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Bikes vs. cars vs. pedestrians: How Philly can win the transportation culture war | Opinion

It's easy to feel cynical about the future of our transportation culture, but culture can and does change. Here's how we can start.

Cyclists gather during the Ride of Silence honoring cyclists killed/injured in motor vehicle related crashes and to raise awareness about the rights of cyclists on roads at the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum along the Ben Franklin Parkway on Wednesday, May 16, 2018.
Cyclists gather during the Ride of Silence honoring cyclists killed/injured in motor vehicle related crashes and to raise awareness about the rights of cyclists on roads at the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum along the Ben Franklin Parkway on Wednesday, May 16, 2018.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff

Driving home from a barbecue in Mount Airy last Saturday, my wife and I turned north off of Spring Garden with the rest of the eastbound traffic. The squad cars and flashing lights indicated something terrible had happened. I later learned that a car had struck and killed 34-year-old Pablo Avendano as he cycled down Spring Garden and 10th to deliver food for Caviar. Spring Garden is one of Philly's busiest cycling corridors and, like many others, I bike down it regularly to get to and from the University of Pennsylvania, where I teach and conduct research about transportation planning, travel behavior, and traffic safety.

What can be done to prevent tragedies like the loss of Avendano and the nearly hundred other individuals who die on Philadelphia's streets and sidewalks each year? The city has its work cut out to reduce traffic fatalities in the coming years. In traffic safety circles, we like to talk about the E's of traffic safety. While the list and number of E's vary, the most common are Engineering, Enforcement, and Education.

It's easy to feel cynical about the future of our transportation culture. In the poorest big city in America the expense of reengineering roads for safety will almost certainly limit this approach to a small number of specific roads, likely some of the 12 percent of roads where 50 percent of fatalities and injuries occur. In a city with a murder rate more than three times higher than the traffic fatality rate, enforcing traffic rules feels like a luxury. Against the realities of traffic fatalities and existing driving and walking cultures, education feels like a Band-Aid. It might make us feel better, but does it really help?

The answer is YES. Culture can and does change — sometimes, and with a great deal of effort. In recent decades, attitudes about smoking and drunk driving have changed dramatically. It may not be so far in the future that we look at someone running a stop sign or speeding the same way that we look at a drunk fumbling for car keys or someone puffing a cigarette in a room full of children.

Here are some suggestions to start changing culture and help make Philadelphia a safer place to drive, walk, and bike.

1. Acknowledge that we have a problem.

The average family of three has about a one-in-70 chance of losing a family member to a traffic collision in the Philadelphia region over an average lifespan. Yet, we treat each incident as specific, isolated, and unrelated. We focus on whether the cyclist was in the bicycle lane, the driver was speeding, or what were the conditions of the road. Personally, I would not take one-in-70 odds of losing me, my wife, or unborn son for a life-changing sum of money. Yet, collectively we make that same choice for much less when it comes to traffic safety.

Part of the problem is that humans are terrible statistical thinkers. We drive, walk, or bike the same way 999 times without a collision and therefore assume that the thousandth time is a freak accident. We even call the crashes "accidents." That around 10 people will die in traffic collisions on Roosevelt Boulevard over the next year, however, is a statistical inevitability, not just a series of random and unlikely accidents.

To make a meaningful change to our culture — and our policies and laws — we have to realize that the problem exists.

2. Be mindful of the force of your vehicle.

In the United States, cars and trucks kill more than twice as many people as firearms, excluding suicides. In the last few years, motorists have struck and killed at least two pedestrians on the sidewalk in Philadelphia in my own somewhat narrow academic and professional communities. Terrorists and others have used cars and trucks to perpetrate mass killings. Remember that the next time you threaten someone with your car, roll through a stop sign, or cut off a pedestrian.

Keep it in mind when talking about pedestrians, too. There is no moral equivalency between driving recklessly and walking recklessly. Your car is deadly. Treat it with the same respect you would treat a firearm.

Cyclists should be mindful as well. Cyclists hospitalize and occasionally kill pedestrians.

3. Call Harrisburg.

Speed kills. One study finds that pedestrians are five times more likely to survive a collision with a vehicle going 18 mph than 31 mph. Speeding cameras are relatively inexpensive to install and reduce speeding and traffic collisions. Unfortunately, allowing Philadelphia or other Pennsylvania counties to use speed cameras requires approval from Harrisburg.

Call your legislators and ask for change.

4. Use your right hand to open the driver’s side car door.

This forces drivers to look behind, and is a simple and easy way to avoid harming or killing a cyclist by knocking them into traffic with your car door.

5. Let your insurance company install a tracking device in your car.

Your insurance premiums will likely drop immediately after installing a device like Progressive's Snapshot  Over time, the program will reward you for driving more safely and give you helpful tips on how to be a better driver. Both are likely to encourage mindful driving.

6. Don’t park in the crosswalk or on the sidewalk (even for a couple of minutes).

It makes life a lot harder for people in wheelchairs and with baby strollers.  This is a controversial opinion, but I say go ahead and park on the Broad Street median, particularly if it encourages you to drive more carefully on Broad Street. It probably slows traffic a bit on Broad Street and gives pedestrians a safe haven when crossing the street.

7. Leave your car at home.

Cities with higher rates of transit use, walking, and biking have substantially lower traffic fatality rates than sprawling car-dependent cities. Philadelphia has a long way to go to improve traffic safety, but our fatality rates are close to half those of Houston, Dallas, or Phoenix.

8. Go for a bike ride.

It's fun, healthy, and inexpensive. Researchers have also found that, as cycling increases, the rates of collisions, injuries, and fatalities decrease. In Philadelphia, there has been no consistent increase in the total number of reported bicycle collisions, injuries, or fatalities from 2010 to 2016, despite a 20 percent to 30 percent increase in cycling over the same time period. There is safety in numbers.

Erick Guerra, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in city and regional planning at University of Pennsylvania.