Safety Promotion vs. Bicycle Promotion

No doubt you have read about Vision Zero. Canonical Vision Zero thinking means, as I understand it, that authorities create a system that limits the death-dealing aspects of motor vehicles to allow for ordinary humans to safely take part in street life. This Sarah Goodyear interview with Matts-Åke Belin is a pretty good introduction to the original version of the concept.

The execution of the idea here in New York seems rather stale from the perspective of the livable-streets advocate. People are still getting run down by automobile drivers, and authorities still don’t seem to care. Going back to the Belin interview, he shies away from a punitive approach toward a more mechanistic one that sees the street as a system, and both the driver and the pedestrian as points of failure. We Americans are more familiar with a highway-centric view that regards only the pedestrian as the point of failure and takes for granted the astonishing car-on-car violence that we see every day.

As advocates of bicycling, let us bear in mind that Sweden, though a safe place to use the street, is not therefore a priori a bicycling Nirvana. Nobody describes Stockholm as a city whose lifeblood flows on two wheels. The Swedish culture that Belin describes is one where people mix on the street with cars that are traveling slow enough not to kill or maim. This is different from how blogger David Hembrow describes Holland, as a place where cities are designed to keep automobiles away from people on foot and bike.

A look at the descriptively named Vision Zero View website, you will see that New York’s idea of Vision Zero matches up pretty well with the Swedish emphasis on infrastructure design as the key to allowing humans and motor vehicles to coexist. I can envision a New York that does get the speed limit down to 15 mph in residential areas, but that still allows cars to drive through and to park freely on the street.

Bicycle advocates naturally advocate for safer streets. People on bicycles are extremely vulnerable to motor vehicle violence. So we advocates are inclined toward supporting any kind of safety initiative, in the hope that it will result in fewer bicyclists being killed and maimed. Certainly, a Vision Zero New York would have that effect.

I doubt, however, whether it would drive up the rate of people bicycling.

Assume there is a “safety deficit,” that people feel that bicycling is not safe enough for them to take part. Then, assume that vigorous attention has remedied this safety deficit and it’s not there any more. Bicycling is just as safe as people want it to be. Now, let’s ride! In order to encourage our fellow citizens to mount their bicycles, we need a marketing campaign that touts the safety of bicycling as well as its other benefits.

The same marketing campaign to get people into the saddle post-remedy could however also be used pre-remedy. How are we in the future going to communicate the safety of bicycling in a way that is not true today?

People will get in the bicycle saddle when it makes sense for them to get in the bicycle saddle. Spending time trying to make bicycling safer is a worthwhile way to spend time, but I don’t see how it gets more people into the saddle.

I agree with Hembrow. I believe that sharing the streets with motor vehicles, even slow-moving Volvos, diminishes the enjoyment of bicycling significantly. The goal of Vision Zero is not to remove motor vehicles from the streets, but to create an environment where motor vehicles can interact safely with people on foot or bike. This kind of environment is always going to be more favorable to motor vehicles because their spatial requirements are so much greater; cars are much larger and take up much more street area than bicycles or people on foot. Committing to Vision Zero goals means accepting an environment that is not particularly favorable to people on bicycles, an environment that does not necessarily devote more space to bicycles, but asks people on bicycles to share the space they need with newly tamed motor vehicles.