Seen on Dexter

After looking out my office window at snow flurries for most of the day, I was surprised to have such a dry and sunny ride home. I really could have used my sunglasses.

I was also surprised to see a skateboarder in the bike lane. It isn’t just bikers who benefit from bike lanes!

Seattle (37.17 in.) Receives Less Precipitation Annually Than New York City (47.28 in)…

….Atlanta (50.79 in.), Boston (41.53 in.), Baltimore (40.87 in.), Portland, Maine (44.41 in.), Jacksonville, Florida (51.34 in.), and most cities on the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S.

Other things you might like about Seattle.

The “Mushroom Farm” at [storefront] Olson Kundig Architects.

Alley parties in Pioneer Square.

The skyline.

A sunny Saturday on Capitol Hill. (Today–Sunday–I’m reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs.  This quote really struck a cord for me, “In cities, liveliness and variety attract more liveliness; deadness and monotony repeal life.” Yesterday, Capitol Hill was full of people who simply seemed attracted to the liveliness of the area. Later in the day, my roommate commented that Ravenna (where I’m currently living), “feels sad.” “Why don’t we ever go to the restaurants in Ravenna?” she asked. Maybe because it just isn’t lively enough.  As Jan Gehl says, “the more nothing happens the more nothing happens.”)

Finding a bike in Seattle with a skirt guard.

Checking out a bike polo game in Cal Anderson park.

This dog–who got parked alongside a few bikes outside of Melrose Market.

Celebration of Rural Cycling and a Bike Ferry to Salt Spring Island

In late June I will be biking (and ferrying) up to Salt Spring Island in British Columbia, Canada for  Velo Village–a rural mobility conference. The actual conference is on Friday June 22nd and the rest of the weekend is going to be a celebration of rural cycling. I’ll be giving a presentation on Friday about the bike touring systems I researched and used while travelling across Europe this summer and fall, including EuroVelo (all of the EU), Sustrans (UK), SchweizMobil (CH), Knooppuntroutes (NL), and other bicycle highway systems. The focus of my presentation will be on how these bike touring systems can increase tourism in rural areas.  You can sign up for the conference here.

The rest of the weekend will literally be a celebration of rural cycling and Salt Spring is apparently going to be transformed to a “bicycle heaven on earth.”  Velo Village will be like a Fringe Festival – everyone will be asked to register for a low cost ($10.00) and they’ll get a button that will give them access to all of the events, workshops, performances…etc. They are expecting about 1,000 cyclists to come to the island for the weekend. Velo Village organizer, John Rowlandson, just e-mailed me with some exciting news:

After 5 months of talking we inked the deal with BC Ferries yesterday for a special bicycle only sailing to Salt Spring on Sat June 23rd! First time in BC coastal history! The 100 meter ferry holds 400+ cyclists/bikes! http://saltspringexchange.com/list/the-bike-ferry/

So, if you come up on Saturday the 10:00 AM crossing from Swartz Bay is going to be a bike-only party followed by a 400-person group ride to Ganges.

Also, Happy Valentine’s Day!

Here is a fun article by Amy Walker titled Does Cycling Make you a Better Lover? that was published in Momentum Magazine in 2009.  I stumbled upon it a few months ago and really liked it.

In a 1999 article for Bicycling magazine, author Joe Kita claimed “cycling has the power not only to make you more desirable to the opposite sex, but also to increase your level of sexual satisfaction, and even your lovemaking ability.” Citing greater blood circulation, heightened sex drive, lower stress, extra endurance, stronger thrusting muscles, more endorphins, and greater confidence, Kita made the case that cycling is conducive to making whoopie. In addition to these stimulating observations, we’ve noticed that riding a bicycle has other, less carnal, and equally love-affirming qualities.

Some say love is the opposite, not of hate, but of fear. By conquering fear in our everyday lives, we invite love. Learning to balance and ride on two wheels is an exhilarating experience, partly because falling is frightening. When we first accomplish this marvel, a tiny voice inside us exclaims: “I am riding, not falling! I am flying, not falling!” Simple acts like pedaling up a big hill, across town, through nasty weather, or balancing with a week’s groceries loaded on the bike are the daily conquest of tiny fears. As fear falls away there is more room for joy.

For love to have longevity, it must be a practical part of the daily rhythm of life. In his book entitled We author Robert A. Johnson describes “stirring-the-oatmeal” love as: “a relatedness which brings love down to earth. It represents a willingness to share ordinary human life, to find meaning in the simple, unromantic tasks: earning a living, living within a budget, putting out the garbage, feeding the baby in the middle of the night.” Likewise, daily pedal-stroking lends us the endurance to take in stride all the small occasions of the day that make life – and love – real, and not a distant fantasy. 

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Saturation

Ah. It’s good to be away from Rome. It’s a city that isn’t high on my list of places to return to—something I don’t think I’ve said about a single place I’ve visited over the last six months, except perhaps that trailer park in middle-England that I camped at for all of about six hours.

Let me start by saying what we all know–Rome is like no other place. Events in Roman history shaped many aspects of civilization as we know it. My visit to the Italian capital helped me access the information I eagerly absorbed in high school history classes about the Roman empire (however, Wikipedia and a book about Rome greatly aided my fuzzy recollections of various events in Roman history). I wanted to like Rome. So, why did I find myself feeling disappointed as I walked around the city? Mainly, I was disappointed in my own imagination.

 

Nothing I saw walking through the Forum and Colosseum was able to help me pretend—just a few moments—that it wasn’t 2012. It wasn’t anything like visiting the Mayan ruins of Tikal where I actually could imagine what Mayan civilization might have been like. In fact, part of me wished that my image of Rome could remain as it was in Mrs. Sauers history class. My inability to appreciate the historical and archaeological aspects of Rome was probably my fault—my concerns about modern Roman civilization were consuming my thoughts. Perhaps my “Homosapien habitat” glasses were on a little too firmly.

 

What are my “Homosapien habitat” glasses? They are my glasses that I wear when I try to understand why I like or dislike a city. I think about how the city makes me feel. How other people in the city move throughout the urban environment. How they interact with each other. Are there public spaces where I feel at ease? Is it easy to cross the street?

 

Rome scored low, in my opinion, in it’s treatment of humans. The design of the city prioritizes history and cars, not people.

 

I stayed at the end of the A Metro Line, at a place fairly removed from the urban core of the city, but still I woke up each morning to the sound of angry honks from cars stuck in traffic on the nearby street. People in Rome literally just lay on the horn for 10 to 20 seconds! I had to walk a short distance to get to the Metro station and there was no sidewalk in most places. The smell of diesel exhaust quickly filled my nostrils and cars along this stretch of road almost seemed to purposely accelerate as they drove past me in what felt like an expression of their dominance over the road. The Metro system was easy to use, but not my preferred way to move around a city. You miss seeing so much moving through the city underground.

 

I didn’t even bother looking into renting a bike in Rome because biking in Rome would be stupid. We all have a different threshold for risk. I made a friend in Copenhagen who lived in Paris recently and she didn’t ride a bike there because it felt too risky compared to Copenhagen. I, however, didn’t mind cycling in Paris (even though the bicycle infrastructure still needs some major improvements). There were a few parts of Paris that were difficult and stressful to navigate, but the number of other people—especially other woman—on bikes gave me a sense of security riding my bike there.

 

Rome was a different story. I felt absolutely no desire to get on a bicycle. I saw less than five people on bikes during the course of my visit. In Rome’s defense, there had been a very light snow the day before I arrived and this had thrown the entire city into a tizzy for several days. (The reaction to the snow was somewhat comical; many businesses were still closed ‘due to snow’ three days after the snowfall when there was almost no snow left on the ground and the sun was out.) So, perhaps the usual balance of the transportation system had been thrown off, but still, through my conversations and research I learned that cycling rates are incredibly low in Rome even when there isn’t snow on the ground. I’m really glad I don’t live in Rome.


A 28-year-old woman on a bicycle had recently been killed here.

Roman drivers are vicious. They seem to despise everyone else on the road—other drivers, cyclists, pedestrians—everyone. Crosswalks are a joke. I finally realized that I just had to step out into the road and then the cars would essentially drive around me. The drivers avoided making eye contact and playing dumb seemed to be a common tactic for getting the upper hand in a traffic negotiations with pedestrians. The, “oh, sorry, didn’t see you” attitude was prevalent with many drivers—even if you were standing right in front of them. I actually yelled, “stop trying to kill me” at a driver who just kept rolling towards me as I attempted to get across a crosswalk. The driver made some pissed-off, uniquely-Italian gesture at me and speed off. It’s no wonder why Rome has one of the highest rates of traffic accidents in Europe. Spending so much of the week walking through a city—rather than cycling—really reinforced the idea that pedestrians are the softest users of the road. You don’t have speed on your side so it feels like you’re more exposed.

While at Copenhagenize, Mikael often talked about the “bull in the china shop.” Cars are the bull and anything outside of a car is the china shop. It is essential that people who live in cities stop ignoring the bull. Once you start to think about the urban environment in this context it is amazing how many ignoring the bull examples you see and hear about on a daily basis. For example, yesterday I read about a woman in Brooklyn who was speeding, ran a red light, crashed into an apartment building, and hit another car. This woman sounds like one serious bull to me. Here’s a report on the accident.

…her black Lincoln Navigator passed through a light and smashed into a Toyota Corolla heading west on Boerum Place, an onlooker said. After drifting about 50 feet, the SUV slammed into a tree before hitting the scaffolding at the condominium Boulevard East.

There was a huge rumble and it sounded like the whole scaffolding came down,” said Joe Stanfa, president of the condo’s board. “We’re just glad no pedestrians were hurt. There was smoke coming from the cars.”

Cops said the woman — who was pinned in her car and rescued with the Jaws of Life — would not be charged in the crash.

WHAT?! No charge?! So I can ram an SUV into other cars and buildings without getting any sort of charge? This is a classic example of police ignoring the bull.

Rome suffers tremendously from ignoring the bull. Walking in Rome is not only unpleasant because of the aggressive drivers, but the air pollution and noise from cars really detracts from your ability to enjoy the city. The air pollution was almost on par with Mexico City and Shanghai. I tried to walk as much as possible between destinations, but would sometimes give up and take the Metro, not because I got tired of walking, but because the air pollution would make me light-headed if I was near a busy street. Throughout the touristy parts of the city you’ll see these large air pollution abatement machines that are about the size of a food cart, humming away, sucking harmful air particulates in that would have otherwise gone into people’s lungs.

For some reason, seeing this machines reminded me of an article I read recently about Richard Jackson, the former head of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Center for Disease Control. Here’s a quote from the article:

Treatments could come in the form of pills, inhalers, and insulin shots, but real solutions had bigger implications. “More and more, I came to the conclusion that this is about how we build the world that we live in,” he says.

Last year, air safety limits in Rome were exceeded 56 times and the city experienced six consecutive days of emergency level air pollution. Rome has found that in many parts of the city with high levels of traffic congestion there are also dangerously high levels of nitrogen dioxide and PM10. These particles can bypass natural human filters—like the nose and throat—and get into your bloodstream, increasing your chances for various kinds of cancers. The air pollution abatement machines are band-aids. An unsustainable and and undignified solution to a problem that stems from an unwillingness to tackle the real problem—rampant overuse of the car and lack of investment in sustainable mobility options. What also upset me about these machines was that I didn’t see a single one in the poorer areas where tourists don’t typically go, but where air quality is just as bad.

Rome is trying, but it will be a slow process. The city has one of the highest rates of car ownership in the world: about 76 cars per every 100 inhabitants. And with cars comes sprawl, making the situation even harder to reverse. I noticed that there were so many more luxury cars in Rome than Copenhagen—which seemed strange because Denmark is one of the wealthiest places in the world while Italy’s economy is struggling. Then I remembered that Danes pay a 200% tax on car purchases. Danish drivers pay for the negative externalities associated with driving upfront. The price of a car in Denmark reflects the true cost of driving. I haven’t talked very much about the environmental impacts of driving on this blog because I haven’t wanted to seem like a finger wagging environmentalist. In fact, I don’t even consider myself an environmentalist. I did take some economics classes in college though and I happen to believe that the cost of driving is vastly under-priced in most parts of the world. That’s good for car companies, but bad for just about everyone else in society. 

The title of this blog post is called ‘Saturation’ and you might be wondering what that’s all about. “Saturation” is a term that was used a lot by the car industry in the 1920s and 30s in the United States. Car sales weren’t so hot in American cities at that time. Americans didn’t need or want cars. In fact, a lot of Americans thought cars were intruders in cities and the high rate of child traffic fatalities further reinforced Americans dislike of cars for most of the 1920s. The market was saturated. The car industry called it a “saturation crisis” and began blaming city planners and traffic engineers for the flagging sales. Traffic engineers at that time were primarily focused on equity and the safety of all road users in cities. As a result, they kept streets narrow, speed limits low, and curb parking for cars very limited. In the early 1920s American cities didn’t have the money and didn’t feel responsible for building infrastructure for this highly inefficient form of transportation. A quote from the book Fighting Traffic:

Above all, engineers faulted automobiles for their prodigal use of space. “They occupy either while in motion or while parked, space all together out of proportion to their transportation efficiency,” one engineer wrote.

A St. Paul engineer found that an occupant of an automobile required 10.7 times as much space as a street car rider.

The car companies realized that to overcome the saturation crisis they needed a new breed of traffic engineers that would be willing to redesign city streets to accommodate cars and increase speed limits. The real turning point in the saturation crisis was in 1926 when Studebaker—a car company—donated funds to Harvard University to establish the Albert Russell Erskine Bureau for Street Traffic Research. Miller McClintock—a former Studebaker employee—became the director of the Bureau of Street Traffic Research and soon Harvard-educated traffic “experts” were hitting the streets advising cities all over the US to widen roads and accept that this was the “motor age.” The message was that resisting automobiles was old-fashioned and against progress.

Miller McClintock had a PhD from Harvard and had studied traffic control extensively. However, prior to being hired for Studebaker, McClintock wrote that, “widening streets would merely attract more vehicles to them, leaving traffic as congested as before. It seems desirable to give trolley cars the right of way under general conditions, and to place restrictions on motor vehicles in their relations with street cars.” He also published an article in the early 1920s describing automobiles as “the greatest public destroyer of human life.”

But, after working briefly for Studebaker and then being appointed director of the Studebaker-backed Bureau for Street Traffic Research, his tune changed dramatically in just a two year period. McClintock now thought that cities should “adjust their physical layout to the requirements of an automobile age. When those adjustments take place the motor car owner will profit greatly in increased speed and efficiency.”

Another quote from Fighting Traffic:

In Miller McClintock, the auto industry had, by 1927, an articulate and credible spokesman, the first traffic expert with a doctorate in his field. He was insulated from any obvious affiliation with industry by a Harvard byline. And at the industry’s expense, he was turning out more such experts each year.

So, there’s your history lesson for the day. McClintock probably didn’t realize what dramatic consequences his decision to back Studebakers’s agenda would have on the world, but he successfully solved the “saturation crisis.” Cities are filled with cars—but as McClintock aptly noted in the early 1920’s—cars aren’t moving people around cities very efficiently.

Visiting Rome provided some good time for reflection—about history and the mark we can make on history.

P.S. StreetFilms has some interesting videos about the history of cars in urban American. The series is called, Fixing the Great Mistake.



Vinter i København

Fur.

More fur and lots of exposure. I'm still honing my Cycle Chic photography skills.

Mr. Copenhagenize, Mikael Colville-Anderson, out on the town. Mikael on why the CPH cycling infrastructure is so exportable: "When you squint, Copenhagen looks a lot like a North American city." So true.

Mikael's daughter, Lulu, helping out at the office.

Quadruplets?!

Biking into the wind.

Then up one of the only "hills" in Copenhagen.

...and cresting the hill. Amazing father-daughter teamwork.

Mail man.

About an hour north of Copenhagen at the Louisiana Art Museum on cliffs overlooking the North Sea.

The mighty North Sea.

Cozy.

Bikin' in the 'burbs.

The largest anarchist commune in the world is in the middle of Copenhagen. No cars are allowed.

Christiania is a self-governing society.

They have their own garbage collection system and maintain all their infrastructure without the support of the Danish government.

The houses in Christiania are very artistic and do not conform to any sort of building code.

The roads in Christiania are not paved.

Copenhagen feels more orderly and organized than ever after a visit to Christiania.

More Than Two Wheels?

I got an e-mail yesterday from a reader interested in human-powered transportation in urban areas on more than two wheels (i.e., skateboards, rollerblades, wheelchairs).

I’m currently working in Copenhagen and here rollerblade and skateboard users are classified as pedestrians and therefore supposed to be on the sidewalk.  That said, on the weekends I’ve seen a few rollerbladers out on the cycle tracks and no one seems to mind. I’m a closet rollerblader myself and was actually recently wishing I had a pair of blades here. The smooth cycle tracks would be amazing for blading, but again, technically it isn’t allowed.

One benefit of having a complete network of separated cycle tracks is that they can offer improved mobility to those in wheelchairs.  While cycling through Denmark and Holland this summer I saw several people in wheelchairs using the cycle tracks–especially in places that had bumpy, cobblestone sidewalks. Also, often the wheelchair users were moving at about the same pace as the cyclists so it made more sense for them to be on the cycle track rather than on the sidewalk with slower moving pedestrians.

When I was in Paris I saw a lot of rollerbladers in addition to cyclists. The Parisians seem to be pretty passionate about reclaiming the streets as public spaces that are not the exclusive property of cars. There is an organization called Pari Roller and their mission is “to encourage roller skating as a leisure activity, as a sport or as a means of transportation.”

I saw one of their Friday night group rides, but didn’t get my camera out in time so here is a photo from their website.

Paris also has a program called Paris Respire (Breathe Paris) run by the city that gives the streets back to the people once a week.

Every Sunday between 9 AM and 5 PM many streets throughout the city are closed to car traffic. People walk, bike, skate, socialize, and play in the streets. I celebrated my 27th birthday alone in Paris this summer on a Sunday and essentially spent the entire day biking through Paris Respire zones. There were so many people out using the streets–the cafes and parks in these areas were packed with people. The absence of cars temporarily reduced air and noise pollution and allowed parents to let their guard down a little bit because they didn’t have to worry about young kids running into traffic. I didn’t feel lonely at all that day! The Paris Respire zones are pretty joyful places to be; especially on a sunny day.

Paris Respire covers quite a bit of the city.  The green represents Paris Respire territory that is open year-round and the blue represents the areas that are only open in the summer.

Tokyo also closes off several main roads to cars on the weekends to give the streets back to people–mainly for cycling and walking, but some people also were skating and scooting.

Tokyo family biking. The roads surrounding the Imperial Palace in Tokyo are closed to cars on Sundays.

The Ginza District in Tokyo also is closed to cars on Sunday.

...allowing the streets to be used for play.

While I’ve focused specifically on cycling, what I’ve documented in a more broad sense is a global movement to reclaim streets as public spaces that can be safely used by people who are not behind the wheel of a car. The introduction of the car completely altered our social construction of what a street’s purpose is–but not all that long ago streets were places where “soft” road users (pedestrians and cyclists) were welcome. I often use the term “active transportation” because it isn’t just about cycling. It’s just about using your muscles to get from A to B–whether for utility or for recreation and on two wheels or more!

p.s.  One more thing.  I had a really long layover at the Reykjavik airport in Iceland last summer and noticed all these scooters in the airport. Air Iceland staff use them to get around the airport quickly and passengers also use them if they’re in a rush to get to their gates.

Why the Bike Lane is the Golf Course of the 21st Century

Hello Dear Readers,

The Sightline Daily, a blog affiliated with a Northwest policy think tank, published an article I wrote about my Stevens Fellowship experience.

You can read the article here!

A funny story about how the opportunity with Sightline came about. I was waiting at a stoplight near Mercer Street in Seattle in late November and this guy pulled up to me (on his bicycle) and commented on how bad the bicycle infrastructure was at that particular intersection.

He noticed that I had no “biking clothes” on and asked me if I’d ever heard of Copenhagen Cycle Chic.  “Copenhagen Cycle Chic is my favorite blog!” I told him. Then we started talking bike politics and eventually I realized he was Alan Durning, the founder of the Sightline Institute. I’ve been reading the Sightline blog and using their research in my work for years.

I really like that this Sightline article came about because of a conversation that started on the bike lane (or..errr…lack of bike lane).  Who needs the golf course when you cycle!

Cycling is such a social form of transport. Sean and I were biking in to work a few days before Christmas and bumped into our friend Jed who I hadn’t seen in almost a year.  (Jed and his wife recently had a baby!) We rode together along the cold, but sunny, shores of Westlake for about ten minutes and caught up.  It was a great way to start the day and I was happy to know that Jed was doing well. Then, the next morning, Sean and I bumped into Jed again–in almost the same place as the day before–and we shared another pleasant commute together while joking about how we were becoming a bike commuter gang.

The morning before I left for Copenhagen I biked downtown alone after saying goodbye to Sean. I was feeling the weight of the goodbye and also some anxiety about professional challenges ahead.  I pedaled slowly along Dexter, my pace matching my mood, until I saw some very hairy legs ahead. I knew those legs–it was my older brother–so I picked up the pace, caught up to him, and teased him about how I could spot his urban lumberjack legs a mile away. He slowed down a little bit and we cycled the rest of the way to 1st Ave together. I was so happy to have an unexpected extra ten minutes with him before I left for Copenhagen and it was another reminder for me about how getting out of your car can help you feel like you’re part of a real community. These chance encounters feel so good; humans crave these interactions.   However, there is evidence that a rising number of Americans feel isolated and lonely, in part because the communities we live in lack urban spaces that allow for these informal, low-pressure social interactions to come about.

I’m reading Jan Gehl’s book Cities for People and here is what he has to say about how quality urban design creates social interaction:

If city life is reinforced, it creates the preconditions for strengthening all forms of social activity in city space.  Social activities include all types of communication between people in city space and require the presence of other people. If there is life and activity in city space, there are also many social exchanges. If city space is desolate and empty, nothing happens.

 

Social activities include a wide spectrum of diverse activities.  There are many passive see and hear contacts: watching people and what is happening. This modest, unpretentious form of contact is the most widespread social city activity anywhere.

 

There are more active contacts. People exchange greetings and talk to acquaintances they meet.  There are chance meetings and small talk at market booths, on benches and wherever people wait.  People ask for directions and exchange brief remarks about the weather. More extensive contact can sometimes grow from these short greetings.  New topics and common interests can be discussed.  Acquaintanceships can sprout.

We don’t often think or talk about how our transportation choices feel or impact us socially, but maybe we should.

Commuting to work in Copenhagen.

Gabe with shaved legs!

Sizing Up The Competition

Hanging out at the Copenhagenize Consulting office is making me think a lot about how you brand and market a product. The product we think about is bicycling and we’re mainly trying to compete with car driving. For the record, I’m not a car-hater. I’m really not. Vehicles are very useful and they’re essential for many professions. A carpenter, for example, would have a hard time transporting lumber, tools, and a table saw to a job site on a bicycle. (Although, according to Mikael, there are plenty of bicycling carpenters,electricians, and other tradesmen in Copenhagen and beyond.)

The vast beauty of the rural American landscape is often best (or most effortlessly) accessed while road tripping, preferably while blasting Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’ or some other equally quintessential American tune. Cars are an important part of our transportation system; I just happen to think they’re an oversold product in urban America. There are many cities like Basel, Switzerland and Dresden, Germany that have almost an equal split between walking, cycling, public transportation, and private vehicles. There are places like Copenhagen and Amsterdam where cycling is more popular than driving and then there’s Delhi, India where there are 48 officially recognized  modes of transportation (apparently different types of rickshaws constitute different modes).

The personal vehicle has a transportation mode monopoly in all but a few American cities. Why do Americans drive so much?  We could point at the urban planners and politicians who–under influenced by the car companies–allowed sprawling, one mode cities to be built in the first place. But, what about the consumers of transportation? Consumers have a say. We drive demand.

In general, it seems that American consumers are pretty happy–or at least complacent–about leading car-centric lifestyles. It takes years of convincing to get Americans to approving legislation to fund public transportation. We don’t get angry when our governors approve 3.6 billion dollar transportation budgets that don’t even mention pedestrians or bicycles. We allow our federal government to bail car companies out rather than letting market forces run their course. Americans don’t even like to get out of our cars to eat meals. We invented the drive-thru restaurant and 19 percent of all meals and snacks are consumed in the privacy of our cars.

Some people say that Americans love cars. Why do we love cars?  Are we sure we really love cars?

I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos of car commercials trying to figure it out. It seems like car commercials are effective at making us forget about reality. The commercials usually take place in remote, people-free places and motoring is portrayed as either an exciting, traffic-free adventure or a meditative, traffic-free relaxation session. Traffic-free is key. Sometimes the professional drivers behind the wheel make turns and go at speeds that would be incredibly dangerous–and illegal–for an average driver on an average road. I typed “car commercial + speed” into You Tube and this Dodge Challenger commercial was the first thing that came up, but there are hundreds of examples of what I’m talking about.  Watch this video and think about whether you’d want your teenage kid–or anyone you share the road with for that matter–driving like this.

Sure, this commercial takes place in a desert not on a road, but really–when was the last time you went driving in a desert? Personally, I run very few errands in the desert.

The marketing team that sat around a conference table thinking up that Dodge commercial probably wanted us to think about freedom. Freedom from responsibility. Freedom from speed limits, traffic laws, traffic, yielding to pedestrians at crosswalks, needing to fill up your gas tank while running late, driving around looking for parking while running late, paying for parking tickets, paying speeding tickets, getting your emissions tested, renewing your tabs, asking a friend to drive you to the impound lot, getting your oil changed, vacuuming pretzels crumbs out from between the seats, fishing out old fast food containers stuck under the seat, comparison shopping for a new car insurance plan, rotating your tires, replacing the windshield wipers that haven’t worked right in months, refilling the wiper fluid, finally taking the car to the mechanic because of that weird noise, and the list goes on… Owning a car is one huge, expensive set of responsibilities, but the Dodge marketing team is smart. They didn’t want us to think about any of that while we were considering car ownership. They wanted us to think about freedom.

The more car commercials I watched, the more I wondered about how they may impact people’s perceptions about what they’re entitled to do when they get behind the wheel of a car. For example, parking is always available in car commercials. In one commercial, a woman leaves a hair salon in the middle of a dense urban area and her Jeep is parked right in front of the salon. There are no other cars on the street so she doesn’t even have to inch out of the spot or wait for passing traffic, she just zooms off with the top down and her hair looks great. What car consumers seem to forget is that–if they live in an urban area–they will likely (or should) pay thousands of dollars each year to park that car in the places they want to drive it. Think about how much people pay per square foot for office or living space–why should it be any different for a car? Expecting free parking in 21st century cities is like expecting free rent from your landlord. More and more enlightened urban planners are acknowledging that free parking and minimum parking requirements for new developments “act like a fertility drug for cars.”

The car companies have done a brilliant job hiding the true cost of car ownership from consumers. According to the Dept. of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, 15 percent of household expenditures go towards car ownership costs.  Americans spend more annually on cars than on food.

The quality of driving in car commercials, as I noted before, is not all that safe in my opinion. Advertising clearly influences our behavior; that’s why the United States regulates how tobacco products are marketed.  We had fairly good evidence that cigarettes were killing people, so we decided Mad Men advertisers working for tobacco companies couldn’t have free reign on our minds anymore. Here’s something crazy that I’ve been thinking about.  We know, for certain, that cars and the people who drive them take thousands of people’s lives every year. Guess how many American’s died in traffic fatalities in 2009? 33,808. That number shocked me. In the late 90s and early 2000s that number was consistently above 40,000. The recession has resulted in less driving and hence fewer traffic fatalities, but there are still close to 700 Americans dying in or as a result of cars–every single week. The United States has more traffic fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants than any other developed country in the world. Our traffic fatality rate is almost exactly on par with countries like Cambodia, El Salvador, and Bangladesh.

All these deaths are just accidents though. Right? Well, no, all of these accidents–on some level–are the result of bad driving. In fact, the British Medical Journal recently announced that it was no longer going to use the word accident when referring to deaths that were caused by car drivers. They said that accidents are “often understood to be unpredictable” and thus unpreventable. In reality though, nearly all car-related deaths are very preventable. Car drivers routinely speed and drive while exhausted, not quite sober, or intoxicated. More and more car drivers are simply in a state of constant distraction dialing phone numbers, talking, texting, responding to e-mails, eating messy burritos, and changing the playlist. The human brain is incredibly bad at multitasking and driving, even though we think of it as second nature, is actually a pretty complex task for our brains. The more you casually engage in this complex, potentially fatal task–the more likely you are to die. Here’s a scary statistic from Tom Vanderbilt’s exquisitely researched book, Traffic:

If you drive an average of 15,500 miles per year, as many Americans do, there is a roughly 1 in 100 chance you’ll die in a fatal car crash over a lifetime of 50 years driving.

He got these numbers from the US DOT.  I looked up the data and crunched the numbers myself because I found these odds hard to believe at first. What’s really interesting–and not at all surprising–is that if you drive less you’re less likely to die in a car accident. An insurance research firm called Quality Planning Corporation did a study of one million drivers over an 8 month period and found that doctors and real estate agents have very high crash risks compared to other professionals. Why? Again, an excerpt from Traffic:

Exposure matters, which is seemingly why real estate agents, always driving from house to house, showed up high on the list. Doctors drive a lot, often in urban settings, often with a certain urgency, perhaps dispensing advice via cell phone.

The firm found that pilots have a very low car crash risk because they are in the air flying so much of the time. Part of the reason the United States has such a high traffic fatality rate per 100,000 people compared to other developed countries is because we drive a lot more than people in most other countries. Vanderbilt also explains that Americans who live in the exurbs (“extra-urban” areas beyond the suburbs) typically have a higher risk of death than people who live in “dangerous” urban cores. Why? Exurb residents spend a lot more time driving than urban dwellers. Exposure matters.

I also became curious while watching all these car commercials about what percentage of commercials portray drivers following all traffic laws.  For example, I’m quite certain that it’s illegal to try and kill pedestrians with your car.  Even if the pedestrians are “the enemy.”

Cars are dangerous. They kill the people who drive them and they kill cyclists and pedestrians on the roads. Cars are also very expensive to own. I didn’t even get into all the negative externalities cars have on our environment, waistline, and international politics.  Yet, despite all this, Americans love cars.

Or do we?

Either way, the marketing departments at car companies should be applauded. They’ve done an amazing job selling their product to American consumers.

However, as a true freedom-loving American, my kudos are going to the Miller High Life marketing department.