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.

13 thoughts on “Is “Forgiveness” Just for Auto Drivers?

  1. Allen

    " Riding in a narrow bike lane in the gutter next to a freeways intersection can get you run over."

    Personally, I'd take out the freeway part. Heck, take out the narrow part too. Almost all bike lanes to date are nothing more than some paint slapped on the shoulder of the road with a few signs. They're rarely safe to ride in. Luckily, so are at least, Minnesota law requires that cars do not drive in them but cyclists are not required to. It gets into the grey area of safety, blah, blah, blah.

    1. Sanjeevsirsiwal

      I consider myelsf a member of the Windsor cycling community, and I have absolutely zero desire to see a bike blitz in this town. I say this for two reasons:First, bike blitzes are traditionally ineffective at actually changing cyclists' behaviour. This is because the Highway Traffic Act wasn't written for cyclists and many of its provisions don't make any sense in the cycling context (e.g. coming to a full stop at stop signs, being compelled to bike on the road no matter how heavy the volume of traffic). The temporary and abrupt enforcement of rules which are generally ignored because they are inconvenient has no effect on whether or not people start following those rules. The very nature of a blitz is that it does not last for long. Actions like those of the police in Toronto amount to a cash grab and despite protests to the contrary have no connection to actual policy objectives. (200 tickets for not fully stopping at reds and stop signs? Honestly? )Secondly if the police are actually going to apply some resources to making cycling safer in this town, I would like to see them directed at education and enforcement towards drivers. Instruct the police to start watching for cars and vans who pass cyclists unsafely, and start patrolling the streets with bike lanes and ticketing vehicles parked in them. Having never felt threatened by another cyclist in this town, I would consider this a far more valuable investment of police time and energy.

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  2. echoegami

    When my 20-something year old was still a baby our main form of transportation was a bicycle. To this day I am still dismayed that while I was following traffic laws on my bicycle I was harassed and threatened on a daily basis as I rode my bicycle. It didn't seem to matter that I was following the traffic laws or that I had a child in a bike seat, every time I went out I had at least one person drive up and honk behind me to startle me or have someone hurl insults that I should get out of the road or have a driver take a right turn without bothering to look to the right where I waited on my bicycle for the light to change. For these reasons I started to ride on the sidewalk even though I know it's technically against the rules. I reason that I'd rather get a ticket than lose my life. Whenever I hear how bike-friendly the twin cities are I have to laugh, I've been to Amsterdam where the bikes rule the road. I will admit that many improvements to bike safety have been added recently but there's still a long way to go. As more people use bicycles to get around we will continue to have tragic accidents until the city makes a more concerted effort to improve safety for bicyclists. What we need are sheltered areas for bikes – a network of them throughout the city, not just token bits here and there…. and my last comment; city planners really ought to have more input from people who's main form of transport is NOT a car. For those of us on foot, on bike, and on public transport it's tediously obvious that there is little to no input to city planning that takes our needs into consideration.

    1. Espanial

      I would welcome a blitz tagnteirg the people who flagrantly ignore traffic rules and endanger others as well as themselves. They give all cyclists a bad name.However the emphasis should be on endangerment and reasonableness, such as the sidewalk cycling in areas with high pedestrian traffic or bike lanes, as you mention above. I also get really irritated with people riding on the wrong side of the road or those who ignore traffic lights. The last thing we need is for officers to start handing out tickets left and right, for example, I strongly believe people riding on sidewalks along busy or narrow roads without bike lanes are making a rational judgment. That would just be one more thing to put people off using their bikes. We have such a small cycling population as it is and we need to do what we can to encourage others that it is safe. Having spoken to several police officers, I know they do understand the nuances, so I am hopeful that they would continue to keep this in mind if they decide to start handing out tickets.

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  3. Jeffrey Jakucyk

    We in the US need to stop trying to reinvent the wheel and take a look at the places where they've already figured this stuff out. Go to Copenhagen, Amsterdam, or Montreal. The sort of supposedly cutting-edge cycling infrastructure we're doing is stuff they deprecated 20-30 years ago and have moved beyond.

    These places know how to do protected and forgiving bike infrastructure that everyone from little children to old ladies and everyone in between can and will use frequently. On busier streets their cycle tracks are separated by curbs from both the main street (with or without on-street parking) and the sidewalk. So you have the street, then step up a curb to the bike lane, then step up another curb to the sidewalk. They also know how to handle bus stops, turn lanes, traffic signals, and a whole host of other difficult situations. Traffic engineers here in the US give up on those situations, making the cycling network more dangerous because they screwed it up. Questions like where do you put the parking meters and street trees, fire hydrants, signs, etc., are all solved already, we just need to stop being so US-centric and learn from other countries.

    There are also a few critical cultural elements that need to be addressed as well. Keep in mind that many of the cycling meccas of today were just as much on the happy-motoring bandwagon back in the 1960s and 70s, but they made some critical changes to their laws along with their infrastructure since then to help meet the goals they set. Namely, things like universal no turn on red for motorized vehicles, and also where in any conflict/crash the motorist is automatically at fault. This makes motorists give cyclists a wider berth, and addresses some of the problems of the infrastructure that can cause safety concerns in the absence of supporting legislation.

    I'm mostly a vehicular cyclist myself, but I realize that the overwhelming majority people are simply too afraid to ride that way, and with the way or roads are designed I don't blame them one bit! There are solutions though, and we just need to go out into the world and get them.

    1. Jaz

      There's a load of great stuff going on elsewhere. A Minnesota cosmernsgen, Jim Oberstar who spearheaded the original federally-funded rails-to-trails program has just gotten a major highway funds allocation for bike lanes, paths and trails. Let's hope Wichita gets its fair share and uses it intelligently to make bike commuting and better recreational riding happen. (He and other like-minded Minnesotans have made Minnesota the top-rated cycling-friendly state.)One of the really interesting things is his and others' observations on kids' biking, as in riding to school most days. It's been noted that in the old days when kids rode bikes and walked to school, rather than being driven and bused, obesity was rare, but now 30% of kids are obese.This means if Wichita will build a rideable street system, and mount a concerted share the road campaign, all of us from kids to adults can enjoy better health.

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  4. BB

    Infrastructure I love to hate it. It normally comes at a compromise, never is really ever safe(because you don't get rid of the danger duhhh), and now it MUST be used at all times or honk honk up yours.

    1. Andreas

      I think a targeted blitz, aimnig at sidewalk cyclists in areas that have bike lanes, or in areas with a lot of pedestraisns (downtown, BIAs) is a good idea. However, such a blitz would need to incorporate education/media exposure ahead of time. And, like they did in Toronto, directing enforcement at drivers would be great as well.

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  6. Kirby Beck

    I'm a retired bike cop, trainer and cycling expert who is now a bicycle safety consultant working with attorneys on lawsuits resulting from bicycle related crashes. I work for both plaintiffs and defendants depending on where the truth lies. Over 90% of my cases involve people riding on so called "safer" off-street facilities or bike lanes. Cases involving on-street cyclists riding with traffic, following the laws, riding as a part of traffic like they belong there are rarely involved in the serious crashes I get involved in. I don't care about studies that can be skewed or misrepresented. I know what I see. Traffic laws are about predictable behavior. Predictable behavior reduces or prevents crashes and conflicts.

    On the other hand when you have "special" facilities you also have a second set of rules, though they are often assumed and may not be mandated or enforced. When these two systems (roads and bike facilities) intersect conflicts and unpredictable things occur. People are riding in places and at speeds not expected. Bike lanes in MN are usually about four feet wide. They are wide enough to put a cyclist in the door zone of parked cars. If a cyclist rides away from the parked car, yet remains in the bike lane, they may be causing motorists to pass them at closer than the minimum 3 feet. They are both in their designated space after all. So much for staying away from traffic which I guess is the point of bike lanes in the first place. If a cyclist rides as part of traffic and is harassed for doing so, it may be because they really aren't doing it right or they have encountered an obnoxious motorists which exist occasionally. I very rarely get harassed. When I do I am usually admonished to get off the road and use the exclusive taxpayer funded bike facility nearby. I know it is slower, less well maintained and not as predictable and safe.

    We are far better off in the long run to teach people to cycle properly on roadways. I never trust paint or engineering to assure my safety on a bike. If someone isn't comfortable cycling in or near traffic – then they should learn how. We need more opportunities for them to learn.

    These bike facilities are very expensive and we can't afford to keep building them. In case no one has checked lately, the Feds need about $16 trillion just to get back to BROKE!

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      In the long run, we're better off if many many people are riding bicycles (i.e. >30%) . That future will be very safe. That future will never happen if cyclists have to ride in while dodging speeding cars.

  7. Edson

    It is a pretty sad comtrnmaey that regular folks on bikes who get in accidents can pretty much forget any charges against the driver. Whatever happened to Justice for All? We all deserve the same protections of the law and it sickens me to think that the only cyclists who seem to get justice from being hit are in law enforcement.

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