My watch tells me it’s 3 AM here in Florence, Italy, but my body says it’s only 9 PM, so I did what I often do to try to put myself to sleep – I read my old cycling related blog posts.
Sometimes that has the desired effect – and sometimes, like tonight, if gives me an idea for a new post.
I’ve been in Florence for less than 24 hours, but already I am questioning some fundamental assumptions about bicycle transportation.
It started on the cab ride from the airport. Driving along main roads, we passed dozens of people on bikes. There were no bike lanes, no sharrows, no “Share the Road” signs (although to be honest, I don’t read enough Italian to know one if I saw it). Some passes were closer than others, but there was not one horn honked, nor any birds flipped. No sassy Italian epithets, gestures or comebacks, not even a sideways glance.
We passed through many complex intersections – some seemed to be combinations of roundabouts and standard right angles, others were obtuse merges and switchbacks. At nearly every one, there were bikes, pedestrians, and motor vehicles, including scooters – lots of scooters. Everyone got where they wanted to go, and the only bike helmet I’ve seen so far was attached to someone’s luggage at the arrivals terminal.
I don’t actually know whether Florence has a good safety record for pedestrians and cyclists. As far as I know, it’s typical for European cities. What’s notable is that you see a real cross section of the population on bikes. Everything from grandmothers with groceries to tourists, to businessmen in suits. It’s certainly no Copenhagen or Amsterdam, but it would probably embarrass any North American city for its combination of high bicycle mode share and seeming lack of serious safety issues.
There is a sense that riding a bike is just no big deal. Not a scary extreme sport, not an obscure subculture, just part of everyday life. Bikes are everywhere, in every shape and size. Mostly, they’re all beat up and kind of dirty, not the gleaming personal fashion statements we tend to ride in the U.S. Hardly a drop bar to be found, and almost every bike has a full chaincase. Not just a chain guard, but a full case, so your dress or your pants just can’t possibly get caught.
My instincts tell me that riding a bike in Florence would be quite safe. The interactions I have observed between people on foot, people on bikes and people in cars seem quite deferential. They really have to be, because the streets are sometimes so narrow that there simply isn’t room to pass, so the people in cars wait for the people on bikes, and people on bikes wait for the pedestrians, and everybody gets where they are going, eventually. I’m not the first one to notice this. After writing most of this article, I came across this piece:
…while looking for some stats to back up my hunches.
At the heart of the matter is the simple fact that Florence is a very old city and its streets were not designed for high speed motorized traffic. As in the Renaissance, people walk IN the street, not along it or across it. Cars make their way through a random flow of humanity in Brownian motion at what sometimes seems like a crawl, yet they rarely have to come to a complete stop or wait at a traffic light. At the relatively low speeds permitted by these ancient streets, lined with rows of neatly parked scooters, curb-straddling cars and throngs of people, there is hardly any need to. And yet, it seemed to me that we all made excellent time.
All of which led me to wonder whether we are thinking about this whole “infrastructure = safety issue in the wrong way. Yes, the Dutch, in their quasi-Germanic way, have proven that with the right laws, the right design, and the right incentives, you can make urban cycling safer than housecleaning. But we’re not all Dutch, and the US will never be Holland. Which reminds me, why are the people from Holland called Dutch when their country’s formal name is the Netherlands? And nether to what? Now that they have the whole cycling thing under control, maybe they can clear that up too.
But back to my point. Florence, and perhaps other Italian cities, are chaotic in comparison to their American counterparts, let alone Amsterdam or Copenhagen. And yet, from what I can determine based on limited research, the fatality rate is comparable to ours, if not better.
I remember reading about an experiment, I’m think it was in Germany, where they simply eliminated all traffic signals and signs. You would think that there would have been a cataclysm of collisions and carnage, but just the opposite happened. People in cars stopped and looked both ways at all intersections, and in the absence of green lights, they did not accelerate to try to make the next light. Presumably, pedestrians and cyclists looked both ways too, and, as in Florence, everyone got where they wanted to go safely and somewhat efficiently.
So maybe we have to rethink our entire approach to traffic control and transportation safety. Maybe if drivers weren’t so focused on making all the lights and doing at least the speed limit, as if it were a minimum, we’d all be safer and probably reach our destinations just as quickly, but with less stress. It’s an appealing notion, but we’ll have to do a lot of behavior modification to make to a reality. And yet, when I visit places like New York City and see how Times Square, formerly a traffic nightmare, is now a pedestrian plaza, I have hope. I know that Richmond will never be Florence, with its benign chaos, let alone Copenhagen, with its prioritization of cycling over motorized traffic. But maybe, just maybe, we can instill a little more of both approaches and get beyond the current us-versus-them mentality that dominates discussions of bicycle safety.