Thursday, September 13, 2012

Why did you choose those knobs? Safety and Perceived Safety

I've been talking with other bikey folks about the perception of safety for bicycle riding and walking.  We want routes for bike riding and walking that are not only objectively safe - engineered to prevent collisions, falls, and crashes - but also appear safe. These two kinds of safety - objective safety and perceived safety - are equally important, we think, because it's perceived safety that determines whether people will actually use a street or path for biking and walking.

I was thinking about this issue when I went to the Blood Bank yesterday to fulfill my civic duty of blood donation.  Looking through the singularly dry selection of reading material in the waiting room, I settled on the Winter 2012 issue of Bent.  I'd never heard of it - it's the journal of Tau Beta Pi, a fraternal organization of construction engineers.  I'm a nurse, and I 'm not really interested in construction engineering, but I was bored and ended up reading most of the articles in the journal.

One article tied in with my bikey thoughts on perceived safety. Under the title, "The Limits of Logic," the author described his experience designing and building a complicated production test unit (whatever that is!) as an engineering intern.  The finished unit worked perfectly, and his boss acknowledged this. "But why did you choose those knobs?" the boss asked.

The author had chosen the knobs because they fit the hand, they fulfilled their function as knobs and they were inexpensive - "What's not to like?"  The boss's reply: "Those are the ugliest knobs I've ever seen!" It had not occurred to the young engineer that "ugly" could matter for the logical, practical project at hand. He concludes:

Good engineering does certainly employ logic, but it also must, at times, involve feelings or emotions, intuition, a sense of beauty, esthetics—a whole host of non-logical parameters. Thence, [the author's] Lyle’s Law of the Limits of Logic: Think, but also feel.
I hope as Seattle builds out its network of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, the engineers will keep Lyle's Law in mind.  Too many segments that appear (at least to a non-engineer) to meet high standards of objective safety still make me cringe:

  • The trail across the I-90 bridge: nice and wide, separated from traffic, paving in good condition, the grade not too daunting on a bike. But yuck!  There's no place to stop, sit down and enjoy the view - and how could anyone really enjoy the view with the traffic roaring by so close and so loud?  What if I have a flat or my kid needs to pee?  
  • Various segments of the Alki Trail that go under and adjacent to the bridges - it's a nice wide trail, mostly far enough from traffic to be reasonably quiet, and parts of it are even bordered by an attractive vine-covered fence - but it feels creepy and isolated along here. I can handle this during the day, but at night I think I'd choose the bus.  And I wouldn't send a kid along here alone!
  • The SODO Trail - bordered by the Light Rail on one side and bus storage yards on the other: nice and wide and freshly paved, and there are even some cool murals along the trail. But I feel hemmed in here - with fences along both sides of the trail, I can't get out without going the length.
Please, my friends the traffic engineers and planning professionals, when you build out our bike and pedestrian network, pay attention to the knobs - the sights, sounds and overall feel of the route.  We want our city to be safe, but also to appear safe - and lovely, and delightful - for everyone out there riding and walking.

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