Transport Equity Bun Fight

Alon Levy in his Pedestrian Observations blog has responded to Adonia Lugo’s complaint about Vision Zero on her own blog, Urban Adonia. Dr. Lugo sees Vision Zero as another in a series of well-meaning interventions helmed by rich, white, athletic men, meant to address the social ill of traffic violence and mayhem. She has pointed out helpfully that one’s perception of the relative importance of fixing traffic violence depends on one’s social and economic position.

Dr. Levy drops the Hammer of Technocracy on her. His point is that there is a Best Practice in road building, in transit, and in bicycling promotion, and that in most of these domains America is not executing the Best Practice. So why should bicycling advocates care about what Dr. Lugo’s pen pals in East Crumbhalt, America, do to make bicycling safer, when it is simpler and more straightforward just to do exactly what is done in Copenhagen?

Dr. Lugo has previously pointed out that the prevailing culture among bicycle advocates is the culture of rich white male people with money to burn, yet there are many people who are bicycling who do not fit this category. She has argued that bicycling advocacy needs to be responsive to different cultural practices in order to meet the needs of the different people who are bicycling. I interpret this as the primacy of bicycling technique over bicycling context; it’s important that people are actually spinning the pedals and going somewhere, less important that they are accomplishing goals such as “errands” or “shopping” or “dropping off kids” or “going out to get sloshed” that have specific cultural values.

I have previously argued that the technocratic approach to bicycling promotion treats bicycle culture as “vacuum cleaner culture.” In Denmark, apparently, everyone has a vacuum cleaner, but nobody identifies with their choice of vacuum cleaner; it’s just a tool. Same thing with bicycles. We advocates are just too wound up in our own special mode of transport to actually accept the technocratic approach. The first step in the accepted best way to create a city in which everyone is bicycling, where bicycling is normative, turns out to be to drive away all the bicycle advocates. Shades of Enrique Penalosa!

I think Dr. Lugo’s most powerful argument is her no. 4: “It’s strange to me that a movement so focused on rejecting car-dominated engineering would think that the solution is more large-scale, top-down planning.” This counters Dr. Levy’s argument for technocracy by asserting that no matter the form of the technocratic approach, problems will bubble up from underneath, that will require the special insight of someone who loves bicycling to resolve.  As this Washington Post blogpost points out, inequality extends to traffic violence as well as other, more recognizably determined forms of violence, such as crime and drugs. The grand technocratic approach to building roads for motor traffic has clearly seen better days, so why commission a new Grand Design for building roads for bicycles and expect any better?

Vision Zero and Bicycling Promotion

Dear Martha Roskowski,

I read your blog because I’m a bicycle advocate, so I’m bemused by your sudden jump onto the Vision Zero train. Unlike People For Bikes, VZ is not about creating better facilities for bicyclists, or about encouraging people to get on their bicycle, or about using bicycles to help kids get around their neighborhood, or about helping people use their bicycle for more than just recreation

Your Green Lane Project has done a great job of pointing out that people generally don’t like to walk or bike in close proximity to motor vehicles, no matter how safely they are being driven. I don’t think Vision Zero is going to change this preference. I can’t argue with the authorities spending time and money to save lives, but I humbly suggest that VZ-type safety initiatives might not be central to your organization’s mission to get more people bicycling. We have seen in New York City that Vision Zero has put bumper stickers on taxicabs that say, “Your choices matter”; it has not inspired miles of protected bike lanes.

Consider bicycle helmets. It’s clear that safety enhancements to the practice of bicycling are not definitively linked with getting more people on bicycles. I think that now in 2015 it would be a stretch for advocates to argue that the safety benefit from wearing bicycle helmets has encouraged people who don’t ordinarily ride a bicycle to get in the saddle. In fact, I often read arguments that advocates should not call for people on bicycles to wear helmets as this will discourage casual bicycling and make the practice of bicycling appear to require safety equipment.

It’s not hard to imagine that greater attention to traffic deaths could make people more afraid to bicycle, and more afraid to let their children bicycle.

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.