Street Sense - An Advocate's View

Louisville has unleashed a series of Public Service Announcements striving for greater road safety. The three prongs of the safety campaign target motorists, cyclists, and walkers. The series has appeared most prominently on billboards and bus shelters. The three ads so far are the tip of the iceberg, there are more ads coming, and the message is up for debate. All of this is cause for celebration in the bike/ped world.

However, there is perhaps an issue with the message. The ads subtly discourage walking / biking and pay tribute to motorists.

Any time government people come in and tell people how to live their lives better, the people out in the thick of it will tend to feel like the government is bumbling and not in-tune with the reality of the street. Ask any social worker. Generally I sympathise with the social worker, and not with the clients - after all, they're just trying to help! But in the Streetsense campaign I am the client - a heavy bike/ped user - and these ads do kind of stick their finger in an open sore.

Why are pedestrians and cyclists so sensitive about these issues? Recall that the "real world education" one recieves when one engages in bicycling and walking is basically one of societal censure. Honking. Active cars muscling into crosswalks or parked in bike lanes. Shouts at cyclists as they are being passed. In Louisville peds and cyclists are the subject of constant discrimination by motorists. That's the public reality of serious biking and walking for transportation here.

StreetSense is perhaps the most powerful counter-programming game in town. That's why its so exciting.

Where's the Beef?

Obligatory Helmet Wars Sidebar:

The author always wears a helmet. He also teaches classes where he gives about seven hours of bicycle safety information. The helmet module lasts only ten minutes. Helmet use is wrapping the brain in 1" styrofoam, but by far the best protection for the brain is using the brain to avoid the crash. Helmet promotion should be a footnote; unfortunately it is the go-to cycling safety issue for people who have not researched cycling safety.

Bike Helmet Ad

The advice is for cyclists to wear a helmet. This adds a barrier to cycling - gotta go buy an expensive passive safety device, which lets face it, is a pain to use 99.9999% of the time. Everyone knows they're dorky. Motoring helmets make more sense, yet nobody promotes them, certainly not StreetSense. Perhaps they should.

Suggestion for the next ad:  "ride with traffic". Cyclists riding on the left side of the road is one of the top mistakes we see, as backed up by the crash statistics. The other big ones are riding in crosswalks and cycling under the influence.

Crosswalk Ad

As mentioned earlier, crosswalk make people overconfident and more vulnerable. A safety campaign should as a first step not steer people into less safe behavior. Slowing people down while channelling them into rhythm-destroying crosswalks leads to heart attacks:

  1. walking speed decreases
  2. the number of destinations available in a certain amount of time decreases
  3. begetting fewer walking trips and more car trips
  4. physicial activity suffers
  5. complications stemming from lack of physical activity is the #1 killer of Kentuckians ... not jaywalking!

Suggestion for the next ad: Teach an empowering behavior. "Look both ways before you cross" is good advice for everyone. Hey, okay, its really stinkin' obvious, but at least its positive on safety and non-negative on mobility. It works equally well in crosswalks or out.

Motoring Ad

"Think Fast" is an evasive manuver. What exact manuver they propose is nebulous. It seems like mainly a driver attention thing. Well that's fine, but we'll notice that this ad is not asking for the drivers to slow themselves down, or buy any protective gear, or in any way make any compromises in their everyday behavior. Indeed, a quick google search yields a sports car ad with the exact same words. The story I see this add telling is: think about safety only at the last second.

Note the stereotyping of the person on foot as an incompetent 'darter'! 'Darting' plays a role in some fraction of crashes, to be sure. Yet what was the cause of death in 100% of bike/ped traffic fatalities in 2008? Collision with motor vehicles. You'd think that for all these "incompetent" cyclists and peds, engaging in brownian motion, at least one would have fallen off a bridge, or into an open manhole, or hit a telephone pole at speed, or been hit by an incompotent bicyclist  - but in every case it was motor vehicles killing them, presumably with a licensed, trained driver behind the wheel. If motoring is a factor in 100% of ped fatalites, and 'darting' is a factor in a small subset of those, why focus on darting during ads targeting drivers? There is plenty of incompetent motorist behavior out there to focus on.

In the StreetSense ads, one is left with the feeling that there's more innate respect for the motorist. They're being given more difficult advice, that doesn't inconvenience them, and that relies on their own skill and reflexes. Why weren't the ped and bike messages also playing off the skill and reflexes of those users? I suspect they think the users of these modes are incompetent, thus they give out odious prescriptions that slowed them down and talks about how dangerous their mode choices are. The hidden message is "get out of the road".

Given that the transportation choices of cyclists and walkers endanger no one, one would think that we'd give them empowering advice to speed them on their way. The flip side is that motorists maim and kill, because they operate vehicles too big to ever truly be controlled. The advice we give them should indeed be odious and slow them down. The advice given to the motorist should echo "with great power comes great responsibility". That meme is somewhat present in the ad. What's not present is what active behavior the motorist can engage in!

Suggestion for the next ad: Replace "Think Fast" with "Slow Down". Increase the distracted-driving element of the ad. Play down the ped-as-second-class-citizen aspect. The motorist can most easily change their own bad behavior, and there's plenty of bad behavior to choose from (speeding, cell phones, turn signals, speeding up for yellows, rolling stops, failure to yield), so stop slurring other user groups in the motoring ad.

Or simply remind motorists that they don't have right-of-way in crosswalks, lord knows they are totally clueless on this point.

The Big Picture

I'm actually totally stoked about the StreetSense campaign. I have a great respect for all the work that's going into it, and I know it has the best of intentions. There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle - the funding, the design, the messaging, and sustainability. But for the one issue above, all these pieces seem to have been handled with the utmost attention to detail. 

Those who can, do. Those who can't: post CARTicles about it. Its a welcome, heartening effort, and one that I'm proud of my government for putting forward.


street sense

Development of these ads likely got minimal review and possibly no consultation with folks that walk or bike.  Resistance by KY Transportation Cabinet and Metro Government to implement or improve pedestrian accomodations along major roadways and high traffic intersections means this program will lead to zero changes in motorists behavior - and why change ones behavior?  Motorists must be forced to slow down for pedestrian safety - and that will only happen through enforcement by physical barriers requiring vehicles to slow down.  Make driving lanes narrower, put in speed control devices such as bumps or tight turns.  There are many innovative options for traffic (driver) slowing - but no one that can do is willing to.  It is only true that if we can get more suicide pedestrians to sacrifice their life in strategic locations, then safety improvements may be possible for only that specific location.