Written by Chris & Melissa Bruntlett, the co-founders of Modacity.
Not a week goes by that we’re not forwarded a hyperbolic headline about a new product promising to “change everything” about the future of bike safety. Whether it’s a blinking jacket resembling a Christmas tree, an explosive (and ridiculously expensive) neck airbag, or an automobile manufacturer’s can of glow-in-the-dark hairspray, countless corporations are tossing unvetted ideas at the growing urban cycling market, many (we would suggest, rather cynically) designed to cash in on the misguided belief that folks risk their lives every time they hop on their saddle.
To be clear, we have no issue with innovative products designed to add a new level of practicality to city cycling (see, for example LiteLok, CLUG, Cleverhood, and the Copenhagen Wheel). But we sincerely wish entrepreneurs and journalists would start thinking far more critically about the gadgets peddled to protect people on bikes, especially before foolishly declaring one “the modern safety solution cyclists have been begging for”, or another “a global revolution… [That’s] going to save the world.” The fact remains that the majority of these “safety” products are designed through a windshield, based on anecdotes and conjecture rather than actual science.
A dangerous distraction
Most frustratingly, these shiny techno-trinkets are distracting us from the more meaningful and substantive conversations needed to make cycling safe and desirable for people of all ages and abilities. The good news, however, is based on decades of statistical analysis in modern cities around the world; we already know exactly what these proven bike safety measures are, and they’re not rocket science.
First and foremost, a minimum grid of AAA (all ages/abilities) bicycle infrastructure is a “must have”. That involves full modal separation (where car speeds and volumes dictate), and intersections built to protect cyclists from the most common collisions.
Secondly, policy makers truly serious about increasing road safety must implement an array of traffic calming measures, including – but not limited to – speed limit decreases, lane narrowing, restrictions on HGVs, and on-street parking reductions.
As an added bonus, when these measures are complemented with bike-share, a “safety in numbers” effect is observed. Doubling the number of cyclists on a city’s streets can result in a one-third reduction in the number of car-bike collisions.
There is just one problem with these three relatively simple concepts. They require the expenditure of political capital, when it is far easier for leaders to shirk their responsibility to lead, and simply instruct those on bikes to “armour up”. If we continue to blindly tout the “next big thing” in bike safety every time a company issues a press release, we allow our politicians to avoid making the tough decisions actually needed to make our streets safe: reallocating street space in favour of efficient, equitable and economic travel methods, reducing automobile speeds by design, and charging for on-street vehicle storage at a market-clearing rate.
A shifting of responsibility
The notion that cyclists are primarily responsible for their own security is victim blaming at its very worst. It infers the powerless can reduce their chance of being assaulted simply by altering their own clothing and/or behavior, and the corollary that the unarmoured are “asking for it”. Rather, let’s put the onus on our engineers to build more inclusive streets, and on motorists to slow down and pay attention.
Once again, there is a modest (but politically unpopular) solution to this dangerous dynamic. Over 20 European countries – many of which boast high rates of cycling and road safety – now have a “strict liability” law on the books. Unless proven otherwise, a driver is automatically ‘at fault’ when colliding with a vulnerable road user (pedestrian/cyclist). Such a policy strips all complacency from the act of getting behind the wheel, treating it with all the seriousness that basic physics demands.
When a car company throws its marketing weight and budget behind a gimmicky, glow-in-the-dark spray, it only serves to expose the glaring double standard that exists. If they truly practiced what they preached, automobile manufacturers would stop making dark coloured cars, start requiring motoring helmets, equip their product with external airbags, and warning labels about the dire side effects it has on public health. And they’d stop cramming cars with more and more technology designed to distract their operators (Wi-Fi, DVD players, Bluetooth, GPS, etc.).
A counterproductive message
Thoughtlessly hyping these safety gadgets sends the counterproductive message that getting on a bike is a hazardous and prohibitive activity, requiring hundreds of dollars of cycle-specific gear to remain comfortable and safe. This (contrived) perception is likely the biggest barrier to the widespread uptake of utility cycling.
Riding a bike for transportation is the single easiest thing you can do to increase your health, wealth, happiness, quality of life, and the quality of the city around you. These benefits far outweigh the risks (by as much as 20:1), and any messaging to the contrary is wholly irresponsible. Separated space for cycling makes it all the more secure and accessible, and pushing gadgets, protective gear and special clothing is a half-baked substitute, none of which have been proven to make anyone any safer.
Collective investment in better streets
Of course, underlying this issue is the optimistic belief that, if we throw enough technology at a problem, it will simply go away. In this case, participation in an insatiable consumer culture by a handful of people somehow takes precedence over a collective investment in streets that work for everyone. We must tell our elected officials that isn’t good enough. After all, the only “modern safety solution cyclists have been begging for” is a protected bike lane. Let’s build them. Everywhere.
Chris and Melissa Bruntlett are the co-founders of Modacity, a multi-service consultancy focused on inspiring healthier, happier, simpler forms of urban mobility through words, photography and film. You can find them on Twitter: @modacitylife.