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Bike Infrastructure Carries Zero Liability

People for Bikes, a national advocacy group dedicated to improving biking, recently instigated a welcome jump in my readership numbers by featuring my article contrasting gay marriage tactics to the ones used by bike advocates. I've been really pleased to see the positive reaction the article has gotten, and I hope it energizes people to push the envelope a little harder in 2015.

While I'm nothing but thankful to find myself in the blast feed of People for Bikes, at the same time I feel like even their article illustrates my point that bike advocates pull failure from the jaws of victory due to poor strategy. This mishmash sits at the bottom of an otherwise very supportive statement:

Though we'll stop short of endorsing this strategy (which is, of course, weighed down by the threat of million-dollar tort claims in a way that Newsom's guerrilla marriages weren't) it's a compelling sign of how ridiculous anti-protected-bike-lane policies have become and how important it is for states to follow the examples of California, Tennessee, and Massachusetts and start helping cities rather than holding them back. [my emphasis]
People for Bikes might as well have said:

It's a great idea for the FDA to legalizing cyclanthropedal, a drug that has saved lives in the European Union for thirty years, and we hope that FDA officials will completely ignore the risk of financial disaster if hospitals start using the drug. Patients have shown remarkable recovery rates, and there was only that one incident of someone puking bile until they collapsed and died. This is going to be one of the biggest new breakthroughs for the FDA, and we hope they'll act soon to legalize this medication. 

I can read between the lines enough to understand that there's an implicit demand in what People for Bikes is saying. PfB wants state DOTs to stop doing ridiculous things, and their demand is welcome. At the same time, I really question the notion that cities have anything to fear from pushing past DOTs, and feel like the insinuation that they do is false, and counterproductive.

Mary Will Never Walk Again

Let's contrast the way that bike advocates talk to the public compared to how we talk to DOTs. Our public message is that biking is healthy, enjoyable, and above all safe (there's a bit of jaw-clenching on the last one). Cycling advocates are a tiny and unrepresentative group of people within a much larger group of people who bike, but they are often the people most convinced that P.R. magic (like repeating the biking is safe) can help the cause, and so they are very quick to denounce anything that suggests that biking carries risk. It bears repeating, of course, that the objective safety of biking is quite high (you're more likely to die falling out of bed than from falling off a bike). But objective safety doesn't matter to people, and trying to keep people's fears quiet or dispel them with soothing rhetoric will not work.

The logical flaw here is to give a proximate item more weight than a much more important abstract one. It's feels very much in our control to tell people that biking is something they should do now, and so we bristle at the idea that one or two people might change their minds about biking because of something negative we said, even though we know that hundreds or even thousands of people in our cities will decide to bike almost overnight if actual physical changes are made. The real return-on-investment to P.R. is extremely small, but there's no getting around how much it garners advocates' attention and resources, because human beings just have a bias for close-at-hand things. It's same reason that a car whizzing by feels more menacing than a nap in one's bed.

The Providence Bike Master Plan is steeped in the idea that biking is already safe enough (even more jaw-clenching). One of its signature goals is to "debunk the perception that bicycling is a dangerous activity". It's no surprise that the infrastructural offerings from such a plan are slim, because it starts from the premise that the problem is mental or behavioral, instead of physical. 

But if we get that talking to a person on the street about how dangerous the street is is not an immediately successful way to convince that person to jump on a bike, why don't we apply that understanding to how we talk to cities? There's next to zero chance that a city will be sued for bike infrastructure, but the slightest insinuation that a city could be sued is enough to kill a project.

Flipping Liability on its Head
Branch Avenue
We need to flip the liability argument on its head. Here's the Providence Bike Master Plan's recommendation for shared lane markings (SLMs) or "sharrows":
As per the Standards and guidance contained in the MUTCD, SLMs should not be used on roadways with speeds greater than 35 mph. [my emphasis] 
At 30 mph, a pedestrian has about a 40% chance of dying from vehicle impact. By 40 mph, the chances of death are around 80-90%. A 35 mph road is somewhere on the middle of that curve, although most drivers will go 5 mph over the speed limit routinely. Should we warn the City of Providence that by foolishly adopting a really bad bike plan it has put the users of its shared lane markings at an above 80% chance of dying, if hit? 

Providence has other ridiculous bike provisions. One of the official, signed bike routes in Providence is Branch Avenue, pictured above. Believe it or not, I think this Google image of the "bike route" fails to capture how stressful and dangerous it would be to ride here. I wouldn't even want to walk on the sidewalk here, much less bike. But I see people (occasionally) doing it.

If no one is ever killed on a poorly designed sharrow or signed route, it will only be because of how few people use them. These designations scream liability, and yet the city feels no risk in laying them down.

Bike Infrastructure is Risk-Free

Putting (real) bike infrastructure in carries zero risk. Bikeways have existed in the United States for over a century, starting in Brooklyn. If there's anywhere litigious enough to have lost its bikeways from lawyers, it's New York, but the bikeway is still there.

Moreover, multiple countries have implemented nationwide bike networks of protected bike lanes, and seen risk go down for users even as participation in biking skyrockets. The Netherlands was behind the U.S. for traffic safety in 1972, but has since eclipsed the American safety record. Other biking countries, like Sweden, have even better records, hence the Vision Zero plan that New York City is borrowing from the Swedish government.

There are U.S. examples of infrastructure going in on city streets where no one got sued. Not only that, but the infrastructure was intentionally put back in shortly after it was removed, because the authorities quickly realized it was a good idea.

We know that even in the Netherlands, it was not possible to get a "biking culture" by word-of-mouth campaigning. People had to lay in the streets and force the hand of government to get change.

And if all else fails, the USDOT advocates for use of protected bike lanes. If RIDOT can't get itself organized enough to follow federal policy, then cities should feel no risk in taking on the challenge themselves.

It All Comes Back to Gay Marriage

The Defense of Marriage Act was struck down by the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court because an ordinary woman said enough was enough. When Edith Windsor first sought to challenge the Defense of Marriage Act, no gay rights group would support her effort, even though the Defense of Marriage Act was one of the key pieces of legislation that any successful movement for gay rights would have to address. Why? The advocates worried about what might happen if they lost. This was a foolish worry, though, not only because Windsor succeeded in overturning the law, but also because even if she had not succeeded, the public outrage at her loss would have led to a stronger movement for change.

Bike advocates, in my eyes, are terribly blinkered by a fear of failure, but we need only push forward to see success. You can't fight for something without rolling up your sleeves and getting dirty. We need to be clear and unified in our message: the time is now and we're not going to wait any longer. Do it, or we'll do it ourselves.



  1. "we know that hundreds or even thousands of people in our cities will decide to bike almost overnight if actual physical changes are made."

    Do we? How? Who are these people? I have recently discussed at http://www.cityofjonathan.org/?p=134453782 this exact issue, so please read over my arguments and respond.

  2. I agree with your general conclusion that people aren't just waiting with baited breath on the edge of their seats to bike, but I don't think that's an important part of the motivation behind biking. Infrastructure is a key component of what grows biking. It's been tested everywhere, and the data is conclusion and uncomplicated by counter-data.

  3. Infrastructure is a wonderful thing, but only the authorities can install it. When advocates set infrastructure as their number one priority, that means that their number one priority is to petition the authorities, not to get more people on bicycles. I believe that the most effective way to get people on bicycles is to show them people like themselves on bicycles (this is the reason why Cycle Chic was an effective form of bicycle advocacy; it made bicycling an aspirational activity for a certain group of stylish people).

  4. I like your idea of organizing according to what we can do, rather than according to what we can petition for, but there are many examples of people putting bike infrastructure in on their own (it's often removed later, but it sets the example, and sometimes, as in Seattle, it gets put back in by the authorities after the civil disobedience demonstrates how effective it would be). And this is also how the Netherlands made change: people took streets and changed them, or took them and shut them down. Obviously none of us has the capacity to do that everyday, and we should do other things too, but I think this is a major component of change.

    I also don't know where you're commenting from, and the context may matter. As I said in the original gay marriage-themed article, the reason that civil disobedience makes sense in Rhode Island is that it is a place where a large number of people passively support the goals of the movement. My feeling is that civil disobedience would not work in a place where most people actively oppose the goals of biking, although maybe trying it out is still worthwhile since it might work over the long-term. We're at a point in Rhode Island where the authorities all say they agree with us, but push responsibility to act away from themselves and to RIDOT, which does not support what we want (although, again, as I also said, even RIDOT has embraced "consideration" of NACTO guidelines, an so on, but doesn't actually move forward on doing anything with those "considerations"). Rhode Island is also a perfect place for this because it's small, it's dense, it has much of its population in cities, and also has active suburban and rural biking due to existing paths.

    So I think the time is now.