Jim Greene Discusses Bicycling Issues

Jim Greene gets ready for a ride
Jim Greene gets ready for a ride. Photo: Courtesy Jim Greene.

By Lou Melini

Over the past year, the E-mail list for the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Committee for Salt Lake City has been the venue for several discussions regarding the future of bicycling in the city and the state. The 3-foot law and whether the monies allocated for cycling should go to education or infrastructure, are just some of the topics. Bike Commuter Jim Greene participated in the on-line discussions. Below are more Jim’s thoughts on those topics.

Cycling Utah: Jim, first let’s talk about you and your bike commute.

Jim Greene: I am 56 years old and have been riding my bike as much as I could since I was 15. I grew up in Palo Alto, CA and I would regularly ride my bike over the coast range to San Gregorio Beach–although I do admit that most of the time I tried to arrange for an adult to drive me to the top of the range and I would literally coast to the coast. I also lived for short times in the east coast where shoulders on the road were non-existent and cars had no patience for bicycles. During those east coast interludes my bike did gather a bit of dust. I have lived in Utah since 1987, when IBM transferred me here from New York. With all that Utah had to offer I got back into serious cycling right away. My colleagues from IBM formed our own little group of riders and we set a goal to cycle to St. George, something I have now done 4 times.

I started commuting on an infrequent basis when I worked at Novell. I would drive down to Provo with my bike in my car, then ride the bike home to Sandy, and back again to Provo the next morning. Since going to work at FamilySearch in downtown SLC 9 years ago I have become a die-hard commuter. I have two commute bikes that I use, plus two road bikes for the Saturday rides and the long adventures. I also have a cruiser bike that I use for the neighborhood, shopping and small excursions, where I don’t have to change shoes or clothes. I like to go fast, but I have never felt the need to formally race. I ride bikes to live; I don’t live to ride bikes.

The ride from Sandy is anywhere from 18 to 23 miles one way, depending on which route I take. I try to avoid traffic-heavy roads as much as possible. During the months of Daylight Savings I ride both directions, about 45 miles a day, and try to take a route that keeps me in the neighborhoods with a dose of either Wasatch or Holladay Boulevards. I don’t mind riding in the dark, but do try to avoid it. I have 6 flashing lights of 3 different colors that I use. I have the philosophy that you can never be too visible. When I was in Copenhagen this summer I dropped into a bike shop just to browse and noticed a set of lights that uses magnetic induction to power the LEDs. You install magnets on your wheels on the spokes, and as the wheel spins and the magnets pass close to the lights an induction field causes the LEDs to blink–no batteries ever needed, the faster you go the more they blink. I bought a set and installed them on my primary commuter bike, a KHS Flite 700 with flat bars.

In the dark winter months I would have to end up riding both ways in the dark, so I will generally take the bus in the morning with my bike on front, and ride home in the evening. I mostly take the shortest route and go Main St., Vine St. to 300 West and wind my way home from 8000 South. This lets me avoid the coldest temps, and I usually get at least 30 minutes of semi-daylight most of the time in the evening. If snow is actively falling and has not been cleared I will not ride. Not because I don’t have the gear for it or can’t, but because it is just not safe. I have come close to being pinball paddled by fishtailing cars too many times. It works out to about 5 days in the year that I don’t ride due to weather. I also no longer bike commute on Wednesdays because of a volunteer activity that I have in the evening in Draper, timing says I have to drive. I have accumulated quite the closet full of all weather gear for the commute, but my favorite weapon is my rechargeable battery-powered heated in-soles for my shoes. They last about three hours per charge and keep my feet toasty warm down to the minus temps. Good stuff! I have a Klein Mantra mountain bike that I ride when the time comes for fat tires and knobbies.

C.U.: Also can you tell me why you commute by bicycle?

J.G.: It would be very easy for me to answer this question by saying that I ride because of the good that it does for others. I could say that it contributes to conservation of natural resources, that it is my part to contribute to clean air. It would be very easy to give an altruistic answer, but it wouldn’t be the real answer. To be very honest I ride purely for selfish reasons. I ride because it is good for me. My mind is more alert and I am more energized at work. I am healthier. I am more productive. It makes me healthier physically, mentally, and spiritually.

There are few things I know of that where one can be totally selfish and in so doing also be so considerate.

C.U.: What would you say to those who would counter and say that bicyclists are actually totally inconsiderate of the laws and others on the road?

J.G.: I think part of that is because so many of us have tried to establish bicycles as equals on the road, when in reality we are not. If you look at bikes and cars as equals sharing the resource called the roadway, then it naturally leads you to the conclusion that as equals you have an equal responsibility to obey the laws and when you don’t there is a problem. However, it is the premise of equality, and the desire to attain it that is actually the problem, not the obedience or disobedience of the laws. Actually, bicycles are far from equals when it comes to sharing the resources. Cars are faster, sturdier, require more room, less fragile, and far more numerous. Because of that the rules of the roadway have been developed for cars. Bicycles enter the equation, and because of their inherent disadvantage they ask for and accept equality where in reality equality is not to the cyclist’s advantage. With all things equal we lose. We need laws specifically for bicyclists; we need roadways that include designs for and accommodations for bicyclists. As long as we continue to propagate the idea that we are equals, we will continue to have the ire, wrath and displeasure of the motoring public. All of us who commute know that we daily are faced with decisions where our own personal safety and obedience to the law are placed at odds. Just as an example if we take any part of the lane (something we sometimes have to do, due to debris or shoulder damage), and which we are entitled to do by law, it causes the car that is passing us (which it has to eventually do because it is faster than us) to either crowd us, or to possibly cross a solid yellow line–both of which actions are against the law. The end result is either an angry driver, or an angry cyclist, or both. This is just one of many examples where equal does not work. That said, there are always inconsiderate cyclists, as there are inconsiderate drivers, we should not fall into the trap of generalizing the actions of the few in such a way as to prevent actions that will benefit the majority. We need to stop focusing on the exceptions and stop trying to achieve equality, and instead focus on the realities that will face us: oil is a finite resource, economically cycling will expand not contract, we need to accommodate these trends in positive ways and provide roadways that are safe and inviting for both sets of users.

C.U.: During the 2011 state legislative session, there was a bill allowing cyclists to treat stops signs as yield signs, copying the Idaho law. What are your thoughts on that? I sat in a neutral corner, but I thought you had some rational thoughts in support of the bill.

J.G.: Here is what I have to say about the Idaho law. Thankfully, it was passed in a time when politics where not so heated. Because of that it has provided a laboratory of almost 25 years of data. Were it not so, I am afraid that all the scaremongers out there would gloom and doom the idea to death. It is still a very hard sell, but one that we all need to look at rationally.

First, I consider myself a law-abiding citizen. For those of you who are saying that the previous statement is hypocritical because I live the Idaho law most of the time, let me just ask two questions: First, when driving do you properly, according to the vehicle code, signal all turns and lane changes? Second, isn’t five miles an hour over the speed limit still speeding, even if you never get a ticket? So, yes, I am as law abiding as any average citizen. That said, it does not take a person who rides their bike any distance outside of their neighborhood very long to get really annoyed at the way our streets are set up. What do I mean? Well to start with the proliferation of 4-way stop signs. Historically, the birth of the 4-way was to break-up traffic flow, to keep people from speeding in residential areas. This decision, like most other roadway issues, was made by only considering automobile issues. Which is natural during a time when gas was cheap and cars ruled. But times have changed and we have to look at alternatives to taking the car everywhere.

The 4-way stops signs every block or two are annoying, now add to that the physics of the bike. Just like a car uses more gas when it has to stop and start, so too a bike requires more power from the rider, more energy, when we have to start and stop. The result is a need for me as a cyclist to make a decision. I have to go 20 miles and I can do that the easy way or the hard way. No matter what I ultimately decide, I have to do it the safe way. Safety, or in other words my life, is always my top concern. The decision goes like this–if I can slow and treat the stop sign like a yield sign it will save me so much more energy, and allow me to get to where I am going with more energy left, and that will make me happier and more willing to bike–thus, perpetuating the saving of fossil-fueled energy as well. Or, do I fully obey the law, maintain a greater safety, but get their a little slower, and lot more tired? Do I get there faster and happier and risk a ticket; or do I obey the law completely? I think you know what I have decided, in the short run–I will happily risk the ticket.

Second, having decided to safely disobey the law at times I also have a long- term strategy: Help however I can to change the law. It is a law that was designed for cars operating on roadways designed for cars. Times have changed. BTW, Yield does not mean never stop, it means slow down, check for traffic, stop if there is traffic, start going again if it is safe to do so. I am not indiscriminately blasting through stop signs or red lights. In fact, downtown where the traffic is much heavier, I rarely even have the opportunity to choose whether to go through an intersection without the benefit of a green light. Safety is always paramount. I don’t want to ever be dead right or dead wrong.

Third, this is where the Idaho experiment is so valuable. For almost 25 years they have had the law, and guess what, it has not resulted in blood and mayhem with cyclists strewn all over their streets. It turns out that cyclists do a pretty good job looking out for themselves. In fact, the only real difference in the way the riders in the two states ride is that in Idaho they ride the way we ride in Utah only legally. We in Utah have to break the law to do it. No greater accidents per capita, no greater fatalities. Both groups look and act mostly the same. One is doing it legally and one is not. What is wrong with this picture?

Fourth, if the Idaho law were to pass in Utah, would it create a public relations problem; more than the one that already exists? I seriously doubt it. It can’t get worse, only better. The vocal and very public debates between cyclists and drivers are mostly ignorance, and no PR in the land can educate an ignorant person who does not want to be educated. Those on the margin, however, the ones who are angry and indignant because they see cyclist breaking the law and feel it is not right, they may actually see the process of the law changing, may become aware of it, and may actually lose some of the anger. After all, we already have special laws for special groups. Pedestrians don’t have to obey the laws of the road as they have their own. 18-wheelers are not allowed in the HOV or even the left most lane on the freeway (if more than 2 lanes exist). Why not have special flow laws for bicycles? If we can’t change laws because of new circumstances, then why have legislatures?

Which really brings up my fifth point: Whether to bike or not is ultimately an economic question for the masses. Do we want to wait until the economics drive the masses to bikes and then when the masses are on bikes let them drive the infrastructure and the law changes? Or do we want to get ahead of the curve? (More on that later.) But I can tell you this definitively, me riding my bicycle is a very real contribution to saving limited fossil-fuels, reducing my personal health-care costs, and contributing to a cleaner environment. Why not consider laws that are specific to me, and those like me? There are many who would say; “Until cyclists learn to obey laws we will not listen to their requests.” That is absurd. Can you imagine the outcry if UDOT said, “Until motorists obey all the traffic laws we are not going to maintain the roads anymore”? But that is exactly like what those who make the absurd statement are saying. If they took the time to understand why we are doing what we are doing they may understand how innocuous this proposed law change really is. When I come to a yield sign now, whether in a car or a bike, do I blast through the intersection, or do I stop if traffic is coming? Have we become so used to everyone spelling out exactly what we must do that we can no longer understand decision-making and choice?

C.U.: Another discussion focused on where should cyclists place priorities, education or infrastructure? What do you think is the most effective way to increase the number of cyclists or improve current cycling conditions, through education, infrastructure or perhaps enforcement?

J.G.: In the debate over infrastructure, enforcement, and education I fall squarely on economics as the catalytic force. When gasoline hits $5 a gallon I guarantee you that there will be more cyclists. That is exactly how it happened in Europe. And when the masses began cycling suddenly the infrastructure had to change. So the real questions are: Will gas ever hit $5/gallon? And if so, how soon? I really believe the answer to the first question is yes, and soon enough that we need to be implementing infrastructure changes now. How best to spend our limited budget; Infrastructure or education; enforcement; or some combination of all three?

Let me take enforcement first. There are not enough tax dollars in the world to create enough enforcement positions to be able to enforce all infractions. It is not a viable or feasible goal. And none of us would be happy with the police state it created. The current philosophy of having adequate enforcement to capture the major offenders that threaten peaceful societal coexistence, and enforce lesser laws as time and convenience allows, is likely to be the model for centuries to come. It is not always happy for all, but it is all that can be done realistically, without becoming draconian.

So, it comes down to infrastructure or education (knowing that enforcement also falls heavily into education as well, e.g. traffic school). I believe that you have to have some infrastructure in place for any of this to work. Why do I say this; because infrastructure is the most visible thing and is the easiest to reach the public with. You can educate with infrastructure (signage, stripes, curbs, etc.). Infrastructure, AKA the roadway, is where bikes and cars meet. Society needs to be spending on education, but it needs to be well thought out, targeted and done in conjunction with infrastructure. All that said, if the goal is to get more people biking safely, then there are two choices: try to figure out how to do that with the current infrastructure, in other words with education alone, or implement more bike friendly infrastructure and educate as you go. I am going to explain next why the first one won’t work and may be more expensive, and why you have to do the second.

Education is many times presented as the great panacea. As someone who comes from a family of educators, and who works in consumer education, I have to tell you education is much harder to do than to say. You cannot educate someone who does not want to be educated. You can force them to learn at times, for example, offenders can be sent to a class, you can give out grades and fines, but ultimately they have to want to learn. I wish I could say that educating people to know the laws was simple. My observation is that it is not. Almost daily I have people trying to educate me through high decibel messages, delivered as they pass by me, that I don’t belong on the road and that I need to be on the sidewalk. If they knew the law they would not be doing that, right? OK, maybe not. Here is how I break it down: Who needs to be educated, what are the targeted groups of people and how would I reach them? Once anyone figures out how to reach them, then how much it will cost will follow. The groups that need education: 1) Cyclists, 2) Motorists, 3) all future motorists, 4) all future cyclists, 5) General Public, perhaps?

1). Cyclists. I can reach current cyclists the easiest. They are a relatively small group. Cyclist visit bike shops–all eventually do, they ride on bike paths and bike lanes, some read cycling publications—they are more willing to read about cycling issues. Some, but not all, read newspapers and watch TV. Most of this is not very expensive (except TV) and I can reach, over time, a big part of the audience.

2) Motorists. This group is the one of the largest. It is also the most diversified and the least likely to want to read about bicycle issues. Do I do a TV blast to get to them? That is very expensive. What do I know about them as a group? They drive on roads, the bigger the road the more drivers. So the best way to reach them is not through newspapers, which only a small percentage read, or TV, which is expensive, it is through on-road signage. Bill boards on the freeway, road signs, and infrastructure changes. As laws are changed, to the extent that TV and mass media cover those changes there is the opportunity to have some free media coverage. This is a large group, diversified, expensive to reach difficult to reach

3) Future motorists. This is an amorphous group. We know that high school seniors make up the largest part of this group right now, which is great for the next year for targeting them with education, but there is little I can do to target today the ones that will become motorists in five years. The best way is the standard drivers’ education changes that we always discuss. Let’s do them by all means!!

4) Future cyclists. This may be the hardest group. We just don’t know who they are. Not in a way that we can reach them in any meaningful way. Do we do elementary school education? Yes, of course. But how many of those kids are going to ride bikes more than just to school in 5 years? 10 years? How many schools are there? How many students? How do we reach them all? If we can’t reach them all how do we prioritize which ones get it and which ones don¹t? I think the best we can do again is just-in-time education as they buy the bike at the shop or even at WalMart. I would even be in favor of required registration (not annual fees) just so that the serial number and owner is recorded and so that educational material can be delivered.

5) General Public. Not sure this should be a goal. Who is the general public that does not fall into one of the 4 groups already discussed? Not a significant enough group to bother to pay attention. There is already not enough funding for groups 1-4, so no need to even worry about group 5.

To summarize then, the best bang for the buck comes from leveraging infrastructure changes through on-road signage, and free media coverage of the changes. Implement driver training curriculum changes, bicycle registration and point of sale education should be done, as long as the materials are small, compact, easy to read, and not expensive to produce. Use the fees from registration to create and maintain a database, and to create materials. It’s not perfect, but it could work. Here is how I see the whole thing coming down. Infrastructure changes continue to happen, gas goes to $5/gallon, the bike industry expands rapidly, masses of new riders enter the field, which speeds the infrastructure, infrastructure-based education and the other education initiatives—driven by greater concerns for safety. But we have to get on top of both the infrastructure and education needs now. They both need to happen, but one drives the other—sparked by economics.

C.U.: Thanks Jim. I’m sure there are many issues that will come before the cycling community that will be difficult to reach a consensus.

If you have a suggestion for a commuter profile, have a commuter question, or other comments, please send it to [email protected].

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