A Conversation with Karen Karabell

Shortly after I wrote about my experience in the Cycling Savvy class, the instructor (and cycling advocate) Karen Karabell contacted me with her own thoughts.  She thought I did not make my participation clear enough — I did attend two parts of the three-part course — and asked me to read an article by Migkh Wilson, the Cycling Savvy co-founder.

My response to Karen is below.

Hi Karen,

Thanks for your comments — I’ve given them some thought. I also read the “CyclingSavvy Works” article by Mighk Wilson in its entirety.

I understand that there is a diversity of opinions among cyclists about bike infrastructure, including bike lanes, and part of why I attended Cycling Savvy is to understand the perspective of those who don’t broadly support them. Having become more involved in SafeTGA, I feel I need to educate myself on the issues before advocating for a position. I perceive several different arguments against bike lanes, and both the course and the Wilson article have helped me understand them. Rather than getting lost in the details of the arguments, though, in my post I tried to give a broad and fair outline of the principal schools of thought.

Ultimately, though, I am interested in expressing a vision of what Tower Grove Avenue will look like in five years. Will it have bike lanes or other bike-specific infrastructure? Who will use it, and for what sort of rides? How will the interchange at I-64 be accommodated? It is from this perspective that I approach the issue, and for this reason I think its important to move beyond the education argument — I’m all for it — and consider the infrastructure part of the equation as well.

To this end the Cycling Savvy approach falls short, and the Wilson article illustrates my point. He writes,

“Do places with bicycle facilities get more cyclists, or do places with more cyclists get more bicycle facilities? It may be both. But if increases in cycling are due in large part to factors other than bikeways, then any reduction in the crash rate is indirectly due to those other factors, not to the bikeways, and if those bikeways cause or contribute to conflicts and crashes — which they do — then providing bikeways as means of increasing use and improving safety does not work and is in fact unethical.”

Wrapped in this opaque and seemingly circular argument is a statement of his belief — that bicycle lanes are bad — and a rejection of any facts (e.g. statistics) to the contrary. Why? It seems that this view is driven by something other than a narrow consideration of rider safety:

“Perhaps this strategy — of leading people towards confidence and competence rather than providing facilities which make people feel safer without actually addressing the real conflicts — won’t get as many people on bicycles, or do so as quickly, but we can feel sure that we are supporting our principles rather than subverting them.”

To me this rings of dogma, and suggests that the author knows better what’s good for the riders than they do. I simply disagree with that perspective.

I see Tower Grove Avenue as a road which is safe and accessible for all riders, whether experienced ones like you and I, to first-time commuters, to poor people who rely on it to get around, to kids exploring their world (like I did when I was little). Not everyone will be able to find the time or the money to take a Cycling Savvy course, but I believe that they have the same rights to use Tower Grove Ave as we do. I generally support bike lanes because (designed properly) they establish expectations for both riders and drivers. I myself feel safer on bike lanes, and pretty much everyone I speak to does as well. I believe the broad consensus of studies which show that bike lanes reduce accidents, and trust that good design — see http://nacto.org/cities-for-cycling/design-guide/ — can make bike lanes safe and address all the concerns raised in the Cycling Savvy course.

I’ll conclude by saying that I agree with 90% of what Migkh wrote. I agree with the tactics of Cycling Savvy — taking a lane as necessary, communication with drivers, watching for dangerous scenarios, importance of knowing how to brake/shift/turn — as well as the motivation. I love to ride, I prefer quiet streets, I know I need to navigate busy arterials sometimes. I don’t want cycling to be elitist, and want riding to be as accessible to the slower casual riders as the speedy racers.

I don’t think we disagree about our goals — only how best to achieve them.

Respectfully,

Matt

You can see Karen’s response to this note here.

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  1. […] hold a dazzling array of opinions when it comes to bike infrastructure (discussed for example here and here), and the safety concerns of committed cyclists must not be lightly dismissed. Still, […]

  2. […] further correspondence with Karen Karabell, one of the CyclingSavvy instructors, and her […]

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