The Phantom Menace

Streetsblog has a good interview with Manhattan D.A. candidate Leslie Crockett Snyder on the subject of “traffic justice.” The piece notes the following:

Snyder said that the biggest traffic safety complaint she hears from community leaders these days is not about reckless motorists but “bicyclists being dangerous” and “messengers running us over.” If she is elected DA, she invites livable streets advocates to educate her on the issues and “meet with me regularly and make sure I’m staying on top of it.”

This incredibly oft-repeated idea — that cyclists are some grave threat to the lives of pedestrians, not motorists — is one of my greatest sources of irritation, and also puzzlement. I don’t have the NYC stats at hand, but in London, for example, from 2001 to 2005 there were 535 pedestrians killed by automobile. The number killed by cyclists? One. (the injury numbers are equally skewed, even taking into account possible underreporting).

One obvious reason for this is that humans generally rely on an imprecise calculus for real and subjective risk (this book provides an excellent survey of risk analysis). Things that are novel or out of our perceived control invoke particular “dread”; so too do those things we can more easily remember.

In an endnote to Traffic (and you really should read the endnotes!), I quote a bit from what I thought was a good answer to this question, from Ryan Russo, of the NYC DOT. The endnote runs as follows:

In New York City, an undercurrent of public opinion says that bicycles are “dangerous.” Neighborhoods have fought against the addition of bike lanes for this very reason. Yet one could count the number of people killed by bicycles in New York City each year on one hand, with a few fingers left over, while many times that number of people are killed or severely injured by cars. When I met with Ryan Russo, an engineer with the New York City Department of Transportation, I could not help but hear the echo of several of the reasons why we misperceive risk. “It’s silent and it’s rare,” he told me, when I asked about New Yorkers’ antipathy toward cyclists. “As opposed to cars, which make noise and are prevalent. You don’t see it because it’s smaller, you don’t hear it approach because it’s silent, and you don’t expect it because it’s not prevalent.” A close call with a cyclist, no matter how less dangerous statistically, stands out as the greater risk than a close call with a car, even though—or in fact precisely because—pedestrians are constantly having near-hazardous encounters with turning cars in crosswalks.

Following that idea that one does not expect it because it’s “not prevalent,” this might key in to the idea that novel risks are perceived more intensely than the everyday, mundane risks (like those posed to pedestrians from cars).

There are other possible reasons. Pedestrians may not be cyclists as much as they are also drivers, so they may feel more a hostility to, or less kinship to, cyclists. People may not respect the legitimacy of cyclists as a form of transportation as much as they do automobiles. Maybe there’s something about the idea that cyclists are often found on sidewalks, and perhaps pedestrians view them as a more personal encroachment than cars, to whom the road “belongs” (I should point out that even when we’re talking about fatalities on sidewalks, cars are much more the prime offender). Another possible reason is what’s been dubbed here as “bikeism”; pedestrians may somehow deem the actions of cyclists as being part of their character, rather than to situational responses in the moment. Thus the action of one bad cyclists comes to taint all of cyclingdom, while the actions of many bad drivers are diffused into a sort of blameless norm.

I was actually talking about this a bit recently with Dr. Oz (yes, he of Oprah fame) on his radio show. In theory, cyclists and pedestrians would enjoy more collegial relations (and maybe they do; maybe it’s only the people call in to complain to the DA who don’t like cyclists) because, unlike drivers, they are not shrouded in thousands of pounds of metal. Pedestrians and cyclists can often make eye contact (an agent of cooperation), they can literally feel each other’s humanity. Then again, maybe this only perversely raises the level of antagonism; and, as I mentioned in Traffic, people are more likely to refer to cyclists as cyclists, where they often talk about a car instead of the person driving that car. With a cycle there is less chance of the actor being subsumed by the vehicle; does the anonymity of the “car as threat” thus make it less memorable, or, again, less personal?

To refresh, however, bicycles as an urban threat must surely be exceeded by any number of hazards, ranging from fatal slips down stairs to dog attacks. And they are vastly exceeded as a threat to pedestrians by cars. Cities would do well to run ad campaigns touting the benefits to everyone of cycling, and dispelling some of the falsehoods concerning risk (maybe a simple campaign, on bus sides, showing a car and a cycle, saying This is X Times More Dangerous Than This, or some such).

This entry was posted on Monday, March 16th, 2009 at 12:43 pm and is filed under Bicycles, Cities, Cyclists. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Transport column to me at:

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Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



March 2009

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