I live in Louisiana, a place that carries the ignominious designation of being one of the most dangerous places to walk or bicycle in the country. We’re in good company in the Sun Belt and in the Deep South in particular which, with certain important exceptions, is especially hostile to non-motorized transportation.
Part of the problem relates to inadequate infrastructure, the legacy of 1950s-era sprawling development patterns that presumed modern lives would be eternally dependent on the eternal combustion engine. Cities and towns built upon high-speed highways, with strict segregation of residential and commercial land uses — the pattern of most American cities constructed after World War II — tend to require significant retrofitting in order to accommodate more recent growth in demand for walking and bicycling. Fortunately, many American cities are starting to make meaningful investments in improving access to our public rights of way by pedestrians, bicyclists, and others not traveling in two-ton steel vessels.
But another big piece of the safety puzzle when it comes to active transportation relates to the attitudes of the people living in and setting policies for places where cars are even more than other parts of our auto-obsessed country unquestioned king.
I’ve been thinking about the role that our collective mindset plays in securing safety on our roads lately. Even in my own city, which developed well before the rise of the personal automobile and carries a number of inherent advantages that make it well-suited to walking and bicycling, the prevailing ethos continues to be that our roads are the primary – if not the exclusive – domain of the motor vehicle, even though many of those roads were conceived decades before Henry Ford popularized the car among the masses. This mindset is crystal clear to me every time I attempt to cross the street in my neighborhood, where drivers pay no mind to the newly-minted crosswalks on the well-traveled boulevard that runs near my house, even when I have a baby in tow. I wrote about this experience in a letter to the editor recently and was heartened by the number of people who shared my frustrations. But equally troubling were the many who weighed in in the comments section expressing disdain for people like me and who showed an appalling lack of understanding of basic road rules.
Is it any wonder, I found myself thinking, that New Orleans grapples with such dismal bicycle and pedestrian crash statistics?
So it was with great optimism that I heard a few months back that our state legislature, whose actions rarely elicit any pride, was poised to do something quite positive aimed at reshaping the public consciousness around road safety. Our legislative body was set to consider a vulnerable road user law offering extra legal protections for walkers and bicyclists and other road users not protected by the steel casing of an automobile. VRU laws might be described as a new frontier in active transportation policy in this country. Similar measures to those proposed in my state have been adopted so far by nine states across the U.S. Louisiana would be adding its name to a list that included just one other southern state (Florida) alongside more obvious places like Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii.
To my surprise, SB 171, which called for stiffer penalties for operating a motor vehicle in a “careless” manner that resulted in the injury or death of a bicyclist, pedestrian, or motorcyclist, had garnered significant bipartisan support by the time it came up for consideration. But that’s when Louisiana’s governing body resorted to more typical behavior. The bill was quashed with opposition led by a state representative who is either especially ignorant of the laws governing the state’s public rights of way or who is especially cynical. I suspect it’s a combination of the two.
Rep. Kenny Havard explained that his opposition to the bill was rooted in protecting his constituents from being sent to prison for “accidentally” hitting a pedestrian or bicyclist, reinforcing the notion that the best way to kill someone and get away with it with little more than a slap on the wrist is to “accidentally” hit them with your car.
“When you make bad decisions and take chances with your own safety, don’t blame others for the outcome,” said the Republican, until now best-known for his unsuccessful proposal to place weight limits on the state’s exotic dancers. Yes, I’m serious.
Havard hails from St. Francisville, a town just outside the state capital known for its antique shops, antebellum plantations, and scenic, hilly terrain that has made it a hotspot for spandex-clad cyclists and elderly window shoppers alike. The town is home to the Rouge Roubaix, the grueling century race that draws amateur and professional riders from across the country to the Tunica Hills of rural West Feliciana Parish each year. It is not far from the spot where last year, beloved Louisiana State University professor Elisabeth Oliver, 63, was killed after being struck by a car while walking her malfunctioning bicycle along a highway.
In the wake of the bill’s defeat, Havard was beset by angry emails and phone calls. Some threatened very publicly via social media and other channels to stop bringing their bicycles and their business to Havard’s district, to which the legislator responded in characteristic fashion that he was fine with cyclists taking their “Fiji water bottles” elsewhere. He
also admitted that he “[didn’t] ride bikes on the open road” and that his “knowledge of cycling is zero,” which was no surprise to anyone who had been paying attention or, to be perfectly frank, seen a recent photograph of the legislator. (Normally, I would refrain from such ad hominem attacks, but in light of Havard’s interest in others’ weight, I feel alright about pointing out the legislator’s own struggles here.)
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that our legislature once again failed to do anything to address a serious problem confronting our state. After all, at a time when our coast is dying, when we rank near the bottom of every indicator related to public health, crime, education, and poverty, and when we are confronting one of the most serious budget crises in the state’s history, our legislature has seen fit in recent sessions take up such issues as barring cities from banning plastic grocery bags; expanding control over women’s reproductive choices; and allowing monkeys to qualify as service animals.
Rarely if ever have I been inspired to correspond with one of our legislators, which has generally struck me as a lost cause. But perhaps it was the woman who sped up as she saw me attempting to cross the street with my infant in my arms the other day and nearly hit me. Or the white bikes that are cropping up with increasing frequency around my city. Or the way I have my husband text me on the days he bikes to work to let me know he made it safely. Or the fact that I hold my breath every time I hear of another pedestrian or bicyclist hit while walking or riding our streets, hoping it’s not someone I know. This time, the disappointment felt very personal. So at a point in my life where some days finding the time to take a shower feels like an accomplishment, I sat down and typed out the following email:
Dear Rep. Havard,
My name is Emilie Bahr, and I am a new mother, an urban planner, and an avid runner, walker, and bicyclist. I was very disheartened to hear your commentary in opposition to SB 171. I believe reasonable minds can disagree, and I understand questioning the necessity of a vulnerable road user law. However, I am extremely disappointed to hear you speak out against the lawful use of public rights of way as “playing in the road.” The same laws that you helped to create provide for the legal use of the roads by many different types of users. When a pedestrian crosses the street or a bicyclist rides down a highway, they are simply exercising their right to move freely through our state. Your comments amount to victim blaming and add fuel to a volatile situation. I expect my legislators to speak and act in a manner that honors the value of all of our lives and fosters a safe environment for me and my family.
Your constituents and I will continue to travel throughout the state on foot, on bikes and in cars. When speaking on matters of public safety, I humbly request that you consider the effect of your words on those who stand to lose the most. I intend to teach my 2-month-old son how to safely walk and bike for transportation. I hope that by the time he is old enough, his legislators recognize his right to do so without the added danger of legally-unsubstantiated and inflammatory rhetoric.
I have yet to receive a response.