Guest Blog: Roads and Justice

Intro by Jessica: Today was a beautiful day, sunshine, no wind. We rode 45 miles before 11am! We felt on top of the world. But, the afternoon, well the afternoon, was kind of terrible. We had one semi intentionally run us off the road by laying on his horn for about half of a mile, refusing to get over, and basically daring us to stay where we were. We didn’t take the challenge, and got off the road. But the thing is, bicycles are ALLOWED to be on the roads we are on. The truth is most drivers have been amazing. But today’s drivers didn’t quite want to make space for us. I was looking behind us as much as looking before us. I was using my hand to indicate that the right thing to do is get into the other lane, not squeak by us. Needless to say, it wasn’t our favorite day. Our experience today has led us to reroute the rest of our week. Another thing we have noticed in many of our stops has been the absence of sidewalks. Sidewalks are nowhere in the suburban sprawl we’ve found ourselves in from time to time nor are they in some of the newly constructed downtown casinos we’ve passed by. We have literally foregone local restaurants because there was no safe way to walk there. It has struck us just how many places simply do not invite people to be active and may actively discourage it. It does not have to be this way. Below are some thoughtful words from my brother, Ben Gerhardstein, on these issues.

Can we shift gears (sorry, couldn’t stop myself) for a moment? Given that May is National Bike Month, let’s talk about the linkage between the words “pedaling” and “justice.” Throughout the United States, the public road system, like the criminal justice system, doesn’t serve everyone equally, and is in need of significant reform.

Let’s start by reconsidering the status quo. At a societal level somehow we have grown accustomed to tens of thousands of people dying on US roads every year, just as we have grown accustomed to over-incarceration and police use of excessive force.  As Jessica, Al, and others have documented on this blog, in recent months we’ve seen a huge shift in public attention regarding policing and the need for fair treatment for everyone. The nation is confronting the reality that police shootings of unarmed young black men is worthy of broad attention and outrage.

When it comes to roads, I think we need a similar awakening. To my mind, every road death is a preventable tragedy – not an “accident” to be blamed on a driver, pedestrian, or cyclist. Moreover, while all these tragedies can and should be prevented (some countries and US cities have adopted a vision zero goal of eliminating road deaths​), cyclists and pedestrians are especially vulnerable. And those without access to cars (often poor and people of color), who often walk, bike, and take public transit out of necessity, are disproportionately impacted by unsafe roads.

Our public streets ought to serve everyone, but for decades they have been designed to prioritize cars over people. The US lags behind many nations in terms of walking and biking, in large part due to a lack of safe road infrastructure and poor urban planning decisions. This while we (begin to) struggle with climate change, obesity, urban sprawl, and a host of other issues tied to our car-centric lifestyles. When we fail to build complete streets that meet the needs of motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians (including disabled folks), we miss a chance to create safer, healthier, and happier places. It’s not rocket science – we need streets with sidewalks, protected bicycle lanes, slow vehicle speeds, and safe crossings – especially in urban areas.

Don’t let Al and Jessica fool you, cyclists aren’t all lycra-wearing, crazy adventurers. This month, I’m tracking my biking as part of the Bike Month Challenge – so far I’ve logged 35 rides (most only a mile or two), many with my two kids (aged 3 and 1). It is increasingly clear that a large segment of the US population is “interested, but concerned” about bicycling. These folks would hop on a bike more often if they felt comfortable on the roads. There is also growing recognition that more diverse voices are needed within the bicycling community.

So, when you think about “pedaling justice,” I encourage you to consider not only the epic adventure that Jessica and Al are enjoying, and the important work they are supporting, but also what could be done in your community to make our roads safe for everyone.

Ben Gerhardstein, Al’s son and Jessica’s brother, sits on City of Berkeley (California) Transportation Commission and is a member of Bike East Bay and Walk San Francisco.

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