Thursday, April 20, 2017

Intermittently Terrifying

Slate has a nice story about this picture.
I find bicycling in Philadelphia to be intermittently terrifying. I know that our streets are not actually a war zone. I've read the statistics, and I understand that the chance of my dying on a bike is smaller than when I walk to the grocery store.

But it doesn't feel that way. I've had my eye out for some actual data on this topic, and on April 4 help arrived from England.

Peter Walker has a simply nifty new book entitled How Cycling Can Save the World. He's a writer for a very good English newspaper called the Guardian, and he regularly covers biking issues. (He also worked as a bicycle messenger shortly after getting out of college, in both London and Sydney, Australia.) I suspect that this book will become one of the standard texts for people interested in reimagining our public spaces, along with Jeff Speck's Walkable City. It's aimed at the general reader, but it's also crammed with the latest research results.

The Near Miss Project
Those research results include a 2015 British study called The Near Miss Project that neatly fills the gap between crash data and our perceptions of danger.

The study was led by Dr. Rachel Aldred, who teaches at Westminster University, which is located in London. She and her colleagues recruited 1,532 participants from across the UK. The participants kept a diary of their cycling on a preselected day and rated any incidents on a scale of 0-3, starting with annoying and ending up with very scary.

According to the researchers, the data from the Near Miss Project "can represent a missing link between 'perceived risk' (how risky people think cycling is) and 'objective risk' (how risky it actually is, in terms of injuries and/or deaths). This is because they may tell us about 'experienced risk' - how risky cycling feels. Studying experienced risk could help us understand why perceived risk seems much greater than objective risk." (From the report entitled Cycling Near Misses, page 6.)

And indeed experienced risk does deepen our understanding. The researchers calculated that a cyclist was likely to encounter one "very scary" incident every week.

Drivers do thuggish things to bicyclists on a regular basis. And we now have the data to prove it.

So my personal perceptions were not overblown. It really is scary out there. If, once a week, you find yourself inches away from turning into road kill, then I think you have a legitimate beef. (For examples of life on the road in the UK, see this article in the Guardian.)

Control Bias, Familiarity Bias
As the Near Miss researchers suggested above, there is a suspicion that bicyclists have been overreacting. If you look at fatality rates rather than absolute numbers of fatalities, you will probably be less inclined to see overreaction. But I concede that it's a subtle argument. And standard psychology suggests that it's reasonable to at least look for overreaction.

In 2012 John Pucher and Ralph Buehler pulled articles together from 21 scholars on four continents and put them out as a book called City Cycling. There's a very interesting chapter on women and bicycling.

I was quite taken with how normal psychological processes may increase the perception of danger. "In particular," the authors note, "familiarity bias and control bias may reduce the perceived risks associated with car travel and increase the perceived risks for cycling." People tend to like things that are familiar and over which they feel a sense of control.

When you're riding a bike in traffic with cars, you are not in control. Of course a network of protected bike lanes would increase bicyclists' sense of control and decrease the perception of danger.

The familiarity argument is, to me, less straightforward. The basic idea is that if you do something more often, you become more familiar with it, and with familiarity comes a rising comfort level.

I think Dr. Aldred's data can lead us to a different view - one where regular exposure to very scary incidents can lead to a major increase in the fear factor.

Once again, however, a network of protected bike lanes would significantly decrease the ability of motorists to create "very scary" incidents with bicyclists, and bicyclists would tend to become more comfortable as they used the lanes more.

(See Jan Garrard, Susan Handy, and Jennifer Dill, "Women and Cycling," in John Pucher and Ralph Buehler, eds., City Cycling, MIT Press, 2012, pp. 211-234, at 225.)

Choosing Our Future
As I've said before, I personally think that a network of protected bike lanes could quintuple the number of people bicycling in Philadelphia.

But do we, as a city, really want to do that? I'm not at all sure.

Such an increase in bicycling would change the city dramatically - and I would argue that the changes would be good. But others, I fear, are clinging to the failed dream of the car. Detached house, a car or two in the driveway, picket fence. But no traffic jams, no deadly crashes, no smog. They're not part of the dream. Of course they are part of our reality today.

If you're still clinging to the dream of the car, you need to make the connection between your car's tailpipe and the asthma inhaler in your child's pocket. You need to stop dreaming, or at least recognize the nightmarish aspects of your dream.

And I think that's going to be a stretch for a number of people, some of them quite powerful.

See also A Sense of Perspective, Death as an Acceptable Outcome, Vision Zero in PhiladelphiaWe Should Not Overestimate the Driving Skills of the Typical Philadelphia Motorist, Zombie Arguments in Bike Safety.

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