Several times over the past few years I’ve used the term “immoral” to describe bicycle infrastructure that suggests safety but actually puts bicyclists in danger. For a good example: see my recent coverage here, see Keri Caffrey’s recent coverage here, and check the original source here.

Is that term too harsh? I don’t think so. I think it is accurate. Here’s what I wrote just a few minutes ago on a Facebook discussion of the topic:

Not that it needs defending, but as a professor who teaches ethics (media), I think this is a concept we MUST continue to use. We ARE talking morality and ethics here. From the duty side: We have a duty not to put others in danger — especially not by fooling them into believing they are safe. From the consequence side: Sending a novice into a dangerous situation with the delusion of safety can easily lead to injury or death.

We must continue to speak that word in the face of those who would paint dangerous lines on the road.


One of the discussants mentioned that he had once used the term in a discussion with engineers who were “taken aback” because they were “following standards.”

There is no substitute for doing the hard thinking about how one’s actions may affect the public — especially, in this case, if your job is to build things the public uses. Or if your passion is to advocate for something the public “needs.” Or if your goal is to encourage more people to ride bicycles.

If you do these things, you cannot avoid the moral requirement to think about what you’re doing and how it affects, or could affect, the people who will follow your encouragement or use the thing you build. This requirement, as I demonstrated above, may be argued both in terms of deontological ethics (duty) and teleological ethics (consequence).

Think of that as the double-whammy of ethics. If you’re offending both duty and consequences, well, man, you are way out of bounds in the whole morality thing.

“Standards” (e.g. AASHTO) don’t relieve you of the moral responsibility for what you advocate for and/or what you build.

I would like to see more bicyclists on the road, too. It would make life for everyone a lot better. I know that to be true. It’s one of the things that keeps my fingers banging these keys and pumping these screeds into the interwebs. But I am not willing to earn numbers at the cost of the safety of others. I’m not willing to advocate for infrastructure that I would not use or that would would not allow my wife and daughter to use (straight out of Kant’s categorical imperative, btw).

Our situation (political, social, cultural, economic) in the U.S. means that we bicycle advocates much deal with low participation caused by, among other things, manufactured fear and a love of the almighty automobile. We all wrestle with how to overcome the many obstacles. Can we, please, however, avoid those methods that may harm the very people we wish to serve?

UPDATE: Three important things as this conversation moves forward:

1. An important reminder I give students in my media ethics classes: Using terms such as “unethical” or “immoral” is not intended to brand someone as bad person. We are always discussing behavior — something that one may change as one learns new things.

2. None of what I have written here should be read as a blanket condemnation of engineers. That would be inappropriate and wrong on my part. As commenters have pointed out, inappropriate infrastructure gets built in numerous ways that may or may not include engineers.

3. I use AASHTO above merely as an example of “standards.” The point being that one’s moral obligation does not end with simply following standards. I’m making no claim about AASHTO.

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Comments 29

  1. robert wrote:

    Maybe I’m crazy, but I’m fairly familiar with the AASHTO “green book” and I’ve never seen anything that allows for a 3-foot bike lane.

    So the point of this cannot be that AASHTO “allows” this, even though no one has to follow AASHTO guidelines anyway.

    So what is the main point here?

    That you have an uneducated bicycle advocacy group in Orlando who takes pictures of goofy design rather than be outraged at it?

    That whoever designed the bike lane there was incompetent?

    I agree with both of those, but I’m not sure I agree with the point that I think Andy is trying to make here, which is that the AASHTO guidelines allow for this poor design and are therefore immoral.

    Regardless, there is a new AASHTO design book coming out that promises to be much better from what I’ve heard from people who have seen the drafts.

    Andy, do you know the process for how those books are designed and the vetting process that they go through?

    Posted 24 Feb 2011 at 12:12 pm
  2. robert wrote:


    Do you know the city staff who work on these projects?

    Have you worked to educate them?

    I know that you’re very busy with your advocacy work but what inroads have you made?

    Posted 24 Feb 2011 at 12:14 pm
  3. Andy Cline wrote:

    Robert… I am not criticizing AASHTO, nor am I suggesting it allowed anything. It’s merely an example of “standards.” I am saying that following “standards” does not give anyone a pass on moral thinking.

    Posted 24 Feb 2011 at 12:27 pm
  4. John Brooking wrote:

    I am the FB discussant (new word on me!) Andy refers to. I noted that in the case currently under discussion in Charleston, a 3′ BL next to parking is NOT standards-compliant, seemingly by everyone’s admission and permission. In the prior discussion with engineers that I was referring to, though, we were talking something that WAS standards-compliant, but which I still felt was irresponsible. I think it was a bike lane striped all the way to the intersection stop line to the right of a combination through/right turn lane, with a dashed line. That is permissible by AASHTO. But it could also apply, IMO, to a 4′ or 5′ bike lane immediately next to parking, as bicyclists riding in the middle of those are STILL in the door zone. The problem I had making the “immoral” point in that meeting was that engineers have faith in standards. *Deviating* from the standards could possibly be claimed as immoral, or at least unprofessional (unless they have obtained FWHA approval, in which case it’s merely “experimental”), but they follow the standards in good faith, possibly putting them above their own judgment, or above what members of the public who use the facilities tell them. (Because after all, who’s the professional traffic engineer here?)

    OT to Andy: I was a philosophy major at Oberlin College for a while (finally ended up in Comp. Sci.), and my advisor was a moral philosopher, Norm Care. Ever hear of him?

    Posted 24 Feb 2011 at 12:35 pm
  5. Andy Cline wrote:

    John… yes, I have heard of Care.

    The bind that you identify between “standards” and what one might understand to be right ethically is a conflict common to much of the workaday world. It keeps those of use who teach applied ethics busy.

    To everyone: My goal is not to paint people unethical with a broad brush. I wish to remind (or enlighten) regarding our human responsibility to one another. Just because a rule or a standard dictates it doesn’t make “it” right. That’s a moral perspective. I don’t expect people to necessarily drop other perspectives.

    Posted 24 Feb 2011 at 12:48 pm
  6. robert wrote:

    “Robert… I am not criticizing AASHTO, nor am I suggesting it allowed anything. It’s merely an example of “standards.” I am saying that following “standards” does not give anyone a pass on moral thinking.”

    Andy – That bike lane does not follow the AASHTO standards. It’s not compliant. The traffic engineer is a rogue, or if you’re a John McCain fan (and I bet you are!) a maverick!!

    Are we on the same page now? When you cannot be understood by someone with a PhD in rhetoric you know that you’re communication skills are pitiful. : )

    Posted 24 Feb 2011 at 12:49 pm
  7. Andy Cline wrote:

    Robert… Oh yes, same page. The problem is that I did not do a good enough job of separating two parts of my argument:

    1) Here’s an immoral bit of infrastructure (boo, hiss).

    2) Even if one is following standards, there’s still a moral imperative not to put people in danger.

    My bad.

    Posted 24 Feb 2011 at 12:56 pm
  8. robert wrote:

    Ah! I understand now!

    Posted 24 Feb 2011 at 1:11 pm
  9. Kevin Love wrote:

    How about simply translating the standards of the fietsberaad from Dutch into English? Problem solved. Best standards attained.

    Of course, a lot of people miss government expense-account trips to conferences to reinvent the wheel. Boo hoo.

    Posted 24 Feb 2011 at 3:13 pm
  10. BikingBrian wrote:

    I agree that this particular substandard facility is “immoral”, but I wanted to talk about standards for a bit. I agree with Andy that “even if one is following standards, there’s still a moral imperative not to put people in danger”. Certainly I’d agree with the “immoral” designation is someone misapplies a standard and defends it with “well it’s the standard” excuse. But if the problem is with the standard itself, I’m willing to cut a little more slack. It normally takes a lot for something to become a standard – and with good reason of course – and so that becomes the starting point for things the individual engineer doesn’t question. There needs to be that base point of knowledge that one doesn’t question, after all, I wouldn’t expect a traffic engineer to question that 2+3=5, for example.

    Posted 24 Feb 2011 at 4:23 pm
  11. Andy Cline wrote:

    BikingBrian… Good point. And I never want to suggest that such things are easy.

    Posted 24 Feb 2011 at 4:53 pm
  12. khal spencer wrote:

    Standards were never passed down from God on golden tablets. Standards change as work is done testing their validity and discovering their shortcomings. Certainly the standards used in constructing cars have changed since the 1960’s. Anyone remember “Unsafe at Any Speed”? Or am I dating myself? Unfortunately, existing standards are nice things to hide behind as your lawyer protects you from lawsuits.

    It is immoral to deliberately design or build a safety-significant system (a bit of jargon from my day job) which is known, or should be known in the profession, to be unsafe. I cannot see any way a practicing traffic engineer can look at a door zone bike lane and fail to know it is unsafe. The standards have to change or the profession is negligent, at least IMHO.

    If encouraging new riders (by adding bike specific features) is done by suggesting they ride in a demonstrably unsafe manner on a facility known to be unsafe, are we not willfully throwing our new recruits under the proverbial bus? Or, for that matter, the literal one? Isn’t that what French generals did to their troops in WW I when they knew full well that frontal assaults on enemy trenches was guaranteed suicide? Yet they ordered more…and more…and more.

    We need an ethicist or three on the governing boards of engineering and advocacy organizations. Too bad we don’t have a law…

    Posted 24 Feb 2011 at 6:54 pm
  13. Steve A wrote:

    I don’t know about most states, but in California, most of the people on the engineering boards are not engineers.

    In my experience, engineers would likely hold other engineers to much higher standards of excellence than do the political appointees that populate these boards. Just today we were having a discussion on just that subject. We have to first satisfy ourselves we are designing a safe product before we even talk to the regulators.

    I would not judge who was engaging in immoral behavior in that South Carolina bike lane without more details. None of those quoted were the design engineer and it is possible no licensed engineer at all was consulted.

    Posted 24 Feb 2011 at 7:36 pm
  14. Khal Spencer wrote:

    That is entirely possible, Steve, and I know for a fact that the relevant engineers are sometimes cut out of the loop in the name of expediency. Without naming any names or locations, I know firsthand how this is sometimes done because I’ve been told off the record.

    Posted 24 Feb 2011 at 9:16 pm
  15. Robert wrote:

    I once had a conversation with kevin keith PE who is the head of the Missouri Department of Transportation. During this conversation he said He didnt understand why bike lanes needed to be on both sides of the road. Being a traffic engineer, even one of the most well known Is no guarantee that you would have even a basic level of knowledge about bike infrastructure.

    Obviously it prob wasnt much of a topic in school years ago. I hope thats changed now and I suspect it has.

    Posted 24 Feb 2011 at 9:19 pm
  16. BikingBrian wrote:

    Khal’s right in that standards do change over time, but often the engineers who know the “soft spots” and/or are involved in updating the standards aren’t the same ones at the working level who are implementing them at a particular time and place. Depending on the situation, the latter engineers may or may not have access to those ‘in the know”.

    What’s often missing is the prerequisite knowledge about bicycling to be able to apply the standards correctly, which can lead to the type of situation pointed out in Robert’s last reply.

    Posted 24 Feb 2011 at 11:24 pm
  17. Steve A wrote:

    Robert wrote: “Being a traffic engineer, even one of the most well known Is no guarantee that you would have even a basic level of knowledge about bike infrastructure.”

    Robert is certainly correct. However, a fundamental principle in all disciplines is that you learn how to research and develop solutions to problems you encounter. A better response from the engineer would have been to add, “but I haven’t studied the matter yet.”

    Posted 25 Feb 2011 at 5:57 am
  18. Keri wrote:

    Brian said:

    “What’s often missing is the prerequisite knowledge about bicycling to be able to apply the standards correctly”

    That’s the rub. It’s the whole toybike thing. “Meh, it’s only bicycles.”

    What I’ve found is not only a lack of knowledge, but a lack of curiosity, followed by a rejection of knowledge when it interferes with what certain people at the city wants to do.

    Robert wrote:

    “Do you know the city staff who work on these projects? Have you worked to educate them? I know that you’re very busy with your advocacy work but what inroads have you made?”

    1) Of course I do. 2) Of course I have. 3) I don’t have time to write that out. I’m in Tallahassee preparing the road tour route for a CyclingSavvy class Mighk and I are teaching this weekend.

    Posted 25 Feb 2011 at 7:25 am
  19. Khal Spencer wrote:

    One has to know how projects are approved. I have stayed on the Transportation Board long past it being fun so I can work directly with our county engineer.

    His attitude is he won’t sign off on a project as public works director unless he is willing to “put his license on the line” with the design. So in our county at least, you cannot cut the engineer out of the loop although I’ve seen the politicians often try pretty hard to do so. Therefore, one major emphasis has been to work with him and his Traffic Manager (whose father was a lifelong bike commuter) to make sure they are always asked the right questions.

    Having a conservative DPW director is a blessing and a curse. He often will not try some new designs until they are fully approved. On the other hand, that has undoubtedly saved us from some bad ones.

    The other problem is implementation. I lost track of the number of times the design deviated from the build and we have had to rip something up because the construction company mangled it. But that’s where having “boots on the ground” helps. The county offices are a phone call away.

    I recall one day when Neale Pickett, a fellow LCI and I saw that a bike lane in town mysteriously was re-routed in midblock onto a sidewalk. No one in the county had any idea why–and it was removed. The deal was that we deliberately stopped a bike lane when the road went from wide to narrow, and bicyclists were supposed to merge into traffic where the road changed design (at that point, the road had been deliberately narrowed and traffic calmed to slow cars in our downtown, so that the crosswalks worked better). The people doing the road work just figured that where the bike lane stopped, bicyclists were supposed to get on the sidewalk, a common misconception, and striped it that way. I had to laugh at that one. It showed so clearly the prevailing prejudices.

    But it is often quite frustrating.

    Posted 25 Feb 2011 at 8:01 am
  20. Robert wrote:

    Khal, that is an awesome story! I’ve seen a lot of stripes being ground off and reapplied in Columbia as well. LOL

    Kerri, it sounds like you live in a very challenging part of the country when it comes to bicycling.

    About six years ago we worked to get our main traffic engineer in Columbia to a Traffic Skills 101 course. It took a lot of persistance as he had never bicycled as an adult and his wife was firmly against him bicycling on the roadway.

    He finally agreed but was visably nervous each time he mounted his bike to do the drills. He made it through and was very happy and confident at the end of the course.

    Public works went right out and purchased a really nice, commuting style bicycle for their department. The PE immediately started using the bicycle for his job. If he needed to go 1-2 miles to check on a traffic situation he took the bike instead of one of the public works trucks like he did previously. Six years later you still see that bike being used to cruise around Columbia.

    We’ve since recieved an additional traffic engineer and he enjoys riding and racing road bikes. Both guys “get it” and are often the first to defend the spending of money on bicyclists and pedestrians.

    Posted 25 Feb 2011 at 8:59 am
  21. Robert wrote:

    Wrote Keri’s name with two Rs again. (shakes head)

    Posted 25 Feb 2011 at 9:04 am
  22. John Brooking wrote:

    Robert, that’s an awesome story too! Warms my heart and gives me hope. 🙂

    Posted 25 Feb 2011 at 9:13 am
  23. Andy Cline wrote:

    Robert… We are so lucky in Springfield. Our main guy in traffic engineering is an LAB instructor and commutes to work on his bicycle about half the time. He’s also on the STAR Team 🙂

    Posted 25 Feb 2011 at 9:17 am
  24. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Andy–just read your updates. Thanks so much for leading this discussion. Nice to have an academic involved.

    Posted 25 Feb 2011 at 11:17 pm
  25. Fred Oswald wrote:

    Standards (in this case, more properly called a “guide”) are no substitute for a brain. And they are often misused to cover malpractice.

    Here’s an example from the bearing field that has many parallels to the bicycle facilities debate.

    As a NASA mechanical engineer, I’m serving on a committee that reviews standards for rolling element bearing design. There has been great pressure to adopt the rather permissive ISO-281 load and life standard. However, some of us believe the ISO standard is technically incorrect and non-conservative (i.e. not safe).

    Those pushing this standard would gain protection from liability for deficient design. Its a tough fight. Anyone interested (in the bearing controversy) can see the article;col1

    Posted 26 Feb 2011 at 11:18 am
  26. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Fred’s message applies to many fields that depend on the components of safety systems being very robust and “conservative”, i.e., they are overdesigned rather than underdesigned in order to survive longer than needed and under more taxing circumstances (in order to provide a safety margin against premature failure), fail gracefully rather than catastrophically, and thus protect an individual and the public from harm as much as possible in a techological world. Safety systems are increasingly robust and redundant as the threat to life and health increases.

    Seems surprising that in the case of a bike lane, where safety is allegedly considered through the application of paint stripes and cyclist position, we have municipalities designing bike lanes in door zones. Not only is one at higher risk of a likely accident, but there is no reasonable means to mitigate or prevent the accident as it unfolds. To the contrary, a door zone bike lane encourages a catastrophic accident with absolutely no safety buffer whatsoever.

    An obvious example of a catastrophic failure that many of us actually watched, and which shows an example of what goes wrong when good engineers are ignored, (and which Fred could sadly elaborate on), is the example of the Challenger explosion. If you read the following, I think you will find many parallels to the pressure to “produce” and “implement” bike lanes with political, cost, and space constraints. Quoting from Wiki (one is free to replace “o-ring” with “Door zone bike lane” and “launching” with “riding” if you wish).

    “…NASA managers had known that contractor Morton Thiokol’s design of the SRBs (solid rocket boosters) contained a potentially catastrophic flaw in the O-rings since 1977, but they failed to address it properly. They also disregarded warnings from engineers about the dangers of launching posed by the low temperatures of that morning and had failed to adequately report these technical concerns to their superiors. The Rogers Commission offered NASA nine recommendations that were to be implemented before shuttle flights resumed…”

    Its not hard to find examples of engineers, advocates, and lawyers warning us about the dangers of bad bicycle facility design. Or examples of other advocates pressuring to construct these facilities in spite of warnings of their dangers. Too bad we don’t listen. Then again, famous, well-liked cyclists don’t die with the whole nation watching.

    “obviously a major malfunction…”

    Posted 26 Feb 2011 at 12:35 pm
  27. Keri wrote:

    Robert wrote: “Kerri, it sounds like you live in a very challenging part of the country when it comes to bicycling.”

    Not really. We have connectivity and civility challenges in the burbs, but the urban core is very easy to get around and most motorists are courteous on the streets where we our full lane rights have not been taken away by paint.

    Posted 27 Feb 2011 at 4:32 pm
  28. Angelo wrote:

    From Keri’s comment 18

    What I’ve found is not only a lack of knowledge, but a lack of curiosity, followed by a rejection of knowledge when it interferes with what certain people at the city wants to do.

    I’ve found 3 problems. I think the immoral description is usually considered inflammatory and uncompromising, even if it your description is usually accurate.

    (i) planners that don’t ride, so they dismiss comments from “avid riders” that are “braver than the rest of the public” – I questioned a plan for door zone bike lanes and a suggested sharrows (an alternate standard). The planner said other “bike people” had also complained about the door zone, but that he personally and the general public were not comfortable riding in the lane, and were willing to risk being doored to avoid it. The standard design is bike lanes because people that don’t bicycle much like them.

    (2) Planners that won’t even listen to objections because they only concern bicycles (at least planner (1) noticed how much the “dedicated bicyclists” complained). The bicyclists aren’t engineers, so planners don’t need to acknowledge their comments.

    (3) Advocates that insist on accepting any design without dissent because we won’t get more bike lanes if we insist they be safe. They admit major major projects are badly designed, but say if we keep installing bad designs (e.g. bike lanes to the right of RTOL entrances to the interstate), suddenly the city will paint good designs.

    Personally, I’m not impressed by 150 miles of noncontinuous door zone bike lanes, followed by 6 miles that would be OK if parking were not permitted (but there is no enforcement against illegal parking in every block, and motorists get angry if bicyclists leave bike lanes to make left turns)

    When many motorists won’t follow bad design, I’ve noticed the design is often fixed; when bicyclists won’t use the bike lanes twice, the problem is attributed to bicyclists’ attitudes, not bad design. It would appear that only motorists are morally entitled to functional road design.

    Posted 27 Feb 2011 at 10:43 pm
  29. khal spencer wrote:

    Dave Horton has written a great piece, “Fear of Cycling” where he dissects some current thinking. I think that should be required reading the cycling-advocacy crowd.

    One thing Dave cautions us about is the widespread use of the jargon “safe” in cycling circles, i.e., we want “safe” bike lanes, often stated uncritically. As though bicycling is not safe unless you put it inside some hermetically sealed box. But the sad part is that in insisting we have “safe” facilities, we often end up less safe than ever–being asked to ride in doorzones, for example. Why? Because in trying to provide the appearance of safety, i.e., painting lines on the road, many localities aren’t willing to do the actual deed itself, i.e., re-engineer facilities so they really do improve safety, which may be a challenge greater than buying cans of paint. Instead, they just paint lines. This discussion of Charleston is a good example.

    Cycling is not intrinsically unsafe. According to the link below, there are 0.26 cycling fatalities for every 1 million hours bicycled, or 1 fatal for about 4 million hours. A 100 year old person has lived for 876,000 hours.

    In our social paranoia of all things with even a slight amount of risk, we have painted ourselves into too many corners and have few ways out. Bike lanes are one example. Driving ever more obese kids to school so they are safe from mythical predators is another. I can think of others, but gotta get back to my laboratory. Meanwhile, there are risks when we do nothing, because “do nothing” is often not a credible solution to many of our social, economic, and ecological problems.

    Posted 28 Feb 2011 at 4:22 pm

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