies Island, but at the meet-up I found out JB had pushed the start a half-hour later and since my time window was kind of narrow, I headed out alone. At first I figured I’d just stick to the initial destination and maybe we’d cross paths there, but the nice thing about riding alone is being able to follow whims, and some quiet climbing was appealing, so I left Hwy 30 and headed up Saltzman to Skyline, and then out to the “Rocky Rabbit” loop. I ended up being a really nice ride, and I even got to play leapfrog with a small pack of Grundel bruisers.

I returned through St. Johns and right where Willamette Blvd turns into Rosa Parks, I was t-boned and laid out into the street by a runner who crossed without looking up. I was a little bruised, a little mad, but generally OK. The guy was in a hurry and after asking if I was all right, he continued with his run. I guess he was really lucky I wasn’t a car. It was a weird encounter and has me thinking a lot more about the price we pay when cars, bikes, and pedestrians come into conflict.

Last year, 62 pedestrians were killed by cars in Oregon, a big jump from the previous year. I say, “killed by cars,” but the car is, of course, just the instrument. I’m trying to be conscious of my language whenever the subject of car/bike/pedestrian conflicts comes up. The other day I went off (alone, in my head) on a poster on a cycling blog who claimed, “Cars hate bikes.” Whatever. Some drivers really have a hard time sharing the road, and some may even “hate” cyclists as a group. But we dilute the real issue when we lay the blame on an “cars.” A car is just a tool, like a bike or a hammer, and any of them can do damage if wielded recklessly.

That said, I’m also reluctant – especially since my “run-in” with the pedestrian – to lay a blanket of blame on all the drivers behind the wheel of the cars that killed those 60 pedestrians. When a cyclist or pedestrian is hurt or killed by a car, my instinct, like that of many cyclists, is to lay the blame on drivers, assuming inattention, alcohol, phones, or outright aggression. Last week we had a cyclist seriously injured by a driver who turned around to attend to her dog and veered into the bike lane. But Saturday’s encounter was a reminder that quick judgments that always blame the driver are often false, and the whole story is, of course, more complicated. If I had been in a car instead of on a bike when that runner collided with me, and if – God forbid – he’d been killed, it would have been his “fault.” I have to assume that at least some of those pedestrians killed last year made a similar mistake with tragic results. According to Portland police bureau traffic division captain Todd Wyatt, who spoke at the Active Transportation Summit in Portland last week, “most of the people killed last year who were pedestrians, most of the time it's the pedestrian's fault. I'm sorry but I want people to know that so they cross safely." A lot of people view that as an extreme example of victim-blaming, but he’s basing his information on the actual accident investigations.

And if you want to argue his point – ask yourself why. I think for too many of us (passionate cycling advocates) our agenda sometimes gets in the way the truth. What we really all want – and I think most people who drive cars would agree with this – is less people getting hurt and killed on the road. We have to know why it’s happening – beyond the simplistic “cars are coffins” sloganeering – before we can find real solutions. Captain Wyatt may bring a police bias to the issue, but that may also include knowledge from which we all can benefit.

Another story: like most cyclists, I also drive. Last week I had to run some errands in inner SE Portland on a dark, rainy evening. Negotiating the narrow side streets in the most cyclist-dense section of town, with parked cars blocking my view around corners, I was aware of how easy it would be to miss seeing a rider or pedestrian, especially if they were unlit and/or in dark clothing. And if I hit someone, like others drivers involved in similar “accidents,” I have no doubt I’d be vilified by some in the “cycling community.” But I’m one of them too. Aren’t I? Again, it’s too easy, too simplistic, to frame the argument as “cars vs. bikes” especially when most of us spend time in both camps.

Getting behind the wheel of a car is scary – and it should be. I wish more people were scared to drive. Cars can be incredibly destructive machines. I’ll be the first to admit that the consequences of a mistake or aggression behind the wheel usually have far more serious consequences than the same action taken by a cyclist. I dread causing an injury – or worse – to someone while I’m behind the wheel. And it would be no consolation to me if it was the walker or rider’s “fault.” I have no doubt that each driver who was behind the wheel when those 60 pedestrians were killed will never ever forget that moment. It’s a tape that will continue to replay often without warning and beyond will. Some may, in the future, suffer symptoms of PTSD. And who was at fault makes no difference at all – blame brings no peace - in terms of the permanence of the loss to those left behind.

So what do we do? First, we drive or ride or walk like our lives and the lives of others depend on it, because they do. What we do – including how we choose to get around - can and does profoundly affect our community every day. I’ve been thinking a lot about that – especially since reading this: The whole speech is good. But around the middle of page 9, Malcolm Gladwell begins discussing the difference between Private good and Public good, and the importance – the necessity – of investing in Public Good. It’s what Andrew Carnegie did when he built those wonderful libraries we still have all over the country. It’s what Kennedy called for in his famous “What you can do for your country” speech that launched the Peace Corps. And it’s what bike infrastructure is doing in creating safer, healthier, and more livable communities – whether you actually ride or not. Those focused on Private good ask “What’s in it for me?” while those who seek the Public Good know that’s the wrong question, and are willing to give – in time, taxes, and toil – to make their communities better.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001 killed 2819 people. Since that day the U.S. has spent billions upon billions of dollars to make us “safe” from terrorism. In the process, the “War on Terror” has become perhaps the world’s biggest growth industry But safety is, of course, an illusion, and the fact is that even if we hadn’t gone to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, or created a Department of Homeland Security, or started body scanning airline passengers and conducting warrant-less wiretaps – if we had done nothing but bury the bodies and grieve - each of us would still, today, be far more likely to walk out the door and get killed by a car than by a terrorist. In 2008 nearly 38,000 people were killed in car accidents in the U.S. That’s about one every 12 minutes, and it’s the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 2 and 34. The carnage costs each of us about $1000/year, and the total annual bill is about $165 billion. Each year 2 million Americans suffer permanent disability in a car crash.

What’s my point here? And what does this have to do with terrorism (or Malcolm Gladwell for that matter?) 9/11 was a horrific tragedy, and I don’t mean to imply that we, as a nation, didn’t suffer and shouldn’t grieve collectively. And of course we have a responsibility to attempt to ensure that this kind of tragedy doesn’t happen again. But at some point we need to ask the hard questions about how far we’re willing to take our anti-terrorism campaign, and whether what we’re doing is worth what it’s costing us, financially, as well as in personal freedom. For ten years now, it seems as if anti-terrorism measures have received a blank check. Businesses are thriving by thinking up new ways to make Americans “safer” from terrorists, for which the government apparently just takes out another line of credit. But are we safer? Do you feel safer? Does the world look safer? Ten years later, what’s the return on our investment?

In all the discussion regarding the causes and cures of our current financial crises, it’s only recently that anyone is hinting that perhaps we might begin to crawl out of the debt hole by scrutinizing more closely our military spending. I hope this leads us as a country to begin to have the discussion we need to have about what “homeland security” really means.

I would propose that if we’re really interested in protecting American citizens, there’s lower hanging fruit than chasing Al Qaeda around the wilds of central Asia. Instead, it’s time to shift our focus to investing in substantive changes that bring real results that will not only make us safer, but will improve our quality of life and the way our communities feel.

This is where Malcolm Gladwell comes in. In the speech referenced above, and in the introduction to his book Outliers, he talks about the town Roseto, Pennsylvania. This was a place founded by immigrants from Italy and named after their Italian hometown. Gladwell discusses them because of the remarkable physical health of their community. The people of Roseto showed almost no incidence of heart disease, high blood pressure, hypertension, cancer – the things that kill people before old age kills them. And their health, after intense study, could not be attributed to diet, exercise, locale, genetics, or any other medically understood factor. Ultimately, The people of Roseto were found to be healthier because they were a community, in the true sense of the word. They went to church together, raised their kids together, ate together, celebrated together, sat on their porches in the evening together, and grieved together. They lived in little houses set right next to each other and were in constant contact with each other on a daily basis – they lived, in Gladwell’s words, “cheek by jowl,” and the fact that they shared their lives as a community made them physically more robust.

Now Mr. Gladwell doesn’t mention bicycles or sidewalks or cars, but it isn’t hard to fill in those blanks. Today, Roseto is no longer any different than the communities that surround it. It no longer has the unique community feel, and its residents suffer the same health maladies of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease that are killing Americans all over the country. But the lesson they left behind can show us a path to Homeland Security that no amount of military spending can buy.

Ask politicians and transportation officials what their number one priority is and they’ll most likely tell you that it’s safety. But look at how the transportation dollars are actually spent, and it’s pretty clear that safety, while a priority, takes a back seat to the speedy and efficient movement of people and goods. The bulk of transportation money is going to new interstate projects, bigger bridges, and wider freeways – in other words, increasing the car-carrying capacity of our nation’s roadways. And the ugly truth behind this - the truth I suspect we all know but rarely speak – is that the sacrifice of ten of thousands of lives destroyed on our roads each year is a price we have been willing to pay for the privilege of driving wherever and whenever we want. Think about it – just one-hundred years ago car crashes didn’t exist. Now, you would be hard pressed to find someone in this country who hadn’t lost someone close or had a family member permanently disabled in a car wreck. Road carnage is ubiquitous; it’s part of our shared culture now. We drive by, shake our heads, and press down on the accelerator once we’re past the flashing lights.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. City planners around the country are waking up to the improved quality of life offered by intentionally designing roadways to accommodate all users – not excluding drivers, but finally recognizing that community and road planning that leaves out pedestrians and cyclists ends up creating communities that are unhealthy, unsafe, and ultimately self-destructive. Increasingly, people are fleeing the auto-centric suburbs and bedroom communities surrounding our most vibrant cities, and seeking out neighborhoods where they aren’t required – by the design of the community itself – to get in the car every time they need to buy a loaf of bread or want to dine out at a local restaurant.

The time is ripe for transportation planners, elected officials, and community activists to put their heads together and realize that investing in infrastructure that allows people the choice to not drive is a win-win proposition. We create jobs. We create vibrant neighborhoods that people want to live in and businesses want to locate to. We improve safety. We reduce health care costs. We create community – and maybe along the way, we create some new Rosetos – places where people begin to get to know their neighbors, share their streets, and live happier, healthier lives.

A final story. Twice in my life I have been called before a Grand Jury to testify as a witness to a crime. The first time was because I saw a young man toss a handgun in a hedge as a cop was making a U-turn to question him. The cop didn’t see this because he was in a car; I did because I was riding by on my bike. I pointed it out to the officer as he was questioning the young man and when his partner found the gun, the guy was cuffed and taken a way. The second time happened because I was walking in my neighborhood and a neighbor of mine had her money snatched at our local ATM. She yelled, and I chased the woman who snatched the money, shouting that I’d continue chasing until the police showed up. She stopped, the police came, and she was arrested. I told her “not in my neighborhood, you don’t.” Again, if I had been in a car, this never would have happened. My point here isn’t to brag at all – in both situations I don’t remember thinking about what I did; it just seemed like the right thing to do. I was taking care of my neighborhood and my people. But I also know that the chances are slim I would have noticed anything if I had been driving, and if I had, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t have bothered stopping – most people in cars don’t.

I would propose that for a lot less money than we’re currently spending in Afghanistan and Iraq right now, we could begin to create communities where people want to walk and bike. Calming traffic and making streets safer for pedestrians and cyclist means more eyes on the street and less crime. Neighborhoods where people feel safe are neighborhoods where people care about each other, and where they want to protect and foster that feeling of community they are building together. If you ask me, that’s the true definition of Homeland Security.

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