No Margin for Error

Late last year, I praised the the City of Rochester’s efforts to improve cycling safety, access and attractiveness.  New bike lanes, including a short section of protected bike lanes on Broad Street, and a new cycle track on Union Street highlighted a few strong gestures by the city.  These complimented Rochester’s biggest leap, the addition of Zagster bike share to the city’s transit and recreational fold.

This week, I captured the following image showing the city’s newest green-painted bike lanes on the aforementioned Broad Street bridge (they remove the barriers in winter to accommodate snow removal), complete with a row of cars parked over them.Then I noticed the sign, clearly implying that parking in these bike lanes is allowed on nights and weekends.

According to my sources, this is part of a “misunderstanding” by the city and they are working to resolve the issue.  The problem is, the damage is done.

In smaller cities like Rochester, the average driver might not be as educated on what bike lanes are or rules governing their use.  It takes time for an unaware population to learn and assimilate this kind of infrastructure, especially when it doesn’t benefit cars.  Making a city aware that roads are not just for speeding automobiles is a difficult task, and requires a strong and clear approach.

What the signs above say to the average driver that wants to park for a game at the nearby hockey arena is, “These bike lanes are just temporary, you can park here.”  And it’s not just the drivers that do park there… it’s the thousands of people driving by that see these cars parked, unticketed, leading to the assumption that those lanes must have some flexible use other than a dedicated space for bikes.  And what happens when the city takes these signs down?  The people that have already parked there, as well as those who have seen people park there will continue to park there out of habit.  The damage is done.

One little mistake.  That’s all it takes to thwart the learning curve that might elevate cycling in our community to a new level, as well as raise the awareness of drivers that our city streets are to be shared, not owned.  But every little mistake, every miscommunication, every shortstep negates the efforts to change the conversation and gives fodder to the critics of well-meaning urban endeavors.

Let’s look at some larger transit projects that are struggling with growing pains… Albuquerque, New Mexico is on the verge of opening a highly anticipated Bus Rapid Transit system (BRT), but delays in bus production and minor issues with the stations have clouded the project as it nears completion.  Critics are already calling it a failure, and the newly elected mayor (the BRT system was initialized by the previous mayor) recently referred to the project as a “bit of a lemon,” immediately raising speculation in the community.  Even with a “Gold” rating from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, the highest ever rating for a route in the United States, the delays incurred by this project have put it in a very defensive position even before the ribbon has been cut.

Finally, no other transit project has had a more of a difficult start to 2018 than the Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcar.  The year-and-change old downtown loop line has been fraught with mechanical failures, weather related issues and most recently, a crash/derailment injuring two operators.  The wave of bad luck has critics calling for the shutdown of the streetcar, even though it has already helped ushered tens of millions of investment dollars into the downtown economy.

Whether the issues are big or small, there is always an underlying feeling of anxiety from urbanists that any transit project (or any project that doesn’t involve a car-based environment) is one slip-up away from being scrapped.  Every move, every purchase, every decision has to be performed with the utmost precision, for the naysayers seem to already have their hand on the proverbial plug, ready to give it a yank at the slightest hiccup.  The childlike level of patience that the general population has with regard to innovative urban ideas is enough to keep the city planner, the urban cyclist, and the alternative transit hopeful up at night.

Nearly 40,000 people die in car accidents every year.  When they do, people blame the stupidity of drivers and defend a road system that is designed for speed over safety.  When a streetcar has a malfunction, or someone parks in a bike lane, critics call for the transit system to be scrapped instead of defending it.  It is a double standard based on an auto-addicted society that has no patience for the possibility that any other mode of transit might share our precious blacktop.

With projects as simple as new bike lanes, or as complex as a streetcar system, there is no “learning curve” in the mind of the general public.  Transforming 60 years of outright automobile dominance at the cost of our urban fabric has made any effort to counter this stronghold an almost impossible task, and one that must be executed perfectly.  But because new ideas, like toddlers learning to walk, are understandably subject to missteps and tumbles, perfection is likely out of the question.  The problem is, the general public wants our toddling first steps toward a complete transit system to be a track star out of the gate, an expectation that could not be more out of touch with practical reality.

Our transit endeavors, big and small, will always be difficult, for there is no time to grow, no time to learn, and no chance to be any less than perfect.  The expectation that new ideas get “one shot” at the chance to counter an automobile dominated cultural perspective has to change if we want any chance at making a “long-term” push to restore our cities to their former glory.  Until then, there’s no margin for error.