Kyle Shelton | @kylekshelton | February 23, 2016
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“Man on bike. I did not mean to drive so close. It scared me too. I am so sorry. Please forgive me. I will be more careful next time.”
– Woman in Blue Car, Tuesday, February 9th
The pink tagboard sign caught my eye as I passed it while taking a run on Mandell Street in Houston last week. Addressed to an unidentified biker from an unidentified driver, it had the ring of a Craigslist missed connection post – really, more of a “missed collision.” It was a public apology from a driver to cyclist.
I don’t know what the circumstances of the near miss were. Was the driver on her phone or going too fast? Was the cyclist in the bike lane on the bridge or in the traffic lane? Were either of them paying as much attention to their surroundings as they should have? What songs were playing on earbuds or stereos?
Regardless of the situation, I am glad both the cyclist and the driver are seemingly safe. I wish that there hadn’t been a need for the note. And I wish we could count on both parties following through on the promise of paying more attention. But the fact that the driver took the time to write and post the note struck me.
As I finished my run, perhaps more mindfully watching for cars at each intersection than I normally do, I thought about this action. There’s a contradiction here: someone paid so little attention to the street that an accident was barely avoided. But at the same time, at least one the actors was mindful enough to apologize.
The note’s fundamental sentiment — the driver’s promise to be better, to pay more attention to the world around her — resonated for me with a number of initiatives the City of Houston is undertaking that consider the future of our communities, our streets, and how we each choose to navigate them.
Last week, the City of Houston released a draft Houston Bike Plan, the culmination of more than a year’s worth of engagement and planning across the city. If the full plan is implemented, it would mean more than 1,600 miles of bike facilities running on Houston streets or through Houston communities.
In early January, the advocacy group Houston Tomorrow released its Vision Zero plan, a set of recommendations aimed at reducing the number traffic deaths in Houston — for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers — to zero. And in late 2015, the Houston City Council passed Houston’s first-ever general plan, which lays out a broad set of goals for improving Houston over the coming decades.
I see a common thread running through all three of these plans: a shared request of Houstonians to pay more attention to one another. While focused on different topics at different scales, they push us to be more compassionate, to respect each other’s rights to the city, to the road, and to the sidewalk. Most fundamentally, they each ask us to protect one another and to value the lives of our fellow citizens.
No matter what your opinion on the details of any of the three plans, this should be a sentiment we all share.
We are a city that likes to move fast. When our highways are clear, drivers often speed beyond the posted limit, weaving in and out of lanes trying to gain a few feet or shave a few seconds off a trip. This behavior leaks onto our local roads, many of which are so wide that they encourage higher speeds. Despite speed limits of 30 miles per hour on our local streets, drivers go at least 40, if not faster in some areas. This again bleeds into our neighborhood streets, where many drivers cut between thoroughfares in an attempt to get ahead of traffic.
This difference in speed is crucial. The faster we drive the smaller our field of vision and the deadlier our mistakes. In pedestrian-car accidents, the pedestrian is 17 times more likely to die if the car is traveling 40 mph instead of 20 mph.
We’ve all had close calls on the highways and on our streets. Whether it’s the driver speeding past you on the interstate, who seemingly paid no attention to the brake lights ahead, or the car flying through your neighborhood within a few feet of your playing child, it happens to all of us: we get angry. We might yell within the confines of our car or wave our fist or middle finger at the speeding neighborhood driver. But we often forget that fear and anger when we ourselves are behind the wheel. It’s easy to speed, to cut corners, to ignore the possible consequences. After all, everyone else is doing it.
Bikers and pedestrians are not blameless, of course. They too must continue to pay attention to their surroundings. Bikers, myself among them, must follow traffic signals and also respect the rights of pedestrians. Far too often I see bikers riding on the wrong side of the road or traveling against traffic to avoid a slight detour. Not stopping at stops signs or not waiting for stoplights to change are likewise common behaviors. While there is debate over whether or not there should be separate rules for cyclists in such situations, for now, drivers don’t expect that behavior, making it more dangerous. In crowded pedestrian areas, bikers often fail to yield to pedestrians. A bike-pedestrian collision is far less likely to be fatal, but it can still be damaging for both parties.
But, in the end, blaming pedestrians and bicyclists for accidents on streets built for the car is misdirected. As I wrote last week, our streets are designed for cars, with pedestrians and bicyclists as afterthoughts. Only one set of actors is in control of a speeding ton of vehicle. Only one set of road users can travel in excess of 30 miles per hour.
What we miss when we speed through our cities is the chance to connect with one another at human level. The goal of getting to our destinations 5 minutes faster, finding the right route on Waze, or shooting down a neighborhood street to avoid a bottleneck, turns the spaces in between our destinations into blurs. If the world we pass through becomes little more than backdrop, so do the lives of those using it.
All three of Houston’s plans call on us to change this calculus. They ask us to make streets safer for all users, of course, but more than that, they urge us to take notice of one another as we move through the city.
The plans all provide tangible suggestions for how we can achieve these goals. The draft bike plan calls for routes that cyclists of all levels can use comfortably. Vision Zero campaigns for roads built for slower speeds. Plan Houston seeks to make safer and healthier neighborhoods and a city that connects people. I hope that each of these goals can be achieved. We’d all benefit.
Back to the sign on Mandell Street. I don’t want us to have to write notes of apology for close calls. More importantly, I want us to avoid the pain and suffering of fatal accidents — moments where apologies cannot be given. I want to be safe on our roads. I want my child and partner to be safe. I want you and your family to be safe.
I hope that the driver of the blue car means what she said, that she’ll be more careful next time. I hope that we can all take that message to heart as we go onto the road next. But also I hope we take action as a city to ensure that we more clearly see and protect one another. We’ve got several plans before us now that provide an opportunity to pursue this goal. I hope we take them.
Kyle Shelton is a program manager and fellow at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.