Why our focus on “safety” holds us back

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on August 16th, 2013 at 11:54 am

Source: BikePortland

Bicycling in Utrecht is pleasant (and safe of course). (Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Bicycling in Utrecht is pleasant (and safe of course).
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Here in America, the most common word associated with new bikeway projects is “safety”. Deaths, injuries, and collision statistics are the key driver of which projects rise to the top of funding lists. Want a new bike path on a street in your neighborhood? The first thing PBOT will do is check the database for reported collisions along the route.

But what if all these discussion surrounding safety isn’t really where we should focus our energy? On the Green Lane Project blog this week, Michael Andersen (yes, that Michael Andersen) laid out the following case in a post titled, What if bike comfort is more important than bike safety?:

“What if bike [project] 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?…

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…”

Andersen’s perspective jibes with much of what a Portland delegation (which I was a part of) learned on a recent trip to the Netherlands (which was sponsored by the Green Lane Project). That is, “safety” as an engineering/organizing principle takes a back seat to many other attributes in the development of a successful bicycle network.

In fact, one of our guides on the trip, Tom Godefrooij of the Dutch Cycling Embassy, addressed this specific idea during a presentation he gave on our first day in Utrecht. Godefrooij explained that from the Dutch perspective, safety plays only a minor part in their approach to improving cycling. On this topic, he shared one of the most memorable quotes of our entire trip:

“Safety is not a goal of cycling policy, it’s a pre-condition.”

What Godefrooij was getting at is that the Dutch don’t sell cycling or cycling infrastructure by talking up safety benefits. There’s much more to it than that. “The challenge,” said Godefrooij, “Is to make cycling convenient and practical.”

In a slide, Godefrooij shared the four basic principles of bicycle planning in the Netherlands. On top of the list was “coherence of the network” (signage, and so on), then “directness” (minimizing delays and detours), then “attractiveness”, and at the bottom of the list was “safety”.

Furthering Godefrooij’s point was Bas Govers, a bicycle planning consultant with Goudappel Coffeng. He shared their work on the need for attractive roads that encourage cycling. In a survey of people doing errands by bike on a particular route in Utrecht, Govers said 82% chose a longer — yet more attractive — route for their trip. What’s most interesting however, is when asked about their choice, survey respondents actually thought the road was shorter. “Attractive roads shorten time awareness,” Govers said, “People think it’s faster, but it’s not.”

Given that, it should come as no surprise that when it comes to “Taking cycling to the next level” (the title of the Gover’s slide below), Govers doesn’t mention safety at all:

Taking Cycling to the Next Level

Taking Cycling to the Next Level

Perhaps a local example of this phenomenon is the Morrison Bridge. After waiting many years for bike access improvements, the County finally finished a $1.9 project in 2010. The new facility is definitely safer for bicycling, but it’s horrible from a connectivity standpoint and therefore it’s not an attractive cycle route. And the result? It has very low usage numbers and is therefore by some measure, a failed project.

Andersen’s blog post about safety and these examples from the Netherlands show quite clearly that there’s another, more appealing way to talk about and implement cycling infrastructure than always harping on safety.


In the African-American Community we have elevated ‘trash talk‘ to a high art form. The idea is to ‘get inside the head‘ of your opponent long enough to have him forget about you to focus on intangibles that he cannot possibly control. If you can get him to worry about the fact that his car is parked a very long way from the arena and is currently unprotected and you claim to have noticed a few sketchy characters eyeing it a bit too closely his mind will wander from the competition at hand and that is to your advantage.

Yesterday I made the mistake of accepting the premise set forth by Michael Andersen of the Green Lane Project that we were all focused far too heavily on ‘safety‘ and should instead use ‘customer satisfaction‘ metrics instead. It was stated (and I disagreed with the premise) that the fault for this focus was to be laid at the feet of John Forester and others who espouse Vehicular Cycling. In retrospect I realize that this comment was a bit of ‘trash talking‘ done by Mr. Andersen.

The real problem with his ‘new‘ approach is that he wants to turn a Field Trial into a Bench Trial. Imagine if you will that some very intelligent dogs and their owners are lined up in a field and a herd of sheep is to be collected and herded into a pen by a very smart dog and his owner. The owner is using possible voice and or hand signals alone and stays at his original position. The dog does all the work circling around sheep and herding them into a narrow gate where they are finally penned. It take a very smart dog to accomplish this and an equally patient and competent trainer/owner.

Now imagine that one of the owners realizes that just before his dog is to perform that he suspects the competition to be a great deal stiffer than anticipated. What to do? Why, of course! Change the rules. Make the competition a bench trial. In a bench trial it is all about looks. The AKC has a guideline for the standard of the breed in question and the degree to which your dog conforms to that standard he is judged more appealing than his peers.

Michael Andersen and now Jonathan Maus are asking that their claims about the ‘safety‘ aspects of bicycle infrastructure be set aside in order to judge the benefits of such infrastructure by the ‘warm and fuzzy feeling‘ it gives users. In other words it does not actually have to create greater ‘actual safety‘ it simply has to make the users ‘feel safer‘.

We have a term for this sort of thing in the African-American Community, we call it the ‘shuck and jive‘. In essence change the rules mid-stream in order to avoid a possible loss. It is a cowardly way to behave, but there it is.

Chicago DOT Tangles With Illinois DOT

Here in Chicago the CDOT got word from the IDOT that some ‘proof‘ of the greater ‘safety‘ inherent in Protected Bike Lanes would have to be demonstrated before state-controlled streets could be converted. They wanted something like three years of data! Yikes! They were not willing to accept the ‘tried and true‘ we heard it from the Dutch/Danes. Instead the ghost of Ronald Reagan has appeared hovering over the proceedings and the words ‘trust but verify‘ can be heard.

Waiting three full years to get the data they think they will get makes the CDOT nervous because it means that if the political climate changes and Rand Paul gets elected or someone from the Tea Party wing of the GOP gains control of the reins, all bets are off on when the ‘wild spending‘ on bicycle infrastructure of the Obama years will ever return.

Because the Urban Cycling Community has made it abundantly clear that they are quasi-Socialist in their views and forums like the Chicago ChainLink are more than abundant evidence of these leanings there is little chance that such spending will return during that election cycle. We have managed to piss away any goodwill we might have had to become a pariah in the Transportation Landscape. Neither motorists, mass transit or pedestrian users are likely to find our views appealing.

Having made our own bed we must now lie in it.

But in the near term there will be attempts to salvage what we can before the hammer may drop. And that will mean eating our words about ‘safety‘ and ‘how could anyone deny us protected bike lanes when it is self-evident that they are safer for everyone in the transportation landscape‘. The more politically savvy among us will have to go ‘hat in hand‘ to plead for laxer rules in judging the value of bicycle infrastructure. We have blinked and I am happy that this has occurred. It needed to happen before we managed to ruin any credibility we have with the rest of the world.

The lanes we are building are not the same as those used by our European counterparts. They have long ago stopped doing much of what we are currently trying to do because it never really worked. The Vehicular Cycling folks are in fact transplanted Europeans. They know chapter and verse what works and what does not. And their only ‘sin‘ is in never having drunk the Urban Cycling Kool-Aid™.

The next few years will be interesting times indeed.