Is “Forgiveness” Just for Auto Drivers?


Incompetent cyclists or unforgiving streets?

There’s been a rash of pedestrian accidents lately. When these accidents get reported in the paper or batted around the water cooler, there are often underlying assumptions about blame.  The stories typically imply that victim was intoxicated, in the wrong place, young, old, or unhelmeted (for bicyclsits). Because we all drive almost all the time, and we all assume equal responsibility for our automobile system, our kneejerk reaction is to blame the victim. (E.g. the Strib’s recent subheadline: “distraction, inattentiveness blamed for deadly collisions”)

This is the wrong approach. We should be blaming the road. Accidents like these are not inevitable. Sure, college students are young and inexperienced. Sure, old people move slowly. But that shouldn’t mean that people deserve to be crushed underneath tires. There is another way.

The example of bicycling is a good illustration. The American attitude towards bicycling is fraught with assumptions that bicyclists are responsible for their own fate. “If you ride a bike,” so goes the attitude, “you’re asking for it.” “If you get hit,” people imply, “you kind of deserve it.” While people won’t actually say this (except on Pioneer Press comment threads), this is the subtle undercurrent to how most people talk about accidents. “Well, there’s nothing you can do,” is the implication. “They should have been paying more attention.” In other words, there’s a Darwinism afoot.

It’s particularly interesting to me because transportation engineers and road designers have long had a different approach to designing roads. “Forgiveness” is a concept taught in engineering programs. It basically means that, to ensure safety, roads should be designed to allow for people to NOT be on their best behavior.

In his wonderful book, Tom Vanderbilt describes the concept of forgiveness as part of his larger chapter on the paradoxes of road safety:

The rumble strips are an element of what has been called the “forgiving road.” The idea is that roads should be designed with the thought that people would make a mistake. “When that happens it shouldn’t carry a death sentence,” as John Dawson, the head of the European Road Assessment Programme, explained it to me. “You wouldn’t allow it in a factory, you wouldn’t allow it in the air, you wouldn’t’ allow it with products. We do allow it on the roads.”

This concept makes a lot of sense, until you start to consider that designing a forgiving road means designing an unforgiving sidewalk. Forgiving roads typically have wider shoulders, larger turning radii, and fewer conflict points (a.k.a. intersections). That’s all good if you’re behind the wheel, but it has two unforeseen consequences. The first is that it makes life dangerous and unforgiving for people on foot or on bicycles. (E.g., limited access roads with few conflict points transforms pedestrians trying to cross the street into semi-culpable jaywalkers.) The second is that it encourages people to drive even faster. Designing a road with wider lanes and wider shoulders often means people will simply drive faster or eat a burrito or talk on the phone or all of those things simultaneously. Sometimes the more forgiving you become, the more that others will take advantage of you…

Thankfully, urban road design has turned a corner, and cities around the country are starting to realize that making roads less forgiving might make them safer for everyone. (The Compelte Streets movement is a great example of this.)


Why not forgiveness for cyclists and people on foot?

I have been reading a history of US bicycle planning by historian Bruce Epperson. Epperstein tells the story of a long-standing debate between bicycle planners over “vehicular cycling,” a school of thought that emphasizes training, education, and aggressive lane placement. (Basically, the idea here is that cyclists should get good equipment, “take the lane” out in traffic, and signal with their hands a lot. There’s a good argument to be made that this is the safest way to ride in the midst of traffic.) Epperson describes the debate between vehicular cyclists and more pragmatic bicycle planners who emphasize off-street and recreational routes. The history of US bike planning is filled with debates between these two groups. It’s old news, and you can find reams of heated commentary from both sides on the internet. As they say in Italian restaurants in cartoons, “that’s-a spice-y meata-ball!”

Cyclists at UC-Davis, c. 1960

Say what you will about vehicular cycling, but nobody is going to argue that it’s “forgiving.” For a brief moment in the early 70s, Epperson mentions another approach to bicycling. He calls it the “third stream of egalatarianists.” According to his story, they emerged out of Davis California, around the University campus, advocating an approach to bicycle design organized around the concept of forgiveness.

The basic difference is this: Do you design bike lanes with the assumption that all the cyclists will be fast, efficient, well-trained, and “educated” about how to ride in traffic? Or do you design bike lanes for people who will move slowly, dawdle, and are perhaps younger or older or riding in groups? Do you design lanes for people who occasionally fall down?

The only place where this egalatarian bicycle planning was fully adopted was around the college campus of Davis California. There, as Epperson describes, planners were “highly experimental”:

[They] placed an emphasis on modifying the street system to facilitate utilitarian bicycle trips, often by cyclists of limited ability.

The third-streamers openly advocated policies that specifically targeted the weakest and most vulnerable bicyclists and involuntary users who rode strictly out of need, not choice. Together, these comprised cycling’s lowest common denominator, and for the third stream planners, they formed the yardstick by which to measure success or failure. If high-end recreational cyclists couldn’t live with their solutions, well, there were lots of other sports in the world they could turn to.

This approach had a brief moment in the sun in a 1971 congressional report written by the Davis planners. But quickly, the debate over bicycle planning returned its focus to the debate between vehicular and recreational bicyclists. People started focusing on safety equipment and training. People turned away from designs like buffered cycle tracks, which were perceived by traffic engineers as too dangerous.

Only now is the UC-Davis approach starting to make a renaissance, as cities across the US are beginning to install DAvis-style protected bike lanes.

Forgive me, bike lane, for I have sinned…

As a grad student, I literally spend hours on campus each week watching students ride bicycles. I see a lot of supposedly dumb things. People ride the wrong way down one-way streets. People ride on the sidewalk. At least half of the people are listening to music on headphones. People are carrying things on their handlebars. People ride in groups. People ride beat up Wal-Mart Magnas with only one working brake and chains that sound like a bag full of mice. Everyone looks impossibly young.

On the other hand, I rarely see an accident. For all the discussion about how to ride properly, people seem to grasp the basic concept. The phrase “just like riding a bike,” is rightly synonymous for something that everyone can do, for skills from childhood that never leave us. Riding a bike isn’t hard. Almost everyone can do it.

The truth is, however, that riding a bike in most places is dangerous and unforgiving. Riding in a narrow bike lane in the gutter next to a freeways intersection can get you run over. When you combine thousands of young people on bicycles with unforgiving bike lanes, terrible accidents become foreordained.

Faced with this reality, we have a few choices. Either we can “educate” all of the students about proper bicycling techniques, and/or police them out of existence. (Frankly, both these things are impossible.) The alternative is to design bike lanes and paths with students in mind, streets that are designed to be forgiving for drivers, bicyclists, and people on foot.

If the majority of the people using a street are using it the “wrong way,” then it’s not the people that are at fault. It’s the street.  Instead of calling for more education and enforcement, instead calling for a police crackdown or mandatory bicycle licenses, instead of the plague of “distraction and inattentiveness,” we need streets that will forgive us. We need to design places for how people actually behave, not how we wish they’d behave. We need to start forgiving everyone, no matter how they get around.

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.