Monthly Archives: January 2015

What is safety?

Sitting in an otherwise promising community meeting with members of PBOT (Portland Bureau of Transportation)’s active transportation division, discussing safety issues on the Clinton bicycle boulevard, I was struck by a very false note. “But this is really a very safe bike route,” said one of the PBOT folks. “The death rate is low.” (I am paraphrasing based on my recollection, but it’s a close paraphrase.)

The death rate is low. I remember feeling a dark pang in my chest as I heard that, and brushing it aside to stay present with the discussion.

But it stuck with me, the realization that the people in charge of designing and implementing infrastructure for bicycles, pedestrians, and yes, cars, consider safety to mean: “not too many people have died.” I couldn’t help but picture the promotional campaign: “Use our bike lanes – you probably won’t die!”

wideroad
Just because a road has a bike lane doesn’t mean I want to ride on it.

I’m aware that it’s part of transportation planners’ jobs to quantify what constitutes a “safe” place, and therefore talking about death rates isn’t irrelevant for them, professionally. But I’m not sure there’s an adequate realization of how that translates to real life – of what safety means to the person who is trying to decide whether or not to ride her bicycle to the grocery store, or to pick up her kids from school, or to work during rush hour.

A few people in the meeting pointed out the importance of “subjective safety,” and there were nodded heads, and I don’t think our local transportation bureau is unaware that safety can mean different things to different people. And yet.

Using the term “subjective safety” relegates it to an add-on, a “nice to have” extra that’s not used for planning purposes. It would be nice if the “slow and cautious” riders could feel safe using our bike network. But because they’re so slow and cautious, the fault is really with them. They’re safe; they’re just too scared to know it. This is the subtext of many discussions of bicycle infrastructure in the U.S., and I think it does us all a disservice.

And more than that, it’s hamstringing our transportation planning. Placing the onus on the bicyclist (or potential bicyclist) to “feel safe” when the infrastructure consists of nothing but paint and wayfinding signs (aka. sharrows) contributes to a vicious cycle of failure in active transportation planning.

Construction signs blocking bike lanes - an all-too-common sight in PDX.
Construction signs blocking bike lanes – an all-too-common sight in PDX.

We get the mode share we design for. If we design for a few diehard souls, that’s who will ride. If we want a real mode share, we have to build the network for it, not just demand that bicyclists accept the painted line of crumbs we’re offered.

Furthermore, and I hope some transportation planners are listening: Not feeling comfortable riding with car traffic at your elbow is not a sign of timidity; it’s a sign of intelligence, and a simple indicator that one’s basic animal awareness of danger is functioning properly. Too many discussions of transportational bicycling polarize cyclists into “strong & fearless” and “timid & cautious,” as well as a third category describing those who are “interested but intimidated.”

There’s a common assumption that the more experienced a cyclist is, the more comfortable he or she is with riding in “challenging” (read: dangerous) traffic environments. I’d argue that more exposure to dangerous situations does not necessarily breed comfort with them. Because what’s making the situation uncomfortable isn’t the perception of danger, but actual danger.

Here’s a string of them zigzagging along the bike lane.

I’m about as strong, skilled, and confident in my bike handling skills as they come, and I find riding in aggressive, close-driving traffic fucking nerve-wracking. I can ride in a vehicular style. I can ride the speed of car traffic. I can anticipate drivers blowing through stop signs, turning without signaling, cutting me off, right-hooking me, opening their doors wide without looking, passing an oncoming cyclist wide and right into my path, and a whole mess of other shit. I can avoid a lot of problems that occur on the road. That doesn’t make me comfortable doing it.

The longer I do this bicycling-for-transportation thing, the more I want a real, protected bike network. After a decade in New York City (I began before bike lanes were a twinkle in Janette Sadik-Khan’s eye) and three years in increasingly un-bike-friendly PDX, I’m exhausted. I’ve got what is essentially combat fatigue, and it gets triggered by near misses, and buzzing, and unwarranted honking, bullying, and all the other shit drivers dish out without even considering that there’s a human being on the other end of it.

I’ve spent years fighting the “good fight,” and have spent probably hundreds of hours controlling my own adrenaline-fueled fight or flight reflex. My feeling is, I deserve to be able to ride my bike where I’m going in peace. It’s okay if it rains or snows or sleets on me. Just give me some real safety. “You probably won’t die” doesn’t cut it. The fact that I haven’t died yet has a lot more to do with skill and luck and the veteran bicyclist’s positively feline complement of “lives” than it does with the streets of anywhere I’ve lived being truly safe places to ride.

Postscript: Dr. Rachel Aldred of Westminster University is doing pioneering research documenting bicyclists’ experience of safety (or lack thereof) in the U.K. After writing this post, I noticed an eerily similar post on her blog. I’d say “great minds,” but in this case it’s just the universal (crummy) experience of being a bicyclist in a car-centric culture.

So there was this SUV…

“So there was this SUV…” he said. I nodded, “Yeah, I know.” And it occurred to both of us that he didn’t even need to finish the story, because we both knew how it went. If you’re a bicyclist, you know the rest without being told.

I went on a little adventure this weekend that involved a great deal of unavoidable, intense freeway driving. It was a remarkable experience, and not in a good way. Eight lanes of cars, trucks, SUVs, motorcycles, and so on, traveling at speeds of 65 to 80 mph (or more), bobbing and weaving from all directions, as drivers flitted in and out of tiny gaps with an apparent suspension of belief in the laws of physics.

I seemed to be the only one on the road who was aware of how fast we were actually going. When I met up with my friends and choked out my horror at the gauntlet I’d just been through to get there, this impression was confirmed. Everyone looked at me and shrugged. “Yeah, it’s the freeway.”

bumps!What it was, was dystopia. The air was hazy with smog, the road surface was chewed to pieces by constant battering with multi-ton vehicles, there were huge chunks of torn-up tire like driftwood along the margins. I narrowly avoided a pothole that was at least 3 feet deep, wide enough to have trapped my rental car like a hunting snare.

It struck me, both during the nightmare driving, wiping sweat off my palms every few minutes so I could maintain grip on the wheel, and later, while I was looking down from the airplane window at our small, fragile planet, that none of this was necessary. That we are killing ourselves and our one and only home, for no reason other than an inexplicably stubborn dedication to traveling in single-occupant vehicles, rather than in safer, more efficient, less-polluting public vehicles, and on completely non-polluting bicycles. For the sake of “saving” minutes and seconds made artificially precious, we have normalized carnage to an extent that is shocking, if you step back and look at it from a human scale.

So there was this SUV whose driver decided it would be a good idea to split lanes with the car I was driving. It happened too quickly for me to honk, and there was nowhere to go, since I was in a lane next to another car on the other side, and I’m lucky to be alive. And that was just one moment of a hundred terrifying near-disasters. But that’s just “normal” car culture.