Monday, March 6, 2017

Bring on the Experts: Bicycles: Yielding (AB 1103) for more health and cleaner air

California is a big deal. Just behind the US, China, Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom, our state is the sixth largest economy in the world. They do a lot of driving here in California, 327 770 million miles to be precise. All this driving is a big problem for air quality, and for communities which are hurt by traffic. Moreover, all those cars discourage and prevent people from using active and healthy modes like the bicycle.

Traffic planning has facilitated and encouraged cars for more than 100 years. Little wonder that those who want to use active modes, for their own health or for the health of the environment, confront plenty of hurdles and barriers. Plenty of them! On Westwood Blvd and elsewhere.

But now the law-makers in Sacramento have come out with a new plan. It is called AB 1103 Bicycles: Yielding. On February 17, 2017 Assembly Members Obernolte and Ting, supported by Senator Wiener, Assembly Members Bloom, Chávez, and Kiley (@JayObernolte @PhilTing @Scott_Wiener @RichardBloom @AsmRocky @KevinKileyCA) introduced a proposal for a bill which would bring the so-called Idaho-Stop to California. It would allow those who are riding a bicycle to treat a stop sign as a yield sign. The proposal states:

When the law was introduced in Idaho in 1982, it was shown to reduce collisions involving people on bikes. It is not a provision to blow through stop signs. It is an arrangement that takes into account the 360% visibility enjoyed by the person on the bike, and the ability to hear approaching vehicles. There are no A-pillars or windows on the bike. The law also takes into account that, compared with a motor vehicle, the bicycle poses much less of a danger to other road users. It would also end the annoying intersection confusion that often occurs when a cyclist comes to a full stop, finds himself waved through, but then needs to co-ordinate with drivers from other directions. 

I have a dozen of these signs on my own commute to UCLA. As an occasional unicyclist, I have mastered the art of trackstand to the degree that I can do red lights and stop signs without putting my feet on the ground, rolling back and forth slowly, regardless of wind and now also with onlookers. I will miss the opportunity of show off my tricks, but this law is not about me. 

It is about those Californians who would ride a bicycle but have been put off by a infrastructure which does not project safety, and by a legal system that does protect cycling. The law (and enforcement) fails vulnerable road users in many ways: It does not offer presumed liability, it fails to address the epidemic of hit and run collisions, and vehicle based enforcement by police remains structurally blind to the dangerous wave of distracted driving which we have to contend with when cycling. AB 1103 could be the moment when the legal system takes the most vulnerable road users out of the shadow. But the point of this proposal is not that it would legalize a widespread practice on the road, the real point is that it would and could encourage more people to try healthy and sustainable modes for the many short trips Californians drive. Aggrieved voices from behind a steering wheel feel this proposal gives those on a bike an unfair advantage: But the advantage of the California Yielding will be available to all drivers, they just need to get on a bike. 

Indeed, the true value of this law may well be the public discussion it will produce. This is a good discussion to have, to underline the urgency for more sustainable modes and less driving. When we bring this issue in front of 39 million Californians, each of whom is driving 14.000 miles a year, where more than 40% of all trips are less than 5 miles long, some insight may well occur, some lights my be switched on, and some drivers my venture outside their comfort zone and try how it feels to take advantage of the privilege California Yielding will afford to those heroes who pedal in traffic. 

Which brings us to the main question: How many lights will this proposal be able to switch on? How much enlightenment can a public discussion like this produce? Indeed, how many of the 327 770 million miles driven in California will be replaced by miles pedaled as a consequence of the law, and the simplification it offers for those who chose to do the right thing? How many more miles pedaled?

How will the public react? How much encouragement is in this new law? That then is the big question for the public health experts: Will AB 1103  yield 1 million, 2 million, or 20 million additional bike miles a year? Can we please urgently get a rough estimate from the experts? And would they be so kind to translate these additional miles cycled into air quality benefits, and translate them into health costs not incurred? How many premature lives not lost? And what would be the value, in  millions of  $, of carbon emissions avoided? What would be the value of health benefits achieved by these additional active modes? In millions of $ please. 

These figures are urgently required. They can help to structure the public discussion about the proposal. And they can teach even the most dedicated motorhead that there is real money to be gained from giving your people on bikes a legislative leg up.

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