Farhad Manjoo: Riding a bike in America should not be this dangerous

Many ‘accidents’ are the result of political and economic choices we have made.

(Mark Davis | The New York Times) The intersection of El Camino Real and Grant Road in Mountain View, Calif., on April 20, 2022, where Andre Retana, 13, was killed while riding his bike to school. Bicyclists and pedestrians are dying at alarming rates.

Mountain View, California • At about 8:15 a.m. on a Thursday morning in March, Andre Retana, a 13-year-old riding his bike to middle school, pulled up to a red light at the intersection of El Camino Real and Grant Road in this Silicon Valley suburb.

Near two major state highways, the El Camino and Grant crossing is one of the area’s busiest and most dangerous sections of roadway. The intersection lacks dedicated bike lanes and other features to protect bicyclists and pedestrians from fast-moving motor vehicle traffic. Instead the intersection is an asphalt-and-concrete love letter to cars. Gas stations occupy two corners; an America’s Tire store sits on a third, a BMW dealership on the fourth. Its traffic design, too, prioritizes the efficient movement of cars and trucks over other uses of the road. To keep traffic humming along, motorists on all of its corners are allowed to turn right on red lights.

As Andre approached the intersection’s southeast corner on the sidewalk, a city spokeswoman said, he rode into the path of, then fell in front of, a construction truck that was turning right. A police investigation determined that the truck driver had come to a complete stop at the red light before making the turn and that because he was high up in the cab, he had never seen Andre, who was in the truck’s blind spot.

The truck hit Andre. The driver, whose identity has not been released, realized he’d been in a crash only after bystanders flagged him down. Andre died in a hospital a short while later. The driver was cleared of any wrongdoing.

You might simply call Andre’s death an accident. But as journalist Jessie Singer has argued, in much of American life, many “accidents” are far from accidental; they are instead the inevitable result of political and economic choices that society has made, and they might have been prevented had we made other, safer choices.

States and cities will soon be showered with $1.2 trillion in infrastructure funding that Congress approved last year. Some traffic safety advocates told me they see this money as a huge opportunity to save our roads — but to make the best use of that money, they said, we have to be willing to think about road safety in a transformative way.

No one knows if Andre would have lived if Caltrans, the California state traffic agency that manages El Camino Real, had built this crossing with the safety of bikers and pedestrians in mind. Mathew Roe, a transportation planner at the National Association of City Transportation Officials, suggested several simple safety features that might have helped — among them, protected bike lanes, which offer a physical barrier between cars and bicycles. He noted, too that one reason people choose to ride on sidewalks is for fear of riding right up against cars on the roadway — especially one, as at this intersection, lacking even painted bike lanes. Other safety features for intersections include raised areas at corners that create a “refuge” behind which bikes could safely queue while waiting for the light to change; a setback that forces cars to wait farther back from the intersection, improving their ability to see pedestrians and bikers; and separate signals for bikes and cars, to help each kind of vehicle stay out of the other’s way.

The United States is in the midst of a traffic fatality crisis. Nearly 39,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes on U.S. roadways in 2020, the most since 2007. U.S. roads have grown especially dangerous to “nonoccupants” of vehicles (that is, bicyclists and pedestrians). In 2011, 16% of traffic deaths were of nonoccupants; in 2020 it was 20% . The trends are a major reversal; from the 1970s until the late 2000s, deaths on U.S. roadways of bicyclists, pedestrians and people in cars had steadily declined. There are a number of possible reasons for rising deaths — among them, many more of our cars are big and deadly SUVs, that states keep raising speed limits, ride-sharing vehicles have made our roads more chaotic, and people drove much more recklessly during the pandemic. But while many cities and states and the federal government have unveiled plans to mitigate the horror, progress has been elusive.

The intersection of El Camino and Grant Road illustrates a major part of the problem. A big reason our roads are unsafe is because they were designed that way. As advocacy group Smart Growth America puts it, policymakers at nearly every level of government continue to prioritize the speedy movement of vehicles over the safety of everyone else on our streets. And even when the dangers of our bad roads become glaring, officials have limited options for fixing them.

Our roads are deadly because officials will still call the inevitable consequences of this ill-design a tragedy rather than a choice.

The only way for America to reverse its traffic death spiral is to make a radically different choice. Traffic fatalities have been falling steadily in most of the United States’ peer nations, many of which have adopted stricter rules regarding speed limits, seat belts, drunken driving, helmets and vehicle safety standards. Many of our peers have also pulled back from car-focused road design. Now we have a chance to replicate their success.

How? We have to make cars smaller, because SUVs are significantly more deadly to pedestrians than sedans. We have to slow them down, because speed kills. And we have to be willing to slightly inconvenience drivers to improve the roads for everyone else.

In practice, this will include installing a variety of road-safety features and instituting new rules. We could roll out protected bike lanes just about everywhere. We could alter our busiest intersections so that bicycles and pedestrians are given marked, safe places to wait and specialized signaling to let them know when to go. We have to sometimes make cars and trucks wait longer at a signal so other people can safely use the road.

But we need to do more than just install a bunch of new bike lanes — we need to make installing bike lanes and other safety measures for pedestrians and bicyclists a routine part of designing our streets.

“It’s about retraining our brains,” Zabe Bent, a traffic planning expert at the National Association of City Transportation Officials, told me. In much of the United States today, the safety and convenience of drivers are seen as the natural state of things, while installing safety measures for bicycles and pedestrians requires special approval. Among the most macabre policies: In the federal government’s traffic safety bible, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, one way for a locality to justify installing a traffic signal at a crosswalk is if a certain number of people have been injured there.

Bent’s group advocates altering such default standards to favor modes of travel other than cars. She pointed to an ordinance passed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2019 that requires the installation of safe bike paths on any road that the city is repairing. In other words, bike safety is required by design — and city officials must request permission to avoid installing a bike lane. “They flipped it,” Bent said. “You have to demonstrate why you can’t build a protected bike lane,” instead of begging that the city do so.

Are American policymakers courageous enough to advocate for bike and pedestrian safety if it means inconveniencing cars? I can’t say I’m sanguine. Drivers are a phenomenally powerful political force — see how even Democratic politicians like Gov. Gavin Newsom of California and President Joe Biden have recently tossed aside their environmental goals in order to alleviate gas prices.

But it’s worth remembering that protecting pedestrians and bicyclists on our roads is not just good for walkers and bikers. It’s also good for drivers — both because most drivers are also sometimes pedestrians, and because turning some car commuters into bike commuters clears up traffic for cars. Then there’s the civilizational imperative. While it’s very nice that cars are transitioning from gas to electricity, switching the fuel source of our automobiles is unlikely to be enough to meet our goals for emission reductions to combat climate change. Combating climate change also requires Americans to drive less and walk and bike a lot more than we do now.

At the moment, compared with many parts of Europe, walking and riding a bike in the United States is a terrifically dangerous proposition. But these dismal stats can be reversed. Even Amsterdam wasn’t always Amsterdam: Until the 1970s, the Dutch bike haven was as car-dependent as many other places in the world — and it was only after a fierce activist campaign triggered by hundreds of traffic deaths that Amsterdam decided to adopt bicycle safety as a central part of its urban plan.

American states and cities now have an opportunity to do the same. But they must act fast, and they must act decisively.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.