What if bike comfort is more important than bike safety?

By Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer
August 14, 2013

Source: Green Lane Project

Cycle track photo from Copenhagen  © J.Maus/BikePortland

Cycle track photo from Copenhagen
© J.Maus/BikePortland

When I’m standing near the edge of a high ledge or cliff, I know, rationally, that I’m unlikely to fall. I’ve spent most of my life without spontaneously tumbling sideways, and standing on the edge of a cliff doesn’t change that.

I know, statistically speaking, that I am almost completely safe.

But that doesn’t mean I like to stand near the edge of a cliff.

Vertigo - Cliff  © Adam Baker

Vertigo – Cliff
© Adam Baker

When I’m in the front seat of a roller coaster, I know, rationally, that my body is extremely safe. Tens of thousands of thrill-seekers have raised their hands in the air without being harmed.

But that doesn’t stop me from being scared of raising my hands in the air in the front seat of a roller coaster.

Roller coaster  photo by raghavvidya

Roller coaster
photo by raghavvidya

When I’m riding my bike along a five-lane arterial road, I know, rationally, that the professional truck driver next to me is statistically unlikely to suddenly swerve to his right, crushing and killing me.

But that doesn’t mean I like to bike on a street like this:

Riding alongside trucks with no bike lane.

Riding alongside trucks with no bike lane.

Last week, I interviewed a man whose main ideas have been rejected by mainstream bike advocates in the United States: John Forester, founder of the “vehicular cycling” concept. Because cars and bikes rarely collide when they can see each other, Forester and his allies argue, people should ride bicycles where they are most visible: right down the middle of standard traffic lanes. Protected bike lanes modeled on those in Northern Europe, they argue, move people on bikes to the side of the roadway where they’re harder for people in cars to see.

There’s something to this argument. If there weren’t, it wouldn’t have been nearly so successful in the 1970s and 1980s. To Forester and his successors, such as Bicycle Quarterly’s Jan Heine, peoples’ desire to use protected bike lanes is irrational and therefore unjustifiable.

“Most Americans suffer from bicyclist inferiority complex,” Forester told me. “Most of the things that they like appeal to their phobias.”

There’s a standard response to Forester, Heine and others who make this case against protected bike lanes: that although no intersection is perfect and a given protected lane might slightly increase the short-term risk of collision at a given intersection, a city that offers a robust network of protected lanes will actually become safer in the long run, because more people will ride bikes.

This is a pretty strong argument.

But is it the best one?

What if Forester, Heine and others are using the wrong metric to measure the success of a bike lane? What if “safety,” as calculated by government statistictians who sit far away from speeding semi trailers, isn’t actually a bike lane’s most precious characteristic?

What if bike designers, instead of arguing about safety – an argument that, to be clear, I think protected bike lanes would win – decided that the most important measure of a good bikeway is whether people tend to like it?

I’m not arguing that safety is unimportant. Obviously nonprofessionals are imperfect judges of whether a particular lane or intersection is safe, and cities must work carefully to design good, safe intersections with few bike-car conflicts.

But when professionals make safety their only absolute value, they presume that physical safety is the most important value in people’s lives. And that assumption is demonstrably false. Of course people want safety. But they want other things, too.

A restaurant doesn’t measure its success by the percentage of people who dine there without getting sick. It measures success by the number of people who come in the door, how much they pay and how often they return. A public transit line isn’t funded by the federal government based on its anticipated vehicle failure rate. It’s funded based on the number of people who are expected to use it.

And as for bike infrastructure, here’s the thing: as one study after another has found, people go out of their way to use bike lanes, especially protected bike lanes.

Bluebonnet Lane in Austin.

Bluebonnet Lane in Austin.

Surprise! It turns out that, rationally or not, people dislike biking on a street that constantly reminds them of their own possible demise.

Even if, rationally, they know they’re almost completely safe.

Here’s what a more human-centric way of thinking about bike design would involve:

  • In every city, making the number of anticipated users the primary metric for designing a desired bike project.
  • In every city, actually taking efforts to measure the usage of important bike projects.
  • Using the phrase “safety and comfort” as a pair of core values in street design, but not as a pair of synonyms.

This line of thinking is why, at the Green Lane Project, we use the phrase “low-stress” to describe the bike networks we value most. We don’t talk about building “safer bike lanes,” though ultimately a network of good ones is safer.

We simply talk about building “better bike lanes.”

People aren’t robots, and they don’t change their behavior based on mathematics. They change their behavior based on feelings. Until bike advocates and street designers alike understand this, bikes will never successfully belong.

Green lane idea of the day: Street designers should consider making short-term safety a baseline requirement of better bike facilities, but not the sole measure of bike projects’ value.

Cycle track photo from Copenhagen by J.Maus/BikePortland; used with permission. Cliff photo by Adam Baker. Roller coaster photo by raghavvidya.


Frankly I think this is a very important article among all the ones I have read in the past few months about protected bike lanes. What the author is attempting to deal with here is the issue of ‘perceived‘ versus ‘actual‘ safety when using bike lanes. And I would think that most Vehicular Cyclists would agree with the conclusion that there is greater value in perceived safety when considering the installation of bike lanes than actual safety. In fact that has been the brunt of our argument all along.

When you put a chain on your apartment door you feel safer despite the fact that most anyone can come along and put a shoulder to the door and walk right in and harm you. I think there is consensus on that point. The wrinkle in this article is that Michael Andersen is arguing that the focus of mainstream bicycle advocates regarding green lanes has always been about ‘perceived safety‘ and not on ‘actual safety‘. At least that is the message I think I am getting from reading this article. I could assert that just the opposite is true.

So-called mainstream bicycle advocates have been pushing the ‘actual‘ or ‘real‘ safety argument from day one. What Vehicular Cyclists have been arguing is that there is a flaw in that argument because protected bike lanes actually create situations where cyclists crossing intersections while using the protected bike lane as designed are nevertheless unable to avoid collisions with vehicles making right turns. In fact a rather tragic accident of this very nature was the subject of a piece written by Jonathan Maus earlier this year.

But let’s not dwell on who is pushing the idea of ‘real‘ versus ‘actual‘ safety and be glad that this argument is being examined at all. Up until this very moment I have not seen any indication that the mainstream bicycle advocacy groups saw anything other than metrics from the various departments of transportation as essential in ‘proving‘ their case. Michael Andersen is to my mind showing the first evidence that these groups are rethinking their argument.

I frankly welcome the discussion. Here in Chicago I see problems developing that were not on anybody’s radar just a scant year ago. We have riders who are members of the Chicago ChainLink Forum openly admitting that they do not stop at red lights while on their daily commute into downtown Chicago from nearby Wicker Park. To be honest the very idea met with some resistance from some of the participants in the conversation. But as the rider pointed out he has yet to be involved in an accident and by that measure he feels his behavior has not made him less safe.

So in the end as with most everything it is all about perception. If you feel that drinking and ‘driving a bicycle‘ is OK and you judge this by the fact that you have not suffered serious injury as a result then you are likely to continue with the behavior. This is another of the admissions made on the Chicago ChainLink Forum in recent weeks. And again while some of the participants railed against the notion that such a practice was not dangerous his personal experience has taught him otherwise.

Green Bike Lanes Do Make You Feel Safer

For me the biggest benefit of a green bike lane is the fact that I am immediately aware that a welcome mat has been laid for my presence as a traffic component on whatever road I am riding. I ‘keep my head on a swivel‘ as the saying goes but I feel safer. There is one problem that comes when I am lulled into that position.

The Argument Is Shifting From 'Real' to 'Perceived' Safety

The Argument Is Shifting From ‘Real’ to ‘Perceived’ Safety

If I am a newbie rider and have no clue about bicycle handling and interactions to be aware of with motor vehicles I am quite likely to suffer a right hook if a truck begins a turn while I am crossing an intersection and he does not see me. The bulk of the problem here is that I have little or no ‘training‘ and am relying on the lanes to ‘protect me‘. A key component of what helps most with European bicycle riders is that they are schooled in the use of a bicycle at a very early age and have state help in getting it should they immigrate as adults to a country where for the first time travel by bicycle is an option. There are courses in  Amsterdam especially for immigrant adult females who have come from countries where women were perhaps discouraged from using bicycles. And now they have to learn those skills in what is essentially a ‘crash course‘. We desperately need that approach here in the United States.

Having people ‘feel safer‘ by riding in green lanes should go hand-in-hand with the training to make that experience one which helps them avoid serious injury or even death.