How Much is Too Much?: Bikes, Technology and Death

A recent Willamette Week piece questioned the nature of crisis that is being invoked to raise support for street fees. The recent policy debates on new funding options for City’s street network are in part based on a concern that we are falling behind in keeping streets safe. To this the Willamette Week notes:

“There’s no clear evidence that driving, walking or bicycling in Portland is growing more dangerous. State numbers show traffic deaths in the city haven’t changed dramatically over the past decade. In fact, Portland is rated as one of the nation’s safest cities for pedestrians and bicyclists.”

The difficulty in this claim is its cool dismissal of the baseline of loss. There have been many tragic deaths on our roads, and some have caused change. These deaths do seem to be focusing more on those who walk along our streets, as those on bikes seem to be doing better. In 2013 Portland saw no loss of life by those on bike. But there remains an underlying series of cultural and technological problems for those not traveling in automobiles or other larger vehicles. Being on bike or foot is to travel with an asymmetrical power relationship with the other users on the road – the auto occupants are likely to walk away after a collision with a pedestrian or bike.

The question we face with these debates is the difficult question: How many lives are too many to lose? How much do we spend to save a life? How do we explain the types of death: careless, reckless, purposeful…?

No Hooks

These questions are not just ones we wrestle with in transportation, but in many parts of our life. The acceptance of risk, despite efforts to use numbers and complex analyses, is a social value. It is the product of history, of economics and of culture. Making sense of why a society accepts these losses is important to understand, if change is a goal. And it is important to remember that risk is also intertwined with race, gender and class. So instead of accepting some level of fatalities as the “natural” baseline, we should explore how and why these risks are accepted, and who they benefit and who loses.

To explore these ideas, I want to share two ideas. The first is the perspectives that risk is a social creature, not a pure scientific calculation. Our beliefs on what is acceptable is a product of history and our shared experience and then made real in technologies. Second, risk has a distributional element – we do not share risks equally across groups in society. Lets start with the first perspective – that risk is a social creation.

Risk is a Social Artifact

In a review of the culture around dams and dikes, the regarded science and technology scholar Wiebe Bijker found historical bases for accepting failure and risk in our water resource management systems. Bijker examined US and Dutch perspectives on water resource management and the levels of failure that are tolerated in each society. For the Dutch, the great storm of 1953 changed the public perception of the risk and resulted in a public perspective of no tolerance for failure. Dutch engineering is also based on a practice of working with the natural systems to prevent catastrophes. Bijker contrasts this with the US story of trying to contain and control natural systems. This leads to a perspective where management is focused on “prediction and mitigation.” Risk of failure is accepted and part of the planning process in the US.


These perspectives on risk are represented in our lives by the technological choices we make: the types of tools reveal our relationship to risk. This is an important point when we take these ideas to bicycles and pedestrians. What are the technologies we chose (or discard) to keep us safe, and what do they say about our perspectives on risk?

Risk is not Equally Shared

The second view on risk to contribute to bicycles is the issue of distributing risk. This reflection on risk has been further developed in recent years, and with a larger formulation of society and risk by Ulrich Beck. Beck argues that our economic and political system has shifted our inequalities from one solely of control of wealth and capital to an economy of risk. We stratify society by the way we distribute risks across groups. Key to this is a shift in the nature of risk as a personal and visible experience to a more invisible model of risk. Risk is now hard to perceive, it lurks, and it is a product of our overconsumption and overproduction. A key take away from this perspective is that just as we try to explain rational reasons for wealth inequality – a risk society tries to rationalize inequalities in risks. Risks become side-effect, things we accept for the price of progress. (But who bears these costs?)

This makes immediate sense in the bike context – the risk you assume on the road is just part of the choice. This risk is also tied to the politics of how a community calls for change. In Portland, the North Williams bicycle improvements ran into neighborhood protest as those who had lived their for generations witnessed how newcomers could marshall city resources. Had the risk changed – or just who the risk affected? This example also shows how risk is not an engineering problem, but a political one.

These two perspective suggest we have constructed this model of risk slowly over time for bicyles. It is codified in part by our model of rights, responsibilities and  liability. Ideas like contributory negligence suggest that victims never exist, but that there are shades of victims in a collision. The failure to meet a particular standard of conduct means that you are open to being injured or killed. We see this in auto collisions, stand your ground laws, healthcare and so on – and these examples are heavily laden with complex layers of class, gender, race, and history. A different Willamette Week piece from 2011 captures some of these dynamics, where those that ride a bike on some roadways are seen as accepting the threat of harm.


How do we address this acceptance of risk?

First, the lesson from Bijker is that risk is about history and public awareness, and this in turn becomes fixed in technologies. The design of the roadway is based on ideas of risk, and how to manage them. Why the bike lane? Why the crosswalk without lights? These are in part set by budgets – but they are also fixed technologies that have a history of their own. This is a history that needs to be understood.

Second, the risks we accept are not accepted the same by all of us. They can be forced upon some groups and explained away as a side effect, the cost of doing business. But what is progress, and why do we need to accept it? Is it a product of over reliance on some modes of transportation? These are harder questions because they challenge the ways we accept the world as is. But to make change we need to explore the new configurations of technology and consumption.

Some might argue that we are stuck in this relationship. But the technology around us is changing – and we have an opportunity to raise these questions. The new autonomous vehicles, like Google car bring new models of risk into our roadways. A recent piece in Wired explored how these automated vehicles are forcing programmers into the world of ethics. The autonomous vehicles may be asked to chose which victim to hit in a collision. Does it swerve to the right or the left, does it recognize the type of person it hits? These questions will allow us to reengage ethics and then hopefully the politics of risk we accept in trade for progress on our roads.

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