Saturday, November 27, 2010

Power of Perceived Safety

While working in New York this past summer, I always noticed the window washers from my office window and thought, “who on earth would sign up for that job?” The reality was, the person washing the window was standing on a tethered platform, and had a second tether attached to themselves from the rooftop. There were three cantilevered arms over the building, two for the platform, and one for the worker. Though you do hear of deaths of plunging window washers, the reality is very rare, and considering the number of skyscrapers around the world and the amount of cleaning needed, the accident rate is extremely low. So why wouldn’t you or I choose this job? Quite simply, the perception of safety is so low that the idea of taking the responsibility is left to a small “fearless” minority. Would a major education campaign detailing the true safety of window washing, and citing the rarity of accident rates improve the number of window washers? Possibly, but by numbers so low as to be little worth the expenditure and effort. Some label the fear of bicycling in traffic as “Cyclist Inferiority Complex”, and tend to berate the population at large for having this wholly natural human vs. car concern.

In the 1960′s, the Netherlands and Denmark had developed their “car-first” infrastructure, and saw precipitous drops in bicycle modal share. By the 1970′s, efforts were made to focus on “people-first” planning, and to develop extensive bicycle infrastructure. This clip from Contested Streets details that switch, and shows areas in 1965 Copenhagen that look very much like Orlando now. The battle the planners faced was the assumption that “we’re not Italians, we’re Danes…we have no culture for walking”. Similarily, businesses fought the infrastructure tooth and nail, claiming traffic congestion and a drop in visibility. The reality is both cultures are now known as bicycle meccas. One would assume it’s always been that way when visiting, but according to planner, Jan Gehl, it’s only occurred within the last 30 years. Portland, Oregon would have never thought itself the bicycle capital of the US only 15 years ago, but the city’s massive redirection toward people first planning, changed the area in very short order.

Realizing the importance of the “perception of safety”, planners went to great lengths to make bicycling irresistable. Because of these major changes in Europe, statistics show massive increases in ridership for all age groups when compared to the US:

Women are more sensitive to safety than men, so separation of transit modes was a major push made by European planners to enhance the perception of safety. Because of this, Denmark and Germany have nearly 50/50 travel rates between men and women, and in the Netherlands, women actually exceed men in ridership:

This change in planning goes well beyond enhancing the “perception of safety”, and goes to great lengths to increase the overall safety by focusing on “people first” road calming. Soren Jensen’s study of cycle track installations showed increased ridership by 18-20%, and Peter Jacobsen’s study of safety increasing with the number of riders. What’s more telling is the fatality rates when compared to the US:

Between 2005 and 2007, bicycle trips in Amsterdam officially outpaced car trips. From 1990 to now, ridership has increased 36%. The only things changed infrastructure wise from then to now were increases in bicycle infrastructure and restrictions in parking measures. To see changes of that magnitude in the US, we’ll need to make similar adjustments to our road systems to place people over cars.


  1. The first section is noteworthy for its illogic. Citizens doesn't need to be hoisted vertically to accomplish their daily tasks for transportation, so making any statement about the numbers of window washers, presumably based on education programs, relative to bicycle drivers, based on a "perception of safety" is quite an illogical comparison. Apparently the author suffers from a "perception of logic", by which he mistakes the illogical for logical.

    The author also makes the mistake of assuming an ideologically based causality to an observed correlation. There are many social factors that drive mode shifts, and bicycling infrastructure is almost invariably built in areas with ridership and advocates demanding it, rather than infrastructure creating cyclists. If anything, the numbers show that mode share drives infrastructure development, not the other way around, and Portland, often touted as demonstrating that increases in infrastructure create increases in mode share, saw a decline in mode share in 2009 while additional infrastructure was being built, clearly indicating that other factors besides infrastructure are at play in determining mode shifts.

    San Francisco is another city that saw large percentage increases in bicycle mode share during the years when the city was under a court injunction preventing bikeways development (zero bikeways for years). How could this be, if infrastructure is the cause of modal share increases? Is there a "perception of infrastructure" that causes people to ride because they perceive infrastructure to be there before it is built? The author of this blog is guilty of very cursory analysis of trends in the US and throughout the world. Maybe he should spend more time researching and less time in bike lanes?

  2. Lorax--I think there are more civil ways of making your point that would further the conversation.

    Livin'--Great points. I've seen many people decide to start biking because of rising gas prices, but I'm sure the floodgates would open on bike commuting if infrastructure was in place. Thanks for the stats and the history lesson.

  3. I would attest that if the author did "actually" ride the bike lanes of Orlando, he would be bemoaning instead of applauding.

    Thanks to the FL MBL statute, I am FORCED to use a substandard, segregated, and debris filled BL when one is present. As with our recreational MUP's, BL's rarely, if ever, serve a destination of mine. The existing streets and vehicle travel lanes do a fine and excellent job.

    During my travels around town, I often come across this scenario:

    I'm riding in the BL and there are nearly always bicyclists on the sidewalk. I can personally attest to this BL failure 95% of the time, if not greater.

    Please explain the illogical "build it and they will come" mentality to me.

  4. @Rodney: the "build it and they will come" is true for this type of bike infrastructure.
    The video makes it perfectly logical I would think.

  5. Cherilyn, thanks for reading-all the way from Montana. I love the pictures on your blog of you riding in the snow and in the beautiful landscape that your part of the country has.

    Lorax and Rodney, I would suggest that you look at one of my recent posts where I list out my responses to many of the typical questions or talking points that I hear about cycling.

    You have to realize that I am not specifically advocating for you. You are already riding your bike and feel safe riding it on the road, bike lane, or anywhere that gets you from A to B. I am the same way. I have been car free for 2 years now and commuting by bike for almost 8 years. I am advocating for the proper education and infrastructure that will assist novice riders, children, elderly, etc. to get out on their bike and start using alternative modes for small trips. My hope is that this will give them the opportunity to experience the ease of cycling and get them hooked on bike commuting everywhere.

    Bike lanes are not the answer to every situation, but when applied appropriately, they can be an effective way to calm streets and become one of the ingredients in making streets livable.