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Opinion

Will Self-Driving Vehicles Get Me Back on a Bicycle?

If you ride a bicycle in an American city, chances are you’ve got a story. Mine starts with not learning how to ride until I was 22. But I had a good reason. I grew up in Manhattan when bike lanes were still a fantasy. As a kid, a good friend of mine was killed riding his bike on 5th Avenue, after which my dad said that if I wanted to risk my life, I’d have to buy my own bike. So in 1993, I did. 

I practiced on weekends at dawn, armored to the teeth with knee pads, elbow pads, and a sweet Tacticool helmet I spray-painted bright orange. Three weeks later, I was hit by a yellow cab. The driver claimed he couldn’t see me. I haven’t ridden in New York since.

Half a lifetime later, I still have a serious issue with human drivers. If I’m in a car, I can handle it. On a bike? Not so much. If technology can do better than human drivers, I’m all for self-driving vehicles, but that’s easy for me to say, because I see the technology every day, and I have a good idea of how, when and where it will work first.

Emily Castor Warren, senior policy advisor at the transportation consultancy Nelson\Nygaard, says I’ve got it all wrong. Yes, any urban cyclist who’s at it long enough will end up having some close calls, she says, but giving up biking because of one incident doesn’t necessarily make sense. Cities aren’t going to make changes unless people speak up.

“It’s really the job of cities to try to think about how they can craft an environment where people don’t have to be in that kind of emotional state as they’re using the roads on bikes and scooters. Where they can actually relax and feel welcomed in the streetscape,” Castor Warren says.

I know exactly what she meant, but my instinct for self-defense didn’t make my neighborhood any safer. I said I wanted safer streets, but after my taxi incident, I didn’t make choices that made streets safer for anyone but myself, and I’m not alone. I never went to a community board meeting. I didn’t vote for candidates with a safety agenda. Most importantly, because I was hit by a car, I became scared of cycling around all cars, and stopped cycling altogether. 

Soon I equated being in a car with safety, and so I pivoted to a car-centric lifestyle, and became part of a larger problem: the more people who drive themselves, the more congested traffic gets. More traffic equals more accidents. As former NHTSA chief Mark Rosekind pointed out, human driving has an error rate. That’s just math.

“It’s been a contentious relationship historically,” says Castor Warren, “because cars are really big and heavy and historically have moved at high speeds. So they’re really dangerous to people who don’t have that same kind of protection when they’re on the streets… vulnerable road users like bicyclists, pedestrians (or) anyone who’s moving around in a manner on the streets that doesn’t give them that same armor that cars have.”

For some, it doesn’t matter how much safer autonomous vehicles are compared to human drivers. It’s called loss aversion, and it’s a really common phenomenon, Castor Warren says. 

“You are more likely to want to hold on to the way things are than to take a risk on something new, even if it can be proven that you would benefit more under that new scenario… even if the status quo really sucks.”

I’m hopeful the pandemic will yield a different approach. 

More people are eating outside, and cities are carving out pedestrians zones from space previously dedicated to cars. We’re learning to expect distance and personal space. I hope these new norms accelerate two trends: 1) cities adding more protected bike lanes, which is the only real protection from human drivers, and 2) autonomous vehicle deployment, because they’ll be safer than human drivers anywhere — especially where bike lanes aren’t protected.

In the meantime, if NYC ever gets real about bike lanes, I’ll ride again. Add autonomous vehicles, and I might even teach my daughter to ride there, too.

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