Ending the Blame Game

This recent post on the Strong Towns blog resonated with me. Entitled “Blame the Infrastructure, not the Person Biking,” it was written by a woman cyclist in Washington, DC, who swerved to avoid another person who was riding the wrong way in her one-way painted bike lane. She fell and broke her jaw, a traumatic experience that could easily have set off another round of the blame game. She was not at fault, after all. Yet rather than lashing out at the other person for his wrong-way riding (“salmoning”), she reflects on how poor street design often determines human behavior, and puts us all at risk:

“But salmoning isn’t inscrutable, and it isn’t the problem. The design of our streets, the relatively tiny percentage of space that we dedicate to road users who aren’t driving, and a culture that favors driving over walking and biking are far more damaging than individual cyclists riding the wrong way. And rather than assuming that this specific individual’s behavior is a stupid or idiotic choice, enacted with little regard for others, we should be asking about the implications that a built environment that’s hostile to people on bikes and on foot can have….”

Putting herself in the other person’s place, she hypothesizes that he had been riding with traffic in the appropriate bike lane on a busy two-way avenue and had cut into the opposing bike lane in order to more safely execute a left turn at the upcoming intersection, where there was no signal to protect his left turn onto a one-way street. When there was a break in the car traffic both ways he cut across the two travel lanes, thinking he could safely enter the opposing bike lane for a short distance to prepare for his turn. After looking at the street on Google maps, I see that the bike lanes are painted and unprotected (that is, in the door zone next to the travel lanes). Had the bike lanes been parking-protected it would have been difficult, and unnecessary, for the other person to enter her bike lane; if the road had been designed as a Complete Street to offer maximum protection for all users, a provision for a safer left turn at that intersection, such as a painted turning box or a jug handle with a signalized bike crosswalk, might have been included. The author continues:

“I could be wrong, of course. I don’t know the intentions of every cyclist. But I don’t believe that people, including the man I encountered, salmon for pure convenience: They do it because they’ve weighed their options and determined that the alternative — even if the alternative is using bike infrastructure properly — is worse. If people are naturally risk-averse, then why is salmoning so pervasive? It can’t be because cyclists, who don’t break traffic laws at any greater rate than motorists, have a pathological desire to flout cultural norms with abandon. I’m willing to bet that it’s because the option of riding “correctly” often feels, and may actually be, less safe. (Jake Dobkin, writing on Gothamist, came to the same conclusion after calculating various potential routes on a Citibike in his post, “In Defense of Salmoning On A Bike.”)”

She goes on to note that when cars first came on the scene more than a century ago, drivers were blamed for every crash until the responsibility was shifted onto automobile makers and highway designers to add safety features, which made driving (at higher speeds) safer for motorists and passengers — and engineered roads that became less safe for everyone else. She asks, not unreasonably, why we don’t more readily acknowledge how much road design determines the behavior of vulnerable road users, too.

“Though streets for people have become increasingly widely accepted, there is still a cultural tendency to castigate those on bikes whose behavior is less than pure. Riding the wrong way might irk the living daylights out of fastidiously rule-abiding cyclists. But we shouldn’t deride it, or the people who do it, without simultaneously treating its prevalence as a referendum on our unacceptable, unsafe infrastructure.”

Humans being humans we naturally seek to assign blame to each other. It is not one of our finer tendencies, and we are all guilty of it to some degree. I have found that some people are prone to blaming the person traveling by a different mode for any inconvenience or even the slightest infraction, and that both drivers and pedestrians are quick to assign most of the blame to cyclists, often without acknowledging that incomplete street design ultimately fails us all when it pits us against each other, operationally and rhetorically. Likewise both people on foot and bike tend to blame motorists for acting as though they own the roads, but most roads have been designed to reinforce drivers’ sense of entitlement. Forward-thinking cities are adopting new ways of sharing the public way, and many are questioning assumptions about how we can move through our cities efficiently, sustainably, and safely.

No one said it would be easy to change deeply ingrained and structurally reinforced attitudes, habits and infrastructure, but I hope we can move past the blame game and toward a future where we stop viewing Complete Streets as a zero sum game. I know that since I have begun to think deeply about street design and urban mobility, I have become a much more attentive, courteous and cautious road user whether I am behind the wheel of my car, on foot, or riding my bike. I hope that the public dialogue prompts us all to pause and reflect, and to understand the important role that infrastructure and design — good and bad — play in determining our choices, actions and outcomes.

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Jan Devereux
City Councillor
Cambridge, MA