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Education Isn't the Answer

Many of you may have seen this video before, and in fact, I wouldn't be surprised if I've posted it. I've definitely tweeted it and shared it with friends by email.

A number of cycling advocates in Providence continue to make the false argument that education has to proceed infrastructure, and that infrastructure takes a long time or may not even be desirable until such education has happened. The most vocal proponent of this is Bill DiSantis of VHB, but it's not limited to him by any stretch.

It's incorrect.

DiSantis said tonight at the bike & ped meeting that we can't expect the same results as in the Netherlands because in the early '70s when the Dutch were first adding cycletracks, they already had a 15% mode share and had educational programs for children in their schools for cycling.

It's true that in the '70s there were more people biking than there currently are in the most bike-friendly U.S. cities. It's also true that the 15% that DiSantis cites was the nadir of biking in the Netherlands, where more than half of trips had once been made by bike before the war. Why did this nadir happen? The Dutch had gotten wealthy, and tore out a lot of the biking infrastructure that they once had. They even did what we do in the U.S., which is to demolish our nicest buildings for parking lots. They were losing 6% of cyclists per year, and educational programs or not, they had a higher fatality rate than the U.S. by far.

Today, with infrastructure like that of Groningen, Dutch cities are now above 50% mode share again, and they have a much lower fatality and injury rate than in the U.S., so much so that Dutch people make fun of Americans for wearing helmets.

There's no doubt that education is a good thing, but advocates in the U.S. do not call for the kind of education that Dutch schools have. We fail to provide even basic courses in our schools, so it'll be a long time before we have K-12 cycling. I worked really hard in one program I worked in to create a biking class for middle schoolers, and encountered a lot of friction from administrators about the idea of risk to the students. We can talk on and on about objective safety and the fact that there are very few cycling deaths--and that's true--but that will never get a parent or teacher to allow a student to ride in the street when they're not comfortable with the risk (I even had some staff members I worked with who were bike commuters questioning my sanity on this). So throw that educational plan down the toilet without infrastructure.

The most disingenuous thing about the whole education-first argument is that it turns on the common sense assumption that that which is better must cost more. Yet biking infrastructure isn't expensive by the standards of any other transportation project, and reduces costs long-term. We have projects going on at RIDOT where we build huge, wasteful highway interchanges, or put expensive (and annoying) push-buttons for pedestrian crossings in order to save some driver 45 seconds in their commute, but we can't build protected bike lanes that reduce road wear, pollution, health care costs, and a number of other metrics of economic health? The only reason we see these projects as "extra" is because we've set a standard of (car only) level-of-service (i.e., "How many cars can I shove through this intersection?") before we go to other measures of success for a street. 

And educating drivers makes no sense because drivers don't drive badly because of being poorly educated. They drive badly because roads encourage it. The author Tom Vanderbilt uses the example of drivers being asked the length of the white lines on the highway. Most say around two feet. The lines are actually ten to twelve feet long, but at highway speeds they appear drastically shorter. The built environment of a street like South Main Street is built only slightly less to encourage speeding than I-95, and so people--good people, church & synagogue going people, old ladies and moms, dads with cute baby-carriers and so forth--speed on these roads. There's no way to educate people out of the built psychology of the structures around them.

Time to stop fooling around.



  1. You're right about education being less important. The Dutch do train children at school, but there's not nearly as much of this as some overseas commentators make out. It's the infrastructure that makes people cycle.

    Britain doesn't build proper cycling infrastructure but it does train children. British statistics quite clearly show that cycle training does not lead to an increase in cycling.

    So back to decent infrastructure. You may be asking yourself the question "Does Dutch infrastructure have the ability to make cyclists out of non cyclists ?" and the answer is a resounding YES. We can see this by looking at how immigrants to the Netherlands behave.

    While recent immigrants to the Netherlands from countries with no or little cycling do not cycle as much as the native population of the Netherlands, they do cycle as much as the native populations of second and third rank cycling nations.

    So there you have it. Build infrastructure which makes cycling into a convenient, attractive and safe mode of transport and people cycle, whatever their background.

  2. Infrastructure and its Design, Education and Enforcement all go hand in hand. I agree with you that infrastructure presence is really the only thing that will increase the number of people willing to ride in Providence and choose not to drive and park.

    Personally, while educating bike users on their responsibilities and best practices and the gotchas of using that infrastructure is important, educating people who drive is lacking. Couple that with infrequent or non-existent enforcement of the few driving laws that do contribute to safer conditions, and we have environments that are not only built to encourage "free flowing traffic", but a culture of drivers who rightly believe that pretty much anything they do behind the wheel is okay.

    We, as a city, probably spend more money on ticketing cars parked on neighborhood streets overnight where they are pretty much incapable of harming anyone during the span of a week than is spent in an entire year on speed limit, intersection blocking (gridlock), and failure to yield to pedestrians at crosswalks.

  3. I think some basic educational work is definitely going to be needed to introduce new infrastructural ideas to drivers, and definitely also things like re-writing parts of the guide books for drivers' licenses. But in general the data for getting people to behave well with educational programs is pretty weak. Here's another Tom Vanderbilt video where he talks about that:


    The thing that really gets to me isn't education per se. It's obviously fine to do that. It's the narcotic effect it seems to have on bike advocates when someone suggests that there will soon be an educational program. And to some extent it's also the amount of organizational time that organizations spend on this. I mean, there's an argument that providing base-level services to people allows the development of a conversation and moves to other organizing a la No One Like the Garbage in "We Took the Streets", but I don't feel like I find that analysis of things much. Most of it is that I think a lot of bike advocates are people who are comfortable on bikes, and they just *want* to preach about wearing helmets or having the right lights and so on instead of focusing on how 98% of the public isn't like them (well, us, because I'm one of those too).

    But thanks for commenting, Matt. And I appreciated your pushback at the meeting. I like the direction the BPAC is going. You can quote me on it.