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!”

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.

2 thoughts on “What is safety?

  1. Please — if you are comfortable– send this to either OregonLive.com or the Oregonian. It’s superb, balanced, and clearly from one who earns her keep with the writing craft. That said, I think it needs more exposure. Perhaps one of the many cycling rags as well?

    It embodies what I’ve sensed for over a decade with PBOT et. Al. responsible for placing their shingle out as the archetype yardstick other communities should follow. They are charlatans — selling our infrastructure as the ideal.

    Though I’m glad having marked and signed streets, lanes, and paths, PBOT’S and others’ efforts are token. They are NOT safe by most standards aside from, perhaps, the fatality data you mentioned. Unfortunately, that’s what most public and private concerns use as empirical data — wait until it’s too late, someone is either dead or nearly so before taking the non-motorist community serious. If they are standards of safety, why are they not teeming with cyclists, aside from peak commute hours?

    There was a time I averaged 7-8,000 miles annually via bike. The lion’s share of those miles were within the perimeter of greater PDX. After way too many close calls I limited my routes to only the least occupied by motorists.

    As well, the attention and maintenance of existing bike infrastructure (ha!) is piss-poor. As your images bring attention to those maintenance signs disabling the marked bike lane. Add to that the garbage strewn on most lanes and paths. Garbage swept by sweeping machines from the car lanes, onto bike lanes. They have deep pockets for motor path maintenance, whereas they neglect the margins (scraps and crumbs) available to cyclists. It fucking de-validates the cycling community and I perceive it as an insult. Even dedicated, bike-only paths are frequently left to rot by civic maintenance crews.

    Lighting — I work night shift and consider if we are worthy of the best cycling city crown, then I should have clear, clean, well-lit paths at my disposal for night travel. I don’t.

    Sadly, the required culture change is slow as molasses in the states. Rarely a week passes without some asshole at work complaining about bikes in his or her way coming to work. I don’t waste my time or energy debating with their limited and simple scope.

    Great work! It does not come across as an emotional rant, rather, sound expression with credible citations.

  2. This is a great post. I agree 100% that not wanting to ride on high speed roads, even if they have a bike lane, is not illogical. And I say that as someone who does it almost every day. I know that we are the exception and most people will just stay in their cars if the only other choice is riding right next to fast cars.

    I’m sorry, BTW, that you have been having a hard time w/ the drivers lately. Knocking wood here, but I’ve been pretty pleased with 99% of the drivers I’ve encountered around the Portland area. I’m not sure what is causing the changes that you are seeing. Maybe more new folks moving into town? Not sure.

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