America Needs Traffic Justice: Pedaling Revolution

I read the book Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities by Jeff Mapes soon after it was published in the spring. I was going to write a review, but then David Byrne and the New York Times scooped me. Suffice it to say that anyone interested in reading this blog also would be interested in reading the book.

Senior Crossing Street in Miami Beach - PBIC Image Library

Senior Crossing Street in Miami Beach - PBIC Image Library

Mapes brings up many interesting points in the book – the kind that made me read and re-read, fold down the page, and want to talk about it with someone. I picked up my dusty copy this morning and started flipping back through the folded pages. My mind started sparking again, so I thought I would explore these ideas more through discussion here.

The first topic I want to address is America’s ingrained car culture and resulting unwillingness to confront the dangers of cars to ameliorate the risks. From Pedaling Revolution, pages 207-210.

I’ve talked to countless numbers of people over the years who say they moved as far out of the city as they could to provide their children with a safer environment. But, oblivious as most people are to the dangers of driving, they never think about the greater risks to which they may be putting their family.

…we don’t even like to own up to the full toll of automotive mayhem, which is the equivalent of two jumbo jetliners crashing every week and killing everyone aboard.

Bike activists are much less likely to be oblivious to the risks. There’s something about cycling next to the warm metal of a two-ton vehicle that focuses the mind.

From this comes a section on a “traffic justice movement” that “would focus on improving the safety of not only vulnerable walkers and cyclists, but of all other road users as well.” This would include enforcing traffic laws more aggressively and shifting responsibility to drivers in crashes with vulnerable users (pedestrians, cyclists). The movement has had limited success, due largely to America’s ingrained and automatic car culture: “…it becomes really difficult to have a rational discourse that might call into question certain aspects of that attachment.”

Boulevard in Missoula, MT - from PBIC Image Library

Boulevard in Missoula, MT - from PBIC Image Library

I admit that I am stumped by this problem. I know people who have lost family members to car crashes, and they do not seem to question car culture as it exists in the United States. Almost all American drivers and passengers – including me – have been in a car collision at some point and continue driving, yet after I chipped my tooth in a mild bike/train-track crash, several non-biking people were shocked that I was back on my bike so soon and commented on how they would never ride a bike in the city because “it’s so dangerous.”

How can safety advocates get through these ingrained and irrational beliefs? MADD has done a fantastic job of changing public opinion on drunk driving – is it possible to do the same with all types of driving? This should make everyone happy, as it would result in fewer deaths on the roadways all around. From the book it seems that some parts of Europe have achieved this.

Cars will be a part of our lives for the foreseeable future and have a lot of positive impact on our culture. Nothing is black and white, but we have to transition into a more thoughtful society when it comes to traffic justice.

Student Waiting to Cross Street - PBIC Image Library

Student Waiting to Cross Street - PBIC Image Library

(All of these pictures are from the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center Image Library under the tag “problems”)

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36 thoughts on “America Needs Traffic Justice: Pedaling Revolution

  1. Trisha says:

    Count me as stumped, too. As he mentioned, sharing the road with cars, whether on bike or on foot, raises awareness of the problem, but I agree that something larger needs to be done as well. I think that’s one of the (many) reasons our Music City Star commuter train has had such a rocky start — in a car culture, you see the inconveniences and perceived loss of freedom, not the safety and financial benefits. You can’t just build it and hope that they’ll come: you need to sell it to them. At least, in the Southeast.

  2. Mamavee says:


    Typing on phone but it is ingrained. I nearly had a huge fight with my husband when I ranted that there was no viable public transport from where we are to cape cod. Hebegan to give reasons why it wouldn’t work etc and I nearly flipped him. I might have called him a car lover which are true fighting words. We ironically were in a car and if we weren’t on a highway somewhere I might have gotten out of the car.

  3. miss sarah says:

    Thanks for the review, will definitely have to read this! I obviously don’t “get it” either. I just chalk it up to people being less comprehensive and critical thinkers… we/they just do what is “normal” which is not necessarily the same thing as what is reasonable and smart.

    This is what my masters is about! Something to do with women, mobility, and class structure. People drive because I deeply believe they think public transit, walking, and biking are generally for people who don’t have money to drive. More details later.

    For now, we keep thinking, and biking, and hopefully more and more people will get it. Also, I find it really hard to get excited for somebody who has bought a new car! Another thing that makes me a social pariah.


    • Trisha says:

      That is so true. I know that’s how many people feel about it here. It’s also part of the reason public transportation isn’t given much support in this area.

    • Christa says:

      Sarah, sounds like a great subject for a masters. Looking forward to updates!

      I was very disappointed when a relative of mine asked me “so, what kind of car do you drive?” I responded with my usual bike-love stories and she was shocked. :)

  4. Yvette (Slow Bike Miami wife contingent) says:

    This is something we cyclists in Miami have to contend with all the time (notice the first pic is in Miami Beach). I too had a bike accident and nearly cracked my head open, but got back on the bike as soon as I could, and people thought I was insane. I argued till I was blue in the face that it isn’t any more dangerous than anything else we do each day, but to no avail. Cars dominate, and we MUST be scared of the big bad drivers.

    I do fear drivers, though, if only because we have some of the worst in the country down here, and even a trip to the corner store is often done by car, and in a rush. Add the crap rain we get so often and any modicum of driving sense goes out the window.

    So yes there are dangers for cyclists (and pedestrians) out there, and ultimately, many of those dangers come from drivers–whether through ignorance, dislike or just plain “mine is bigger than yours” bravado. HOWEVER, cyclists (and pedestrians) must also be ultra-cautious to abide by the rules of the road as well–being a jerk only serves to anger drivers more (I am a cyclist and I’ve felt this way myself when foolish cyclists or peds do really stupid things that are, in fact, against the law–jaywalking, for instance, or riding on the wrong side of the road). We all have to do our part to increase safety and education.

    The question is how to wean people off the darn car, or at least to realize there are other viable forms of transport?

  5. Yvette (Slow Bike Miami wife contingent) says:

    Miss Sarah: you are so right! Here in south Florida, there is definitely some kind of “stigma” to riding public transit and/or biking. You certainly do see more of both in lower-income areas of the county!

    I got a new car, recently, only because my old one was broken into and trashed and it was more expensive to fix it, and there really is no viable way for me to get to my job across town (technically across 4 cities–Miami-Dade county is a maze of micro-cities that won’t work together)… *sigh* I wish I could be a full-time cyclist, but it’s not realistic for me at the moment, so I need a car.

    Which reminds me: I think some cyclists are also part-time drivers, so we fall into both camps at one time or another, so we need to be really careful not to turn this into an “us versus them” thing–division like that ultimately only brings hatred and aggression.

    • dottie says:

      Traffic justice is definitely not an “us v. them” issue, since most of the people killed on the roadways are people in cars. That’s why it’s so hard for me to understand why Americans have such a visceral reaction against reform.

  6. Ghost Rider says:

    I have no brilliant ideas about how to conquer the problem, but I’m fairly comfortable at pointing the finger at one of the “instigators” : the American media. Bike fatalities and the perceived dangers of cycling on U.S. streets are hammered at us again and again — and it is unfortunate that many cycling news outlets/blogs highlight the dangers and injuries far more than they do the joys and triumphs.

    If we could all agree on stressing the good over the bad — that cycling is fun, safe and practical as well as healthful (because really, despite perceptions, cycling for recreation or transportation is not dangerous by a long shot), we’d be a lot better off.

    One other thing that motorists need to hear more often is that the more cyclists on U.S. streets, the better it is for them, too. Less cars = less congestion, right? Same with bike/ped-friendly infrastructure…these improvements do a great job at traffic calming and that benefits everyone, regardless of their transportation choice.

  7. Ghost Rider says:

    Oh, and darn it! Another book to add to my bloated “to read” list! But I’ll review it on as is my nature once it’s been read.

    I’m almost finished with David Byrne’s book, too. Pretty good stuff.

  8. I think it all comes down to the fact that we can’t take away something people love and associate with status, and expect them to give it up willingly. Activism is perceived as preaching and threatening and if anything is likely to cause active resistance. The only way as I see it, is for the culture to change “organically”. When society at large begins to associate walking cities, nature, effective public transport, and cycling with “coolness” and “status”, the love for these things will displace the love of cars.

    • dottie says:

      Good point that people need to see cycling and public transit as a desirable option before fully embracing it. But traffic justice would not take anything away from people who choose to drive (except the “right” to drive dangerously). The solution focuses on shifting legal burdens and cracking down on drivers who speed and otherwise break the law.

      • dukiebiddle says:

        Of course you are right, but I think I fully understand why people would be resistant to Traffic Justice, as it is inherently antagonistic toward the citizen. Antagonistic in a good way, but you aren’t ever going to convince the majority that it is in their better interest to allow the government to crack down on what they consider everyday activities… like driving 10mph over the speed limit, speeding through yellows (that are actually red), etc.

        • dottie says:

          Right. So then I think – why ask? Just do it. That’s what our structure of law and order is for. Of course, some of it will have to come from the legislature, which is just crawling with special interest lobbyists, but some of it can be done as is. Perhaps it’s a funding issue.

          • dukiebiddle says:

            Is it a matter of actually enforcing laws that already exist, or writing new laws?

            Will I, as a bicyclist, get ticketed for rolling stops? *gulp*

            • Catherine says:

              Actually, they started doing that in my town a few years ago….ticketing cyclists for rolling stops.

              It’s the most ridiculous thing, too. Basically, there’s a 17 mile trail that follows the Potomac River from Mount Vernon to Arlington (which is just over the bridge from DC)–it’s a major bike commuter and pleasure cyclist trail (pretty flat, gets you into the city for jobs, gets you to Alexandria and Mount Vernon to get home/ sightsee). Trouble is that the historic section of Alexandria is also right on the river. So the trail turns into streets with a stop sign at almost every street. But the streets aren’t that car-heavy–this is a big walking town.

              But….but. There’s always the complainers. And the complainers just so happen to be the homeowners of the very tony townhouses along the trail–particularly at the entrances to it. (This was complicated a bit by the “official” route through town being moved because of construction, I guess these folks weren’t used to so many evil cyclists). Money talks, so they just parked a cop at a corner one Saturday and stopped everyone who didn’t come to a complete foot-on-the-ground stop.

              What gets me though, is that this town is otherwise really, really cool and bike friendly. The “throwing their weight around” people are few and far between. And because except for a few large heavy volume streets, it is almost an entire town of stop signs (18th Century block system, narrow streets…), the cars NEVER come to a complete stop–it’s always rolling–and no one ever complains about them and no one gets pulled over for it.


        • Speeding through yellows/reds happens a lot in the Boston area, and it enrages me. Not only do the cars keep coming a good 5 seconds after the pedestrian “Walk” signal appears, but they do so at blazing speeds because they are trying to “make the light”! This even happens in places like Harvard Square, where hoards of students attempt to cross the street and the police are in close proximity.

  9. ghd3 says:

    great post. habits are difficult to break, but agree that we need to do more to increase awareness and facilitate dialogue.

  10. Melissa says:

    Very interesting. I think that, because of the car culture we live in, much of the infrastructure isn’t set up to walk or ride. I mean, look at the pic of Missoula. There are no sidewalks! So even if someone said, “you know what, I’m gonna walk to Hardees today”(its the only sign I could read), then it would be so hard. So they drive because it’s the easiest way to get there. There needs to be a change to get Americans to ride or walk vs. driving.

  11. Ken Hurd says:

    Great post… It’s funny because one of your earlier entries “Something There Is that Doesn’t Love a Crosswalk” prompted me to look into methods that are being used elsewhere to help combat the perception drivers have against cyclists.

    Two of themore innovative things that caught my attention were:

    1. More prominent bike lanes and “bike boxes” that are being introduced in Portland. Effectively allowing cyclists to move right to the front of the line in intersections and start moving forward or turning prior to other vehicles.

    2. Special laws to help distinguish cyclists as unique and special ‘vehicles’ – Like the stop-n-yield law coming out of Idaho. Effectively allows cyclists to use stop lights/signs as yield signs.

    Per comments above, I think the key to making these efforts work and changing a drivers perspective is enforcement… Special crackdowns, fines, public stonings (ok, maybe the last one is a bit far) are essential to drive the message home with drivers. They own the road, two tons of steel dictates it, but by hitting their pocketbooks and through stiff public enforcement.

    As this becomes more and more mainstream, cyclists will hopefully start to get the respect they deserve…

    If you have a hankering you can read the full article here:

  12. ChipSeal says:

    “I think it all comes down to the fact that we can’t take away something people love and associate with status, and expect them to give it up willingly.” -Lovely Bicycle

    I don’t want to take away their status enhancing vehicle. But if they choose to use their status enhancing vehicle on a public street they need to be held to a higher standard of operational competence then they are now.

    The use of an automobile has become such a commonplace everyday event that the heavy responsibility useing one entails is forgotten. This cavalier attitude has to be addressed and be personalized.

    Getting a ticket for traffic violations has to be regarded as the crimes they are and not just an unfortunate event of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Causing property damage or injury to others in the public space must have harsh and financially crippling consequences.

    Poor driving skill needs to be met with public scorn rather than indifference.

  13. My wife already said a lot above and she’s hit it right on the head.

    Thanks for the book rec; I’m getting it for sure.

  14. Jeff Mapes says:

    Thanks so much for the great review of my book and the very interesting comments. I must say that I have been struck for years that we as a society have virtually ignored the slaughter on our roads.

    But I’ll leave you with one positive thought. In Portland, where I live, the mode share for cycling just keeps growing (It’s now at 8 percent, according to one city survey), and last year Portland had its safest traffic year ever – for everyone! – since the 1920s.

    • dottie says:

      Thanks for stopping by and contributing to the discussion! The power of the internet never ceases to amaze me. “Slaughter” is a powerful term for what’s happening out there, and I wish more people would acknowledge it. There were several issues that stood out to me while reading your book, and I plan to address a few of them separately in the coming weeks.

      The statistic about Portland is surprising and uplifting. Hopefully more cities will see that number and realize the benefit of investing in road infrastructure that makes everyone safer.

  15. cyclemaniac says:

    (All over the world) the irresponsible and less social-conscious minds behind steering wheels have transformed motorised vehicles into weapons of ‘mass-destructions’ (considering the larger number of family members affected than just the direct victims) that bring – most of the time, great and lifelong – miseries upon others (and – with high probability – upon themselves and their own families too (someday/eventually)!

    {So dear motorists – if you read this – I would like to say – “I’ve told you so!”. (Chew on this elementary Physics/common sense: You move tons at speed/velocity while a pedestrian or a bicyclist moves only just pounds at usually much lower speed/velocity. Who could potentially bring about great hurt and fatalities to his fellowmen?
    Sorry no special prize for the correct answer :P – Only a better world for all.;)}

    Smile .. be happy … for life is short (but do not make it shorter for others! :p).
    (Btw. I do drive – when need to.)

  16. bikinginla says:

    One key to changing things is to get police and prosecutors to take cycling cases seriously. There’s a common perception that we are all dangerous, law-breaking anarchists who don’t belong on the road; as a result, many law enforcement officers seem to spend more time finding convoluted explanations why the driver was not at fault following where the evidence actually leads.

    The only way this will ever change is if we put political pressure on our elected leaders, so they’ll encourage greater objectivity.

    And we’ve got to get people to recognize that it isn’t cycling that’s inherently dangerous — it’s driving.

  17. tsalyards says:

    There’s one real solution to this problem that American politicians will never touch with a ten foot pole: it needs to be more costly to drive and own cars.

    Whenever I start talking about a need for investment in proper bicycle infrastructure many of my more conservative friends go off about “life style subsidies.” I then ask them who built all of the roads and bridges that they drive on. It wasn’t private industry, it was the government. Our nation has been subsidizing cars and car infrastructure for 60+ years. Christ, even Obama is perpetuating this horrible trend by bailing out GM and sponsoring the “cash for clunkers” program. Even liberals are addicted to cars.

    What’s the real cause of car addiction? It’s laziness and convenience. If we want people to drive less we need to hit them where it hurts…in their pocket books. Any other attempts to change our transportation culture are doomed to failure without more expensive gas, high license fees, and massive penalties for man slaughter while driving.

  18. cb says:

    Excellent! I just started reading this book last week. I’ll look forward to chiming in on it.

    Dottie, if you haven’t flipped through it, Tom Vanderbilt’s *Traffic* is a truly fascinating book about car culture in America:

  19. cratedigger says:

    I will definitely read this book- in fact I just reserved it from the library. Thanks for the review.

    Where I sit, cars v. bikes is almost a class system situation. People that are on bikes are certainly lower class than someone in an Escalade… or so society seems to say.

    I own an old car that I drive occasionally,so I don’t generally hate cars. I just hate the sense of entitlement- I mean really texting and surfing while behind the wheel, while swerving into oncoming traffic- how can this be socially acceptable? (BTW, this example is from a roadway experience earlier today while going to get groceries.)

    Per the commentary above, MADD was able to shape the perception about intoxicated driving.

  20. pomocomo says:

    I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the injustices of being on the road, and stupefied by the willful obliviousness of the vast majority of our culture to the death toll on the road. But, until reading this review, I hadn’t ever turned the corner in my thinking from injustice to justice, that there could be a traffic justice movement. There’s great folks – engineers, planners, advocates – working on road safety, but thinking in terms of justice is an inspirational new category for me.

    When there’s such a huge issue confronting public health, it seems people would mobilize. But if we can learn anything from the rhetoric of the current, and much broader and equally vital health care debate, certain aspects of our lifestyle are entrenched and protected by deep expectations that define a culture. Car culture will not lightly bend. But at least there’s a cultural tradition of justice movements in this country as well, and it’s one worth advancing.

  21. E Mon says:

    looks like majority of the people feel its injustice
    in justice

  22. Thanks. Looking forward to reading this book. When will declare this social experiment called “automobility” a great failure?

  23. Christa says:

    I imagine soon there will be MAD (Mothers Against Driving). Moms will demand car-free, kid-friendly cities.

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