Tuesday, November 30, 2010

An Inconvenient Truth about Cyclists

Last May I decided to write a post about the “defiance culture” of cyclists, particularly in urban settings.  It was a response to an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times by Chris Raschka, “Braking Away,” having to do with respecting traffic laws while cycling;  but my own piece also drew upon several comments on the piece addressing both sides of the question behind Raschka’s topic.  I offer this as context for a piece by Gina Kolata in today’s New York Times, which begins with a personal account of a recent bicycle accident (on a country road, rather than in Manhattan).  However, because Kolata is a science writer, she used the incident as a point of departure for a highly informative examination of risk analysis as it pertains to cyclists.

Kolata’s “hook” came from an interview she had previously conducted with exercise physiologist Michael Berry:

With cycling, he said, it’s not if you crash, it’s when.

From this she could proceed to an examination of how individual cyclists perceive the likelihood of an accident, the results of which were remarkably (and perhaps sadly) consistent with the data I drew from Raschka’s piece and its subsequent comments.

Kolata’s primary source for her examination of accident risk in today’s piece is George Loewenstein, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in both economics and psychology.  Loewenstein’s primary point is that individual risk assessment depends heavily on that individual’s feeling of being in control.  (This strikes me as highly consistent with a technocentric society, which sees technology as the ultimate means for control in any situation.)  The problem is that the bicycle itself offers little by way of control, whether it involves rocks on a country road or a busy city street congested with motor vehicles and pedestrians.  However, the cyclist who accepts the illusion of control is likely to take any number of risks, even when it involves “threading a needle” through those motor vehicles and pedestrians.

Thus, my own conclusion from Kolata’s report is that the greatest hazard that cyclists present in city traffic is their delusional attitude.  By assuming they have more control than they actually do in a dense social setting, they pose a danger to all those around them, motorists, pedestrians, and probably other cyclists.  Sadly, this is not a problem that can be solved by putting in more bike lanes, since the constraints imposed by those bike lanes do not figure in the cyclist’s personal sense of risk any more than traffic lights do.  The real difficulty is that no large American city has been designed for the “peaceful coexistence” of pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists;  and the result is that the pendulum swings from “acceptance of the other” to defiant rage on all parts.  About a month after my post on Rascha’s piece, San Francisco experienced a particularly extreme manifestation of that rage involving a motorist and four cyclists.  Kolata’s piece tended to concentrate on the personal psychology of the cyclist and what happens when an accident refutes that illusory sense of control.  Perhaps her next study should deal with the social side of this story as it pertains to the coexistence of these different modes of transportation on city streets.

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