A Matter of Civility - From BikeDenver

From our Friends at BikeDenver.org
Our Safety on Denver’s Roads & Trails is at Stake

It’s been a great summer for biking in Denver. Whether you ride a few times a year or ride to work every day, you know that biking is booming in Denver.

Bike commuting numbers rose to exceed 4 times the national average, and we also saw increases in the number of bike events and in participation in events like the Denver Century Ride, Tour de Fat, and USA Pro Challenge. From bike shops to B-cycle, every bike indicator in Denver is rising.

This summer also saw some growing pains and re-introduced us to existing challenges. We heard a lot of frustration from people who walk, bike and drive about unsafe behaviors. Complaints ran the gamut from bicyclists running red lights, incidents of extreme harassment by motorists, pedestrians feeling threatened by bicyclists on sidewalks and trails, and just about everyone (bikes, cars, joggers and even scooters) using bike lanes improperly.

When Denver Police noted that bike-car collisions in June were nearly double from last June, they stepped up enforcement and called on the public to obey safety laws. A growing number of policymakers and people who bike began to raise the question of whether traffic laws designed for cars discourage people from biking, and play a role in unsafe behaviors. Concerns expressed about safety in relation to the pace of Denver’s improvements to bicycle infrastructure reached a new degree of frequency. In addition to the rise in crashes and other areas of friction, the role of traffic law is a topic BikeDenver will explore in 2013. Meantime, we’ve got some thoughts on what to do about the finger-pointing that’s happening on our public trails and roadways.

Let's start by taking a look at the past. History tells us that when we identify behaviors with widespread negative impacts, we can envision new ways of interacting that create new norms. In the 70’s, we learned not to litter our highways. In the 80’s, we learned to leave no trace on trails. In the 90’s, we learned to reduce smoking in public. Since 2000, we’ve begun to tackle other issues, like bullying, and distracted driving.

So, how can we make interactions on roads and trails more civil and safe in Denver?

First, we can acknowledge that we all have a stake in the outcomes. Looking to our commonalities helps solidify this notion. Our obvious shared interest is that we all love Denver. We love this city for its sunny weather, and great blend of the urban and out-of-doors. We love the unique western history, hospitality and the “frontier friendly” qualities that make networking and making friends in Denver so easy. Clearly, we are all invested in building a culture of civility that extends to the ways we move around town.

Second, we can change our language. Instead of labeling cyclists or drivers, let’s talk about people - people on foot, people on bikes and people in cars. Because the reality in Denver is that almost everyone drives a car, many of us ride a bike, and most of us walk every day. Descriptors that put us in separate camps don’t help us address the real issues. That kind of language, used all too often in the media, assumes we have nothing in common, but it’s the opposite that is most true.

Third, we can create positive peer pressure for safety and civility by working together to do the simple things that matter. So that’s our vision. And if you’d like to come along for the ride here’s what you can do:

  • You can own it. Own your behavior in your car and on your bike and demonstrate the courtesies and safe biking and driving habits you want to see.
  • You can do what your Mom taught you. Smile. Say hello. Be friendly. Try not to judge based on your first impression and be willing to give people the benefit of the doubt.
  • You can shift away from “us vs. them” thinking. If you rode a bike this past year, then you too, are a member of the bike community. If you drove a car then you can call yourself a motorist. Does any part of your week involve walking? You get the picture.
  • You can keep it simple. Bike and drive safely, and ask others to also. Don’t lecture or antagonize. If the conversation isn’t going well, say “have a great day!” and move on.
  • You can change your story. You know that one story you always tell when biking and driving comes up in conversation? The one about the person who did you wrong? It’s time to replace it with some observations you have about the people you see doing Denver proud every day.

As we look back on 2012 and forward to 2013 we know the “growing pains” we’re seeing in Denver aren’t going away overnight. We know that Denver was built when car was king and that it takes time to create the built environment, supportive policy and culture of acceptance that supports and encourages the shift to more and safer active transportation. That’s why we’ll be working even harder in 2013 to encourage more public education, effective bicycle infrastructure, stronger safety laws, appropriate enforcement, and creative and visionary planning. We know from the experiences reported in other U.S. cities that Denver is approaching a “tipping point” when ridership numbers, infrastructure, policy, and climate come together to create strong widespread acceptance and safe practices on every level. We’ve got a lot to look forward to.

Ride safe, everyone, we’ll see you out there!

Piep van Heuven
Executive Director

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