Monday, June 04, 2012

Will salmon-cyclists destroy Rochester’s chances for greatness?


Every time I march out this quote by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on transportation, people’s eyes glaze over and their attention starts to wander: “Transportation sources emit greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. In 2008, transportation sources contributed approximately 27 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.”Basic Information | Transportation and Climate | US EPA

I don’t know why it has this effect on folks, as it’s an amazing quote. It says a lot. It doesn’t just say a lot about the way we presently get around—usually by our favorite gas-guzzler on asphalt pavements we get from fossil fuels—it says something profound about our ability to stop (Anthropomorphic Accelerated) Climate Change. With the exception of who we vote for, our transportation choices are our biggest influence on Climate Change.

I know. Your eyes are glazing over, and I should be thankful you’ve gotten this far. But I had to get that out so I can say this: Although Rochester, NY is a small city, not even big enough to support a bike-share program like New York City; it is poised to become a major bicycle-friendly city. There are a lot of reasons to believe our little city will morph into a great active transportation (cycling and walking) kind of town, as I’ve mentioned before: Connecting the Climate Change dots on Rochester’s transportation (And, did you notice, our Genesee River trails have 911 markers for cyclists who get in trouble? In many ways, we are so ready for greatness.)

So what’s stopping us from becoming sustainable and dropping all the transportation weight we’ve gained by a system of paved roads and vehicle options that are undeniably warming up our planet? Hey, I’m not kidding -- the place is really getting hot.

When hitting 400 is not good: Levels of key greenhouse gas pass milestone, trouble scientists - The Washington Post WASHINGTON — The world’s air has reached what scientists call a troubling new milestone for carbon dioxide, the main global warming pollutant. Monitoring stations across the Arctic this spring are measuring more than 400 parts per million of the heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere. The number isn’t quite a surprise, because it’s been rising at an accelerating pace. Years ago, it passed the 350 ppm mark that many scientists say is the highest safe level for carbon dioxide. It now stands globally at 395. (May 31, 2012) Washington Post: Breaking News, World, US, DC News & Analysis

The reason why Rochester, NY hasn’t become a major city for bicycling (and thus reducing its carbon footprint ) is simple: Salmon Cycling. I know, it sounds crazy, and what the heck is a salmon cyclist? I stole this term from the NY Times article This Is How We Ride for those “salmon-cyclists who ride against the flow of traffic.”

Now before you fly off your handlebars, let me explain. A couple of years ago in my capacity as Rochester Sierra Club Transportation Committee chair I helped host a meeting with the Rochester Cycling Alliance to produce a successful program on teaching adult bicyclists how to ride safely and legally in Rochester’s vehicular traffic. The Office of Monroe County Transportation Safety taught the class and we learned a lot. One of the things we learned is that the highest mortality rate for bicyclists is when they ride against the flow of traffic, because drivers making a turn don’t expect anyone speeding along the road against traffic. They become invisible for a car looking for vehicles coming the other way.

I know, you’re dumbfounded. How can such a simple thing like bicyclist’s obeying the traffic laws turn Rochester, NY into a major bicycling town?

Of course, I’ve simplified it a little. The reason why hundreds and thousands of us Rochesterians are not leaving our cars at home and cycling for those short distances (under six miles) is not simply because a relatively few bicyclists are spoiling it for the rest of us. Actually, we are all to blame for a traffic climate that tends to discourage active-transportation instead of recognizing how critical active transportation is for our future. The blame is on both sides of the road, even though pedestrians and cyclists don’t spew out greenhouse gases (GHG’s), and they are usually the losers in any kind of encounter.

We need to change this: Car drivers are paying attention to their cell phones instead of pedestrians and bicyclists. The right-on-red law has turned many drivers into those who turn on red without braking. And some drivers just can’t stand the idea of sharing their road with someone who obviously cannot afford a vehicle as neat as theirs. The problem is education and attitude.

And those bicyclists: I was helping out at a recent traffic count recently. Until about 5PM (the time when bicycle commuters start returning from work), most bicyclists that I saw didn’t obey traffic laws or wear a helmet. I see cyclists who take such a crazy zigzag route though our intersections that it would have given Evel Knievel the shakes. Cyclists not stopping for traffic lights, zipping along the sidewalks, and racing against the lights all contribute to drivers being wary of all bicyclists.

A salmon-cyclist, a driver indifferent to those not in a car, and a public that doesn’t understand the implications of reducing greenhouse gases are going to keep Rochester from being great—and sustainable. The days of the Wild West are over, and they shouldn’t be reincarnated on the streets of Rochester.

How can we get great? Here some ideas:

Sure many cyclists just want to have fun, and many drivers just want all the paved surfaces to be free of anything not burning fossil fuels. But we’re not living in the Wild West anymore. We are living on a planet that is warming (go here for an exact GHG’s count), and changing our attitudes about transportation can make a difference.

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