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Bicycle Infrastructure

Commentary: Biking in the Bay Area vs. Belgium

A San Francisco cyclist reflects on the interplay of infrastructure, dangerously over-sized cars and trucks, and American driver attitudes

A cyclist navigating a bike, car, and tram intersection in Brussels. Photos by Jane Arc

Editor's note: Jane Arc is a San Francisco cyclist who lives in the Mission and was hit by motorists on two separate occasions--the second time was on Van Ness just last March. Arc sent an email to Streetsblog during a vacation in Brussels, where she reflected on the huge chasm in attitudes towards road safety in Belgium and the U.S. I thought her observations were great and worth turning into a post and sharing with readers.

***

I'm in Brussels for a short vacation and I've been riding one of the hotel rental bikes this morning. At home I ride a road bike I built from scratch to be fast, agile, fun, and as light as I could make it. So here in Brussels I was very apprehensive to borrow this bike that wasn't professionally fitted to me, was 18.5kg, had questionable brakes and vague-at-best handling. People here do not wear helmets on bicycles, and when I asked the desk if they rented helmets, she looked at me kind of confused and told me I didn't need one.

I was scared to get on this bike I didn't know well, in a city I don't know well, with road norms and etiquette I don't know at all, without my bike computer and radar and light and all of the stuff I feel like I need in San Francisco. I was scared to ride with no helmet and just wander around the city.

But after figuring out the "relaxed" nature of the bike, my fear almost immediately went away. There are bike lanes here, but curbs and barricades separate them. They're clearly marked with signage. This makes sense and is obviously safer than painting a lane on the road.

A center-running bike lane in Brussels, with the bike lane fully separated from traffic by curbs, trees and a buffer. Note how vastly different this is from Valencia in San Francisco or 90th Avenue in Oakland.

When drivers in Belgium encounter a cyclist, they slow down and try to figure out what the cyclist is doing and where they're going because -- I cannot believe this is something I need to state explicitly -- they don't want to murder anyone. What a contrast to American drivers who are absurdly and obviously aggressive and distracted (although I think this is charitable; the defining characteristic of American drivers does seem to be aggression).

I might never have been able to understand the experience of riding a bicycle in America as *deliberately violent and dangerous* if I had never come to Brussels and spent time in a city where riding a bicycle is expected to be safe. So much so that people do not wear helmets.

A traffic circle in Brussels with a separated path for cyclists

We can continue to talk about the right kind of bike lanes and how to make safer streets for cyclists but I think we as Americans are deliberately ignoring the obvious and more serious problem: Americans want driving to be dangerous and violent. We buy these giant cars because they're safer -- but only for the occupants of those giant cars. Essentially, we behave as though it is okay to drive aggressively and blame cyclists and pedestrians for what happens to them, same with people in smaller cars or on motorcycles because the prevailing attitude is that "driving is dangerous, roads are dangerous, and people are just going to die."

A typical separated, sidewalk-level cycle track in Brussels.

And it's so perverse and sickening that we have accepted that in society. If I were to point this out to non-cyclist driver friends of mine, I'm sure they'd say "of course it's dangerous!" But nobody seems to want to have the discussion around why is it okay for people to die and be maimed, why is it everyone's responsibility but the drivers?

I'm just very sad for the state of transportation in the U.S. As someone deeply in love with bicycles (and formerly motorcycles), it makes me so sad that we have gotten to this place where I feel safe roads are irretrievably lost in America.

And it's because, as a country, we must want that. As I learned in Belgium, it's not because there aren't solutions.

***

Jane Arc is a middle aged former software engineer and current mid-tier triathlete (& member of golden gate triathlon club). She lives in the Mission but is afraid to ride there and now primarily rides in Marin.

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