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Monday, November 30, 2009

Simple Solutions for Big Problems

Perhaps this is a bit of over-kill but we need to do whatever it takes to make cycling more popular in Valencia.

Valencia has everything that you would want in a town if you ride a bike: great weather, no hills (I happen to love steep climbs but I’m probably in the minority), and there is a great system of bike paths. With all this going for it the city only manages to attract 1.6% of commuters to travel by bicycle. What Valencia lacks to make cycling more popular are two things: bicycle safety and a positive image of cycling among the local populace. It seems to me that changing these two negatives is the easy and inexpensive part of the bike commuter equation. Improving bicycle safety—and by this I mean protection from automobiles—and upgrading the image of cycling could also be done fairly quickly.

The first thing that is required if you wish to foster a favorable cycling community is to ensure safety. Valencia has a great system of bike trails that separate cyclists from motorists but the system is hardly all-encompassing. If you know the system well it is possible to go just about anywhere in town on a trail but you will still be left to fend for yourself in the street for at least part of your ride. Riding on sidewalks is no longer permitted and police seem more anxious to enforce this law than they are about making car drivers act like part of the human race. Even if you take the bike path from one end of the city to the next you must interact with automobiles at every intersection.

Just last week a cyclist was killed while crossing a street at a green light for pedestrians. At many intersections the green light for pedestrians is mirrored by a yellow caution light for cars entering the crosswalk area. We all know that for many drivers a yellow caution light means hurry up because the light will change to red soon. I have had dozens of close calls with assholes in cars who are going in excess of 60kph through a pedestrian crossing while people on foot and bikes have a green light. In the States many cities have incredibly heavy fines for motorists entering a crosswalk while people are crossing. This needs to be enforced here in Valencia. Maybe the cops who are hassling bikers for being on the sidewalk could help out to calm brutish drivers. My life-long experience as a cyclist has made me an incredibly aggressive biker and I’m always eyeing oncoming traffic—especially when I have the right-of-way.

Drivers here basically do whatever the fuck they want, at least that’s the way it seems to me. I don’t see much in the way of traffic enforcement. People regularly run red lights and absolutely fly through yellow caution lights. Zebra crossings are ignored and I think that they only reason I garner any respect at all as a cyclist is that drivers don’t want to mess with a healthy adult male on a bike. Better enforcement along with a television ad campaign cold make life a lot better for cyclists in Valencia. The fines that are levied for infractions could pay for the TV spots.

As far as the image of cyclists here, I think most people view cycling as something only suited for children or people too poor to buy a new BMW. Cycling certainly isn’t seen as anything even remotely sexy. Once again, I think an effective TV ad campaign could change this attitude in a very short period of time. If marketing people can get people to believe that the brand of dishwashing soap they use will make them sexier, I think that they can make the same sort of sell for biking to work.